Tabula Picta 5v* – The Plants. Uses Pt.2

From material first published by the present author with additional notes added in 2022.

The author’s rights are asserted.

c.2300 words.

UNTIL to at least so late as the last quarter of the sixteenth century, as we saw, lengths from coppiced Yoke-Elm – Hornbeam – were described as “better for arrowes and shafts“.

In this regard, the wood used for bows – as complement to those shafts – had to be flexible as the hornbeam is not.

Bowyers’ use of yew is well-known. Less well known is that bows of elm are attested in Europe during the Neolithic;[1] they were also carried into battle at Crécy in 1345 and to the field of Agincourt in 1415.

[1] Neolithic – one from LaDraga of yew; one from Zealand of elm. Both woods occur, in sequence, in annotations made to an act legislating which leisure activities were permitted, by order of England’s Henry VIII (r.1509 -1547), It permits target-shooting: “Shooting at Rovers, &c. Shooting with Ewe Bows..” and “Common Bows to be made of Elm, &c.” – from. J.H. Leslie, ‘The Long Bow’ in ‘Notes’, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Vol. 1, No. 6 (DECEMBER,1922), pp. 227-228..

We may pass over details of Crécy, but some evidence must be offered for Agincourt, since that battle was fought in 1415; the Voynich manuscript manufactured between 1404-1438 AD, and the Voynich calendar’s month-names are in some such dialect as Norman-French, Occitan or Judeo-Catalan. My instance in proof (below) isn’t the only evidence for elm bows in France, England and Italy during the fifteenth century, but I’ve chosen to reproduce it here because this letter – like the image on folio 5v* – it is so redolent of that time, place and cultural context in which it was first enunciated – irrespective of when or where it is now included, or whether any caption is read.

Empire Forestry Review, Vol. 36, No. 2 (June 1957), p. 209.

In archaeology, we’ve seen the relatively young science of identifying recovered woods advance very rapidly indeed over the past few years, and as identifications become more precise, woods whose identity was earlier guessed at or described generally, as e.g. ‘elm’ are now more precisely known. What was formerly labelled ‘cedar’ might now be re-labelled ‘willow’, and the evidence is growing that the ‘Pliant’ (“Wych”) elm, U.glabra, was often preferred for bows over Field elm (U.minor). The map shows natural distribution for U.glabra across Europe.

map of natural distribution U.glabra. Europe.

I doubt if this information has caused many readers’ hearts to race, but it might have mattered to whoever had the Voynich manuscript put together early in the fifteenth century, and it may have mattered too to whoever first contributed the written text.

In 2017 I concentrated on U.minor, whose qualities and uses are given below and were obviously complementary to the hornbeam’s. I daresay if I were writing it now, I’d say more of the Wych elm..

Bowmen were essential to the ship’s protection in ancient and in medieval times.

Close connection- almost ‘corporation’ is found between the bowman, the ship, its cargo and its crew and would have seemed self-evident – ‘common sense’ -to people of Theophrastus’ time, as to people of a thousand years before him, and more than a thousand years after him, including to those Genoese who went to Mesoptamia in 1290 AD.

It was a unity that survived, overall, for not less than five thousand years in the Mediterranean.

Below, we see it depicted on an Attic krater older by three centuries than Theophrastus. (And, while we’re here, note that ‘hatching’ and use of the diaper pattern as well as dot-and-line are all employed here. None originated in medieval or Renaissance Europe).

Attic krater 7thC BC

The upright figure that we see behind the bowman, and wearing a hat, has been suggested Polydeuces, the immortal twin – so then the bending bowman would be Castor, his human ‘other half’. Others interpret the pair as being non-Greeks.

Attic krater 7thC BC

Below, a comparable pairing of the Dioscuri for a Hellenistic coin dated BC 281 – 261, that is, somewhere between six and twenty years after Theophrastus’ death and thus after his composition of the Enquiry into Plants and of numerous other works, most of which have not survived.[2]

coin for Antíochos ho Sōtér; “Antiochus the Saviour”.
photo courtesy wildwinds.

[2] When the Vatican acquired its eleventh-century copy of Theophrastus ‘Enquiry..’ we do not know, but the probability is that it is a relic of Byzantine rule in southern Italy or that it is another which came with refugees from Constantinople, the Aegean, the Black Sea or Asia Minor and Crete during the thirteenth but especially during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Theodore of Gaza published a Latin translation in 1483 and the original Greek text was then printed from a very flawed copy towards the end of the 1490s, in Venice.

Throughout the Hellenistic period, the archetypal human bowman as ‘protector of the ship’ had been a Cretan.[3] By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, that role and his character, including the mercenary, was now embodied in the Genoese crossbowman.

[3] Cretans. “Numerous literary accounts herald the fame of Cretans as archers, especially those serving as mercenaries in the armies of the major Hellenistic powers, from Sicily in the west to the Seleukids in the east.” Matasha Mazis and Nicholas L. Wright, ‘Archers, Antiochos VII Sidetes, and the ‘BE’ Arrowheads’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 380 (November 2018), pp. 205-229. The authors give the references.

On the Greeks’ apparent aversion to such ‘cowardly’ forms of battle, and revisions of it, see the argument in Todd Alexander Davis’ essay, ‘The Bow and Arrow in Archaic Greece’ – published online (May 16th., 2017).

Illiad 2.849. “Pyraechmes led the Paeonians, with curved bows, from afar, out of Amydon from the wide-flowing Axius.” Paeonia was a territory which lay inland from and adjacent to Macedonia.

For a time, no English ship could enter the Mediterranean save by Genoese leave and (purchased) escort.

In the meantime, Genoa had become famous – and notorious – for its manufacturing and equipping its mercenaries with these dreadful weapons as weapons of war. Genoese crossbowmen to a number between 6,000 and 12,000 were hired by France for the battle of Crécy and 3,000 for Agincourt – though its unlikely they met the Welsh archers carrying those Wych-elm bows.

By the time of Rudolf II, a Genoese painter trying to imagine how his fellow-citizens had looked half a millenium earlier, at the siege of Jerusalem in 1099 AD produced an image in which much is a-historical and all romanticised. .The helms are sixteenth-century Spanish style – and he has dressed one one ‘holder of the bow’ (arcitenans) in ancient Roman costume, with what could be called a ‘double skirt’ and is not altogether unlike the form given the Voynich crossbowman’s ‘double skirt’. The Voynich figure now fills the centre of the calendar’s December September (sorry) diagram, and represents the astronomical Arcitenans (= Saggitifer/Sagittarius). The costumes are not identical; and in fact the Voynich detail is the less anachronistic.

detail from a fresco at the Palazzo Cattaneo Adorno. Genoa, by Lazzaro Tavarone of Genoa (1556–1641).The painter’s lifetime begins before, and ends after, that of Rudolf II.

We’ll look again at the Voynich archer In the last post of this series: ‘Echoes of style’. ..When that fresco was being painted, steel lathes had become the norm, and this proved something of a problem for an earlier writer, a specialist in the history of weapons, as tried to interpret that detail. He had presumed that the manuscript’s content was no older than its date of manufacture.

Of what wood(s) the crossbow’s stock was made, in medieval Genoa, I could not discover.

There is presently online a seller claiming to have a replica Genoese bow, with wooden stock and steel for the lathe and stirrup. In the usual way I’d see if the maker could provide more historical detail, but it’s not that sort of site.

And so, at last, to U. minor.

FIELD ELM (Ulmus minor) – Qualities and Uses.

Another very hard and dense wood, that of U.minor differs from the ‘Yoke Elm’ (Carpinus betulus) in being pliable where the hornbeam’s is rigid. [4]

[4] “..qualities of the elm..”  Caudullo and de Rigo op.cit. “a source of good-quality wood, easy to work and used for furniture ,flooring and as firewood.. except U.laevis.”

This wood’s  resistance to water decay is exceptional, where the hornbeam’s does not do well. This is why Hornbeam staves might do for selling freshly caught fish, but it was timber from U.minor that was – and still is – used for underwater piles, water-pipes and (from in medieval times) for other barrels.[5]

[5] ‘..resistance to water decay … barrels’. G. Caudullo, D. de Rigo, Ulmus – elms in Europe: distribution, habitat, usage and threats; the footnotes citing P. S. Savill, The silviculture of trees used in British forestry (CABI, 2013) and  A. Praciak, et al., The CABI encyclopedia of forest trees (CABI, 2013) but the fact is everywhere noted.

Timber from U.minor positively likes to be kept wet and [I’ve now checked] doesn’t mind salt in that water. In the days of self-bows, it would mean that spare staves of this elm might be stored on deck, and only the strings removed and taken below decks.

detail fol.5v

On the other hand, and a point in common with hornbeam, U.minor‘s timber was ideal for making the sort of tools needed to construct, and to fit, ships such as those the Genoese craftsmen were expected to build in Mosul in the thirteenth century. Then, as now, Elm would be recommended for making levers and mallets, and the handles of tools.  [6]

[6] ibid.. and see passage from Isidore on tools of the medieval carpenter. (Etym. XIX.xix.1-14]

Unlike timber from C. betulus, that from U.minor could be turned on the lathe and, of course, was good for making bows.

I should repeat here that where such practical skills are concerned, the passage of centuries seems not to matter – not even over so great a period as that separating the foundation of the first great cities from our own time.

It is precisely as Kuniholm says:

Almost every tool – from the crude to the sophisticated – known to modern carpenters was used by the ancients: axes, adzes, hammers, mallets, wedges, chisels, drills, lathes, right- angles (or T-squares), plumb bobs, compasses, planes, rasps, and polishing agents of various kinds. Evidence exists for the use of almost every modern technique as well: mortising, tenoning, treenailing, beveling, gluing, and intricate joining and inlaying. A glance at the more elegant pieces of the Gordion furniture (eighth century BC) should remove any doubt about the skill and sophistication of the ancient carpenter, not only in the craftsmanship thereby demonstrated, but also in the selection of a half-dozen species of wood ..

from: “Wood” in Eric M. Meyers, (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 347-349

Put a medieval carpenter next to a modern one, provide a translator, and one imagines they’d talk ‘shop’ with enthusiasm until the pubs closed.

Pitch – caulking and preserving.

Apart from the bitumen and tar available in Mosul,[7] we should mention plant-derived pitch. The fact is that we know little of earlier methods for extracting it, or from which plants it could have been gained.

[7] Ibn Jubayr passed through Mosul between May 14th and June 11th., 1184. He describes the presence there of petroleum oil and bitumen .. and pomegranates.  The passage in English translation, is in Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes Vol 1. (2012).  The Arabic text, with Wright’s commentary and Introduction, and Goeje’s revisions, is at the internet archive here.  Broadhurst’s translation, first published in the 1950s, is still cited.

It was well described, in the Hellenistic period, by Eratosthenes who worked from Alexandria. We have that description as it was repeated by Strabo Geography XVI.i.16. Link is to an English translation..

Vegetable Pitch.

The best information I have to date about vegetable pitch comes from a conference paper delivered to The San Francisco National Maritime Park Association by Theodore P. Kaye, and published on their website (here).

He speaks chiefly of pine-tars from northern Europe after c.1400 AD. I have seen a passing reference to ‘beech’ as useful for this purpose, but no specific details were included.

Otherwise, the a wiki article is currently (March 2nd., 2022) is quite good and reads in part:

The heating (dry distilling) of wood causes tar and pitch to drip away from the wood and leave behind charcoal. Birchbark is used to make birch-tar, a particularly fine tar. … Traditionally, pitch that was used for waterproofing buckets, barrels and small boats was drawn from pine… A 10th-century redaction of an earlier Greek Byzantine agricultural work [transmits] the ancient method of applying pitch to ceramic wine casks.” [The recipe is given]. then.. “Concerning ceramic containers “[They] were pitched, both inside and out, immediately while they were removed from the kiln and still hot.”


The history of barrel-making is rarified study, as you’d imagine. I’ve relied chiefly on that by Henry H. Work, Wood, Whiskey and Wine: A History of Barrels, (2014). Distributed by the University of Chicago Press). Work says that wooden barrels were developed by the Celts in the first millennium BC. and that their design and quality became increasingly refined between 1300 BC and AD 200, gradually replacing use of amphora for transportation and storage of goods. By c.1095, in Europe, it had become common practice to store liquids in barrels. We are told that “Barrel materials once included poplar, elm, fir, and chestnut” but no references are given, and no evidence of the Greeks having used any form of coopering earlier. There’s no ‘barrel’ of such a type in any of the Voynich drawings.

One thought on “Tabula Picta 5v* – The Plants. Uses Pt.2

  1. Apparently there is an entire Appendix on vegetable pitch and its importance in the Mediterranean world prior to 1400.
    Rusell Meiggs, Trees and Timber in the Ancient Mediterranean World. OUP (1982).


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