Tabula Picta 5v* – The Plants. Uses. Pt.1

From a series first published in 2017, reprinted with additional detail. By request.

The author’s rights are asserted.

c.2000 words.

Before going further, the problem of the leaves’ form has to be resolved. In these drawings, leaves are among the elements most often rendered ‘naturally’ and the form given the leaf can decide if an unfolding analysis should be scrapped or not. The drawings are never ‘wrong’. Our interpretations may be.

In the detail shown below you’ll see that, on the right, the terminal leaf – or emerging leaves? are formed in a way reminiscent of the plane- or of the maple-leaf.

It was already clear before approaching the drawing on folio 5v* that many others had been first given their form (first enunciated) in the context of a Hellenistic culture.

The present writer had also come to learn, at some cost, that with these drawings, one must be exceedingly slow to think any detail may be dismissed in the casual, airy way that details often may be dismissed if the subject is an illustration from a medieval herbal.

In this case, the first source consulted, Theophrastus’ Historia Plantis (Enquiry into Plants), proved to be the only one needed.

Called in the Greek ζυγόν or ζυγία the hornbeam (Yoke-elm) is regularly set beside the Maple in Theophrastus’ Enquiry into Plants and in one place he sounds as if exhausted by argumentation among his various informants. He writes:

Maple, when it grows in the mountains, is called ζυγόν [ ζυγία] and in the plain gleinos. l1] Others, however classify differently and make maple and ζυγόν [ζυγία] distinct trees.

Theophrastus of Eresos, Historia plantarum Bk.III iii; and see III.xi

[1] In modern Greek the word gleinos no longer denotes a maple tree but “a staff with a crooked head or stem’ – usually translated into English as cromach, (G/trans gives ‘crummie’).

For its very different qualities and uses, I would not expect to find a Maple proper (Acer species) in this group on folio 5v*. To describe one of Japan’s maples as ‘Hornbeam Maple’ is a recent practice (Acer carpinifolium Sieb. & Zucc).[2].

[2]. ‘Sieb.&Zucc.’ refers to the collaboration of Philipp Siebold and Joseph Zuccarini, who together produced for publication Flora Japonica – an initial version of which was published in 1835, though the completed work which appeared in 1870 owes much to F.A.W. Miquel.

For us, the point is that within a Hellenistic context, the Hornbeam *was* being described as a form of maple; the fact that not every leaf in the drawing is ‘maple-like’ tells us that the first enunciator was most likely more in sympathy with one of those ‘others’ than with Theophrastus himself.

Where C. betulus and Ulmus minor are noted for their hardness, the qualities of maple are rather different; maple is easily worked where they are not; it is well-liked by cabinet-makers, where they are not. The quality that our two ‘elms’ most obviously share can be well described using a modern term – ‘rock {-hard} elms‘.

Therefore, I now take the ‘leaf’ problem as adequately resolved, and inclusion of a ‘maple-leaf’ in the drawing as further indication of the time and cultural environment in which this drawing was first created.


USES .. Interchangeable and/or complementary.

Qualities and Uses for

YOKE-ELM (Gk. ζυγόν; Sukhumi,Sokumi etc.). Carpinus betulus.

The open growth in young, close-set stands of C. betulus. This upright form develops very dense foliage with age. Image courtesy of

In the 6thC BC., as in the 13thC AD and still today, carpenters generally regard timber from C. betulus as near-useless. It is intensely hard and difficult to work [3]

[3] ‘..tintensely hard and difficult to work”. Modern techniques reduce this difficulty, but historical sources all say the same, the Wood Database saying that “overall, Hornbeam is considered difficult to work on account of its density and toughness” and “.. rated as non-durable to perishable in regards to decay resistance, and is also susceptible to insect attack.. but has excellent resistance to wear and abrasion“. It can be turned on a modern lathe, but best if wet. Whether by ‘insect attack’ they meant to include shipworm I could not discover.

For comparison, see comments by modern woodworkers about another ‘rock elm’ – Ulmus parvifolia – the ‘Chinese elm;. 1. Woodworkers’ Website Association. 2. Arborist site.

For the shipwright, though, the Hornbeam’s iron-hard wood, growing straight, provided lengths of dowel and pegs that could not be surpassed for a certain uses. Short lengths served to fix the planks of a deck[4]  and were better for that purpose than is metal, which will shrink, expand, rust and loosen over time, where treenails from the Hornbeam will not.

[4] ‘... pegs served to fix the planks of a deck‘. Known as ‘tree-nails’. See Frederick M. Hocker and Cheryl A. Ward (eds.), The Philosophy of Shipbuilding: Conceptual Approaches to the Study of Wooden Ships (2004).  Also Christer Westerdahl, “Treenails and History: A maritime archaeological hypothesis”,  Archaeology and Environment, No. 4 (1985) pp.395-414 (Dept. of Archaeology, Umeå university). Writing in 1939, Moreland thought treenails a typically European custom. More recently, Westerdahl sees treenails between planking as distinctly Slavonic. W. H. Moreland,  ‘The Ships of the Arabian Sea about A.D. 1500’ The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 2 (Apr., 1939), pp 79  and pp173-192.   I am not sure that we are intended to see an awl or chisel and treenails ln Polydeuces’ hand, but the argument could be made.

I am indebted to a specialist for the information that there were certain parts of a ship for which the densest and heaviest wood available was always used; these being the keel and, in masted ships, the ring set about the base of a mast to fix in place and serve as its counterweight. In his opinion, were hornbeam available and able to be shaped by the artisans, it would be ideal for the purpose.

Otherwise, dowels and rods appear to have been most often employed, evidently made by pollarding and coppicing these trees.[5]

[5] Christy, writing in 1924, was puzzled by the fact that scarcely one hornbeam he found hadn’t been pollarded or coppiced within those few English counties where it grew in any numbers – all of which counties had direct access by water or by sea to the Thames’ Valley. ( “the south-east of England, [chiefly] Essex; some adjacent counties.. Suffolk… In Kent (quoting Gerard); and associated with the Oak in Forests of Epping and Hainault. Miller Christy, ‘The Hornbeam (Carpinus Betulus L.) In Britain’, Journal of Ecology , Jan., 1924, Vol. 12, No. 1 pp. 39-94.

“Wood pollards were pruned at intervals of eight to fifteen years, a pruning cycle tending to produce upright poles favored for fencing and boat construction. ..”

– wiki ‘Pollarding‘.

Coppicing creates long, straight poles which do not have the bends and forks of naturally grown trees. …Coppiced hardwoods were used extensively in carriage and shipbuilding,

wiki ‘Coppicing‘.

The wood of the Hornbeam is resistant to heat, and tolerant of salt.

Hornbeam pegs have been preferred for making rowlock pins, for pegs to hold rigging tight and even for gear-pins. [6]

[6] ‘For rowlock pins, …gear-pins ...’  See ‘Mittelzeit’, a blogger blog, ”Hornbeams’ (January 20th., 2009). Other woods were used, too.  A wide range of timbers has been identified in the galleys in the old Theodosian harbour at Byzantium/Istanbul (the harbour’s name is now Yenikapi; Ottoman period Vlanga).  The galleys date from the third quarter of the 4thC AD.  pdf  (here).   Ünal Akkemik, and  Ufuk Kocabaş, op.cit., have the Field Elm’s older description Ulmus campestris; U.minor is the current description.

Hard as metal, and more stable, it has better ‘grip’ that other woods.[7]

[7] A recent study (2017) has shown the wood retains its ‘grip’ better than others even after three hours’ exposure to a temperature of 210 degrees Centigrade.

Smaller lengths traditionally helped alleviate another chronic risk to the ship’s safety – idleness among the crew, for the pegs could be (and were) carved as if ivory. [7],,, Busy hands…

[7] idleness..ivory’. . I no longer have this section of the research diaries – my apologies to readers. (2022)

As Christy notes, even newly-cut lengths of hornbeam would burn with a steady fire even when wet.

“It forms, indeed, most excellent firewood-better, probably, than the wood of any other tree; and it was used as such very extensively in the days … when wood, burned on andirons on a flat open hearth, formed the sole domestic fuel for both warming and cooking… In those days, the wood of the Hornbeam attained its highest value and…in all districts in which it was obtainable. …was preferred, indeed, before all other woods (except, perhaps, that of the oak); for it burns brightly, steadily, and without crackling or sparking, even in the green state, when quite freshly cut, as I know well from ample personal experience. ” – M. Christy (op.cit.).

Hellenistic era. Coin made for the town of Dioskurias, called by medieval inhabitants of the region ‘Sukhumi’. In the specialised vocabulary of numismatics, this object (right) is called a ‘thyrsus’ – which is certainly never was.

One quite sees how, in more ancient times, mariners whose ship was in peril would look for the ‘harbour tree’. And precisely because the wood was so hard, it could also be used in the age-old way to spark a new fire by friction..

Given that evidently-longstanding tradition in Sussex by which the Hornbeam was known as the ‘Harber’ (Harbour), and which survived to be recorded by Christy almost a century ago and given, further, that the ancient Greek and the English term for the Hornbeam suggest bonding between two creatures, so it seems to me not overly imaginative to make a connection between the Hornbeam’s ‘Harbour fire’ and that ethereal fire associated with the Dioskuri – sign of the mariner’s protection and promise of safe harbour from a dark and dangerous sea. .

Readers interested in Roman and Latin sources may appreciate a passage from Smith, generally reliable in that his sources are reasonably complete, and accurately stated.

from: ‘Dioscuri’ in Smith’s Dictionary of Classical Biography and Mythology.(various editions).

All in all, I think we may accept the Hornbeam ‘Sukhumi’ as having a character and range of uses which accord with details in the drawing on folio 5v*.and again with both literary and iconographic sources of the Hellenistic period.

For medieval Latins – such as those Genoese whom we imagine in Mosul – still other uses for the hornbeam would recommend themselves and if they should be troubled by hearing nothing of those charioteers who are said in Roman and Latin sources to have founded Dioskurias/Sukhumi , those concerns are easily addressed..

Happily, the older habit of passing down a craft from father to son, and master to apprentice over centuries prior to the industrial era helps us here. Certainly,chariots came to be replaced by other forms of horse-drawn or ox-drawn ‘car’ but wheels still needed to be made in the right way. Heavier for an ox-cart, lighter for a carriage. To mention the short lengths or dowels of imported hardwood *usually described as elm, which have been found by archaeologists in Egypt, we needn’t speak here.

It’s enough to have Liegard’s testimony that in Brittany, in the 1870s,

[le bois de charme est] “estime par les tourneurs et les charrons.”

The word ‘charron’ had meant a maker of chariots but, by now, cart-wright and wheelwright – as still does.

. Baudrillart elaborates …..

“On emploie le bois de charme [Hornbeam] a faire des roues de moulins, des poulies, des leviers, des manches d’outils, des fleaux pour le battage des grains, des maillets, des coins, enfin des ouvrages de charronage, de menuiserie, et de tour.” …

… pulleys, levers, tool-sleeves, mallets .. works of the cartwright/wheel-wright…

from J.J. Baudrillart. Traité’ générale des Eaux et Forêts. Parts 1-4 ( 1821-46). As quoted by Christy who cites ii, p. 583).

Two centuries before Baudrillart, Gerard notes that Hornbeam wood “was better for arrowes and [spear-]shafts, pulleyes for mils, and such like devises … for, in time, it waxeth so hard that the toughnes and hardnes of it may be rather compared to horne then unto wood.”

Hornbeam’s usefulness for tools and implements whose handles do not splinter, which can cope with weather and abrasion would surely appeal to Genoese shipwrights who were now expected to build two ships in a place where there was no good timber, and while their usual fir and cedar was inaccessible because the region about the coast, and Lebanon, was occupied by their opponents, the Mamluks of Egypt, to whom Acre would soon fall, in July of the following year. Never mind, Oak and Hornbeam, and Field Elm and more could be brought through the road from Trebizond.

Horbeam’s value for hauling up materials from the ground, or from the dock, they would surely have known, or learned but here is the data from a scientific test reported by Christy::

It is exceedingly strong, a piece 2 ins. square and 7 ft. 8 ins. long having supported 228 lbs., while a similar beam of ash broke under 200 lbs.; one of birch, under 190 lbs.; of oak, 180 lbs.; of beech, 165 lbs.; and of all other woods very much less. Notwithstanding its powers of resistance, the hornbeam has very little flexibility, it having bent, before it broke, only 10°; while the ash bent 21°; the birch 19°; the oak, 12° (Christy, op.cit.).

And while we cannot presume the original enunciator had ever heard of barrels, the cooper’s art appearing relatively late on the historical stage, to such as those two hundred Genoese shipbuilders it might have been good to know (as Selby records in 1842) that staves of hornbeam wood were “suited to making fish-barrels”.

As was said earlier, this part of the investigation which proves so difficult for the modern researcher, would have made immediate sense to professionals interested in the practical and monetary benefits of one tree or another. That, more than any mnemonic device, would have made the image instantly recall all the memorised knowledge and associations which it was designed to recall on sight.

Uses for Ulmus minor – next post.

One thought on “Tabula Picta 5v* – The Plants. Uses. Pt.1

  1. Concerning the ‘maple’ leaf.. It may have more significance than I’d thought. The drawings are typically constructed in a way you might describe as “x is complementary to y” or to express it differently “if-you-can’t-get-x-get-y” – presumably for reasons to do with the user’s time and place in the route.
    On a site describing woods known to have been available in, or imported into, earlier Egypt I see today mentions is made of one type of Maple (Acer campestris).
    The text reads:
    Field maple (Acer campestre L. (Aceraceae)

    A small often shrubby tree, which is often found up to an altitude of 2000 metres, especially in Europe including Turkey, but not in Egypt. It is used [in Egypt] for a wide range of objects, for which strong wood is important (wagon-building, bows, arrows, musical instruments). The wood is hard and strong.”

    – so perhaps Maple was intended to be among the ‘hardwoods’ memorialised by the drawing on fol.5v* and it Theophrastus’ informants were thinking of comparable uses, more than appearance, when some insisted that the hornbeam was a form of the Maple.
    In any case – information from a site by University College London. Copyright date is 2002 and some of the additional links no longer work – so if you want to keep a record of the information, best take notes.
    (Add colon and stops where needed)
    https //www html


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