Tabula Picta 5v* – Plants in context . Pt 2. Why Genoese? Why the Tigris?

c2300 words.

Header – photo by Ronnie Nijboer.

The author’s rights are asserted.

I had intended to include in this post the ‘first-contact translation’ and identifications but (sorry) it made the post too long – so next post.

BY 1350 AD, and even as early as 1290 AD, there were many roads along which the information now in Beinecke MS 408 could have been brought “from eastern parts” as Georg Baresch said of it in the 1630s.

The real question is why any native-born Latin Christian would want to bring and copy images that would certainly have struck him, no less than more recent writers, as incomprehensible.

Efforts to keep eyes and minds firmly on a traditional and theoretical ‘all Latin Christian’ character for the manuscript have seen Voynich writers since 1912 assert the plant drawings anything so long as not foreign: they’ve been spoken of as ‘badly drawn’ – which is demonstrably untrue; as ‘without any known match from the (Latins’) plant-books even to as late as the seventeenth century – true; ‘drawn by a sex-crazed herbalist’ (!); ‘drawn by Leonardo da Vinci while still a child’, or even that they don’t represent plants but are designed to render hidden what are really images of machines. And those are just ideas expressed by mainstream European-focused Voynich traditionalists. Citations on request.

Of the really outré  theories, we make no mention here, nor of the efforts made to ‘match’ these images directly with photographs of plants native to Europe or to cherry-pick a few details and make a story of it, as O’Neill did in 1944 and advocates for a ‘central European’ variation continue to do.

What we can all agree on today, I think, is that at some time between 1400-1438 AD someone had the matter copied on the more expensive medium of vellum, and had the whole formed into a handy, pocket-sized book of ‘daily ready reference’ type.

The vellum’s finish is rather rough – a telling detail all but erased by the excessively ‘bleached’ new scans on the Beinecke site.

The manuscript’s structure indicates non-Latin European origins or influence. The form and appearance of the Voynich map, like the long fold-ins have found no attested parallel to date, so far as I know, from the western Christian corpus.

Its quires included not only the usual three- or four- bifolio format, but (pace Pelling) quinion and septenion which are not unknown in early fifteenth century Italy, but rare even then, and there. Within the monotheistic cultures of the medieval Mediterranean world, The quinion and septenion (though the latter is always rare) would usually be linked to the Greek-, Arabic-, Armenian- Irish, Hebrew- or Coptic manuscript traditions.

In choosing those 200 Genoese artisans for the imagined ‘first contact’ between Latins and Voynich plant-pictures, I did not choose at random.


Inhabitants of medieval western Europe, as of Constantinople, viewed themselves as intellectually and culturally superior to others and, as we know, when that attitude rules then we see not only crass behaviour from the ‘superior’ types, but an idea that it would be infra dig to sit passively at the feet of some foreigner and act as his student. One didn’t find Christian students of theology being taught the sense of the original text of Genesis by a Jewish lecturer in medieval Europe.

In fact, at the very time that interests us most – say, from 1250 AD-1350 AD, xenophobia was escalating across Latin Europe (that is, areas under western Christian rule). By the 1290s even Jews born where their ancestors had lived and died for centuries longer than the current ruler’s family had, were being persecuted as ‘foreigners’. In modern Voynich writings, if foreigners or Jews are mentioned, it will often be said, or assumed, that such ‘foreigners’ could not understand Latin, or speak the same regional language as everyone else living there. The idea is very common, either assumed or openly asserted in modern Voynich writings, and despite its flouting both history and commonsense that European Jews can have thought, written and spoken only in Hebrew and that someone else would be needed to translate for them into the local Italian or French or Greek dialect – and all other languages be quite unknown to them. It’s a backward projection of the ‘gatekeeper’ myth.

Why Genoese?

So for this imagined moment of ‘first contact’ between Latins and matter now in the manuscript, I had to nominate a group out of sympathy with that general atmosphere in late medieval Europe and Byzantium.

In view of the picture’s contents, they had to be not only more open-minded but keenly alive to the fact that purely technical information – as distinct from learned intellectual information – was highly desirable.

But then again, since many believe the manuscript’s written text has been encrypted or encoded – though its date-range is a bit early for that science in Europe – so the ‘first contact’ Latins should also have a reputation for secrecy.

The Genoese met those criteria. We may assume interest in profit, trade and commerce because, as the old proverb had it, “Genuensis ergo mercator“.

Genoa’s exceptionally open-minded attitude to foreigners is described by Lopez:

In their colonies, the Genoese admitted to citizenship many Greeks, Armenians, Tatars, and other people of strange background and .. religious beliefs; at home, they went as far as good Catholics could to ignore heresy and let infidels alone. They wound up by christening children of the best ancestry with such uncanny names as Saladin [a Kurd], Hethum [=Hayton, an Armenian], or Hulagu [ a Mongol], writing love poems in Provençal, and setting up a tribunal to hear claims of friendly Muslims against unlicensed native pirates…

Genoa stood out for the liberality of its immigration policy: foreigners were freely apprenticed to guilds, hired to man ships, licensed to set up banks, welcomed as business partners, and naturalized at once if they accepted the duties as well as the privileges of citizenship.

Robert Sabatino Lopez, ‘Market Expansion: The Case of Genoa’, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Dec., 1964), pp. 445-464

As for their being ‘close-mouthed’ ..

Jealous of their business secrets, the Genoese not only refrained from leaving accounts of their travels, but often refused to mention the final destination of their trips in the contracts they drew up before notaries…[and] It is possible that such a formula as “promitto ire quo Deus mihi administraverit” was intended to conceal from intruders information historians would very much like to have. Other formulae, such as “[promittit ire] apud Septam et quo maluerit,” ” [portabit] Sale et quo iverit,” announce only the first and not unusual destination, but give no hint about the final goal.’

A characteristic example is provided by the notarial instruments drawn up for the brothers Ugolino and Vadino Vivaldi in 1291. They were preparing to find a western route to the Indies exactly two hundred years before Columbus; they drew up partnership and loan agreements “for the different parts of the world” (per diversas mundi partes), for Majorca, even for the Byzantine Empire-that is, for the direction opposite to their true one.”

Robert Sabatino Lopez, ‘European Merchants in the Medieval Indies: The Evidence of Commercial Documents’, The Journal of Economic History , Vol. 3, No. 2 (Nov., 1943), pp.164-184.

In very interesting comparison of attitudes to international trade, Grief contrasts the attitudes of Jews and Maghribis on the one hand, and Genoese on the other, towards towards each other especially with regard to merchants’ having to share information through local agents. See *Greif, A.; ‘Cultural Beliefs and the Organization of Society…’, Journal of Political Economy, Vol.1 Issue 5 (October 1994) pp. 912-950.

The particular group of artisans who went to Mosul were also chosen for a reason.

There is some evidence to support a possibility that the community which had retained and maintained the matter now in the Voynich plant-pictures had been centred somewhere in the region between Mosul and the Yemen, but that point I’ll leave for the next post.

That those Genoese were not notables whose names are recorded, but anonymous artisans, some of whom may have had no education except that of their apprenticeship was also to the good. I needed to show that what makes the drawings understandable and seen as valuable is first-hand, practical knowledge of a plant’s salient characteristics and – above all – interest in how their products can be profitably used and traded.

You might call the Voynich plant-pictures a sort of field-guide for the merchant or commercial agent. No-one whose knowledge of plants was limited to dried specimens, images in the Latin herbals, or whose interests lay solely in medicinal plants and literary texts would be likely to feel any initial interest in these drawings, or in having their graphic language ‘translated’ by a foreigner.

What I haven’t mentioned, in what follows (in the next post) is that the images constantly make – or try to make wherever possible – correspondences between these non-Mediterranean plants and some system of classification that originated, in my opinion, in some much earlier treatment of Mediterranean species. Here again, of course, Theophrastus comes to mind.

The plants referenced are chiefly ones obtained along those maritime routes between, and within, the line from south-east Asia to the western side of the ‘Great Sea’ as Majid calls it, including the waters from China to the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.

One example of that correlation must suffice. On folio 25v** a little ‘dragon’ was added at some late stage in the image’s evolution. It is drawn in a style known from artefacts found in Ireland and among the Norse. The aim is plainly to ensure that readers know the defining plant one native to Soqotra – the true ‘Dragonsblood’ tree endemic to that island and which, before the early modern era, was known as ‘Dracaena draco’.

At a later stage, western botanists decided to take that traditional description for the species unique to Soqotra and make it the scientific description of a different variety, one which grows in western North Africa and the Canary islands. I daresay the drawing was always meant to allude to both, but the purpose of that little ‘draco’ was to emphasise that the primary reference was to the true, Soqotran species. It was the source of ancient ‘minim’ pigment and because it seems never to bear fruit or flowers and yet survives for centuries, it was regarded with awe. It was the ‘blood’ which marked the stars – a tradition so old that it is found in Pharaonic Egypt and very likely dates to the time, five thousand years ago, when the constellation of Draco occupied the point of the northern Pole – and which is still remembered in certain proverbs still current among the Bedu.

However, to introduce the ‘east-west’ correspondences as yet would be a bit much and to reduce the shock of the ‘foreign’ I kept that implication down to correspondence between plants of northern Italy and those of Strabo’s Colchis.

For the same reason, I’ve treated just two of the elms, though I’m sure the image means to refer to others perceived so.

The fact is that elms are found across Eurasia and the greatest diversity of Elm species are the ‘Asiatic’ elms found in China, India, eastern Siberia, and Central Asia. The lower mnemonic on folio 5v* may even have, as another cue to memory, allusion to the appearance of the Chinese elm’s trunk. U. parvifolia. It too has an open and ‘waving’ habit; its leaves’ venation is far less marked than that of many other species, and its trunk might even be likened to the appearance of wood riddled with ship-worm, for the outer cover looks gnawed – flaking and peeling, and is scattered with small, perfectly circular protrusions.

East-West historical connection: a couple of points.

Historians of cross-cultural contact will know, of course that Roman ambassadors had been in China in 166AD and that artefacts recovered in Óc Eo demonstrate the existence of contemporary trade between the world then under Roman rule, and that region we now called Vietnam. It may well be Marinus of Tyre’s – and thus Claudius Ptolemy’s – Cattigara.

Then, too, Ibn Khordadbeh’s famous description of the Radhanites’ routes to China, both overland and by sea, shows that in the 9thC AD, their trade into the Mediterranean had its eastern ‘turntable’ in China, and its western in France, in the Rhône valley.

Why the Tigris?

The Radhanite’s ‘centre’ is believed by some to have been near Marib but by others in a suburb of old Ctesiphon[1]. Like Mosul and ancient Nineveh, Ctesiphon stood on the eastern bank of the Tigris, but downriver about c.35 kilometres (22 miles) from what would become Baghdad. Ctesiphon’s boundaries included within them the Seleucid’s first capital, Seleucia. and until it was taken by the Arabs in 651 AD, Ctesiphon been the capital city of the Sasanids.

[1] On Ctesiphon: Founded c.120 BC., Ctesiphon developed into a rich commercial metropolis. By the late sixth and early seventh century AD, shortly before the Arab conquest, it was said by some to be the largest city in the world.

Its position coincides with that of Al-Mada’in, of which the Encyclopaedia Iranica writes:

” At the end of the Sasanian period, this metropolis served as the administrative capital, the winter home of the monarch, the residence of the Jewish Exilarch, and the seat of the Catholikos of the Christian Church of the East, (the last being often termed, inaccurately, the ‘Nestorian’ church).

,, which brings us nicely back to those Genoese.

The ambassador who sought military and naval aid for Arghun was a Nestorian from inner Asia whose first language was Uyghur. He was sent on from Baghdad to Europe in 1287 by the Nestorian ‘Catholicos’ or patriarch. What gifts he brought, as ambassador, we do not know. We do know that the embassy wintered over in Genoa before returning eastwards and that in 1290, nine hundred Genoese answered the call.

In short, this group of shipwrights, carpenters, and bowyers from Genoa are just the sort of people likely to have been actively interested in foreign trade, foreigners’ commercial information, and even foreign languages and scripts, when in “eastern parts.”

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