Less than 3,300 words.
The author’s rights are asserted.
In the opinion of the present writer, the image on folio 5v* reflects an attitude towards the world and its description that accords with geographic works formally classed as ‘Itineraries’. Since this has implications for what sort of text might be keeping these plant-drawings company in Beinecke MS 408, the topic may be of general interest.
Unlike the sort of ‘birds-eye-view’ geography which informs Claudius Ptolemy’s work, or medieval Islamic works (see illustration below) or a modern-day World Atlas, the itinerary more nearly resembles a sort of ‘Lonely Planet’ guide.
The itinerary style has a long history; rather than regarding the world as divided by political boundaries, by climes or by latitude and longitude (astronomical or terrestrial), it defines regions by what is found along a route, and what the soil produces.
Claudius Ptolemy’s near contemporary, Strabo of Amaseia, organises his information in itinerary style and his quotations from earlier, Greek and Hellenistic, writers prove the type no Roman invention.
About the same time, another Egyptian (as Ptolemy was) composed an itinerary in a form of Greek that one translator describes as ‘excrable (US = ). We know that work as the Periplus Mare Erythraeum.
Relevant to folio 5v* is a long passage that Strabo quotes directly (with proper attribution) from Erathosthenes’ notes on Babylonia – and to this day I’ve found no better description of the sources and nature of bitumen, which the Greeks called asphaltos. I’ll append that passage as postscript. Earlier still, as we saw, Xenophon marks Teredon chiefly as the market for Arabian frankincense and ‘sweet-smelling spices’.
In geographies of such a kind, distance-defined space often has no fixed value and may be mentioned rarely. It can be expanded or collapsed according to the writer’s subjective experience; so a desert hundreds of miles across can be dismissed in a couple of sentences because it holds neither interest nor comfort for the traveller-merchant. Conversely, a relatively small town may be described at length because it promises safety, comfort and much potential profit.
I don’t mean to suggest all writings of the itinerary-geographical sort have just one format; the range of forms is large and differences between them revealing.
The type directed chiefly at merchants who travel more-or-less on their own is dictated by interest in geography, but geography as a means to acquire goods. This means that it can (though need not) regard the stages of a route first in terms of the traveller’s physical safety, the abundance or scarcity of local provisions and whether the atmosphere seems amiable, neutral or hostile – finally ‘appending’ remarks about trade-goods.
Marco Polo’s account of Mosul is a good example.
We are told of the various religious groups living in Mosul (‘Nestorians, Jacobites… some followers of Mohammed..’), and of Polo’s impression of the people’s character – “warlike and ferocious who frequently attack the merchants” but of merchandise only two things are mentioned:
“In these parts [around Mosul] mosulin is woven from silk and gold thread. There are also some rich merchants who deal in huge quantities of the rarest spices and who are also called ‘mouselins’.
He spares no space, as Ibn Jubayr did, for pomegranates and bitumen nor – though more predictably – for those Genoese who served the same Ilkhan as Polo says he did. But then, Polo was a Venetian.
How much time-as-distance separated one place from another was also, apparently, a matter of indifference for many. Older people may remember how it was when one had to ask directions when hiking: ‘How far to the nearest post office?’ would receive an answer along the lines of: ‘You’re on the right road. You can’t go wrong.’ ‘But how far?’ ‘Oh it’s a bit of a step but you can’t miss it.’ The walk might be two miles, or five or ten. You just keep on until it appears over the horizon. Some Itineraries are like that.
In one, the whole length of the journey by road between Moscow and Oslo is dismissed with a single phrase “to Norway from Russia is not far.” The objective distance by road today is 2076 km (1290 mi.)
The whole of Persia is treated in the same cursory way by the Polo narrative; we are told what is available as food, what product is of profit: in Persia, it’s cloth of gold.
One must allow for the times, of course. It was still not many years since the whole of Persia, and much of Mesopotamia/Babylonia had been left devastated by the Mongol Hordes.
‘Space divided by profit’ has its very literal sense.
If the image on folio 5v were designed, as others among these plant-pictures were, to memorialise plants whose wood was touted as something to be used as a condiment, medicine, incense, dye-stuff and preferably all of those things, the seller might present it in a form, and a quantity easily portable – as powder (sandalwood), chips (cedar and cassia), or lumps of resin (frankincense).
That situation reconciles easily with what we know of the usual east-west trade, from the time of Alexander to the 1400s AD. The situation was a little different in the Great Sea, but In the case of trade into the Mediterranean, a book of drawings to serve as aide memoire would be not unreasonable; with elements enough in ‘realistic’ style to serve as instant check that the plant was the right sort for the product, and elements enough in an allusive, but evocative form to call up the range of uses for which the goods could be sold on. The latter made easy reading because they appeal to things known as part everyday allusion – or did so for the original enunciator and his intended audience.
The work of research requires us, in our own time and cultural environment, to first identify that original time, place and cultural context and then adjust. By seeing through other eyes we try to read as much as we can. It is not easy work. But if these were easy drawings, it wouldn’t have taken a century to work out what any but the few late, Latin-style items mean. [two hints: medieval Latins’ convention (i) gives boots to almost everyone who walks the earth, save pagans and bathers and (ii) depicts tubs and barrels as products of the cooper].
It took a hundred years, almost exactly, before anyone commented on the fact that at some time a drawing had been added to the back of the Voynich map, and in it one figure is wearing an Asian costume.
The Mongol century is indicated for that addition, at least.
Our current problem is that, while we can recover much by analysing the image on folio 5v, and it does appear to identify a single slab of geographic-itinerary space (Between Dioskurias and Teredon), its subject as ‘hardwood elms’ doesn’t chime with any scenario involving single merchants.
These plants were, and are, timber-trees.
Of value, certainly, for carpentry bow-making and ship-building but no small trader would fill saddle bags with bits of elm, or try to cart a few planks of hornbeam with them from one ship to another along their route. Not when they might trade in cloth of gold, mosuline, furs, fine linens, cinnamon or gems. Profitability per cubic inch was was the thing.
As for medicinal-herbal uses – not even Mrs. Grieve could find a pharmaceutical application for Yoke Elm and clearly struggled to produce three or four folk-remedies for the Field Elm. Yet she was writing in the 1930s, in London, for the Guild of Pharmacists at a time when London had all the botanical resources of its Empire and botanical information from Europe and the Americas to call upon, together with uses established by modern medical science as it then was.
The fact that this should be reassuring is due to her thoroughness. The very consistency of her information with all we’ve seen so far offers some promise of being able to compile a likely list of words that should crop up if the written part of the text on folio 5v bears any connection to the drawing.
Of course, we don’t know the underlying language and we have no certainty that the written text is a commentary on the drawings, but it’s possible. I do not think the reciprocal so likely. The drawings not only have primacy in the order of setting-down on the page but they are self-contained. Their explication is supposed to come from the reader’s memory and cultural allusions once shared by the original enunciator and his intended audience. Once the plant-picture was translated – as it must have been translated for the first Latins who saw it – little more would be needed and why waste space repeating the same information in a different form of line?
Still, we may hope.
The wood is close-grained, free from knots, hard and tough, and not subject to splitting… It does not crack once seasoned and is remarkably durable under water, being especially adapted for any purpose that requires exposure to wet. .. Elm wood is used for keels and bilge planks, the blocks and dead eyes of rigging and ship’s pumps ..wheels … and general carpenter’s work. Elm boards are largely used for lining the interior of carts, waggons and wheel-barrows on account of the extreme toughness of the wood.. previous to the common employment of cast-iron, elm was very much in use for waterpipes.
The inner bark [Latin – liber] is very tough and is made into mats and ropes..”Mrs. M. Grieve F.R.H.S., A Modern Herbal: the medicinal, culinary, cosmetic and economic properties, cultivation and folklore of herbs, grasses, fungi, shrubs and trees with all their modern scientific uses. Edited and introduced by Mrs C.F. Leyel. First published 1931. ( My copy is the 1974 reprint published by Jonathan Cape). The use of elm for rope-making hasn’t been forgotten. This source explains the method, says it is part of traditional coppicing and pollarding, and provides a very extensive bibliography. The source-text is: William Coles (1657), Adam in Eden, or, Nature’s Paradise: By this cordage, ships are guided, bells are rung, beds are corded, and rogues kept in awe.
Everything else about the Voynich manuscript speaks to an economical attitude towards information – I’d suggest that this is why it has been given its pocket-size format; why it contains so many drawings of the kind it does, and why at some stage pages were sliced out and the Voynich calendar reduced (as many think) from perhaps twelve or thirteen months to just ten – the ten being (perhaps coincidentally) those of the Mediterranean sailing year and of active agriculture in Europe.
In connection with that last point, we note that the month-names over-written on the calendar’s central emblems – which are themselves part of the drawings’ later chronological strata – point us to the ‘Norman corridor’ from southern Italy through to northern France and its entanglements with other parts of the south-western Mediterranean. This agrees again with the calendar’s correlation between constellation-emblem and month, for that correlation is proper to the ‘southern branch’ of the European labours of the months, as one sees by comparing series made south of the Alps with ones created in the colder regions to their north. But I musn’t digress; that matter I’ve already treated in detail – possibly exhausting detail – in another place. The Otranto mosaic will do as illustration of the southern type.
In most of the pre-Hellenistic Mediterranean, timber was so plentiful that very few regions had need of imported timber and within their own region the identification of woods and plants was left to the people who needed to use them. As one specialist said of boat-making, ‘People used whatever they could get’.
That was generally true. For the most part, wood did not have to be carried far or considered an item of trade. In regions such as Egypt, or Babylonia where timber-trees were rare, people made do with what there was – acacia wood in Egypt or palm trees in Babylonia – unless it became a matter of state. Or unless we move forward to the days of the earlier brotherhood/corporations (the Karimi) or the later wealthy banking-and-trading families of Italy and Flanders. Even the Pope had to hire ships and Catalan crew to bring the Papal court from Avignon to Rome in the late fourteenth century.
Timber was imported (from not very far) by governments.
Egypt imported cedar. It came from no further than Lebanon yet in Egypt where ‘gold was as dust’, wood was a matter of state. The Pharaoh sent a formal request to the ruler of Lebanon and when Egyptians built ships from that cedar, the used a most ingenious design – one that allowed full-sized ships to be lifted from the water, disassembled and stored until the time came when they were wanted again.
Pearce Paul Creasman, ‘Ship Timber and the Reuse of Wood in Ancient Egypt’, Journal of Egyptian History 6 (2013) pp,152–176.
Another state without natural stands of timber was, of course, Athens. And once again logistics prevented individuals importing the types and quantities of wood needed to maintain either a merchant fleet or a naval force. (Pirates were based where the right kind of wood was to hand).
For the following statistical information I’ll quote Borza directly.
The needs of [Athens as] an imperial center required extensive amounts of foreign timber.
To take a single example: In the seventy-year period from 480 to 410 B.C., Athens never seems to have maintained fewer than about 200 warships at any one time, and occasionally the number approached 300. The average life of a trireme was about twenty years. Taking into account an annual replacement program of twenty ships due to deterioration plus the replacement of vessels lost to storms and hostile action, perhaps 1500 triremes were built during the period under consideration.Eugene N. Borza, ‘Timber and Politics in the Ancient World: Macedon and the Greeks’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 131, No. 1 (Mar., 1987), pp. 32-52.
The timber requirements for such a naval program were huge. For example, each trireme carried 170 oars plus 30 spares. Thus at least 300,000 oars, each about 15 feet in length, would have been a necessary complement to the ships. The best oars came from young, flexible fir trees (elate), and, as Theophrastus (HP 5.1.7) tells us, considerable skill was required to fashion them. Each oar was shaped from a single tree lest it snap from the stress imposed by sudden changes in course and speed. The number of felled trees needed to supply these requirements is virtually incalculable.
Meiggs’s review of the naval equipment lists of the fourth century shows that at one point (357/6 B.C.), more than 50,000 oars were kept in stock for 253 triremes.
Pitch, a forest product as valuable as timber itself, was required to seal ships’ hulls. Some types of wood can be substituted for others, but in ship construction there is no alternative for the natural resins embodied in fir and pine. In solid and liquid form, pitch was used by all shipyards to maintain the condition of their hulls.
Which tells us two things: first, that the elms were not used by classical Athens as ship-building timbers and secondly, that if I read correctly an allusion to bitumen within the drawing on folio 5v* then we’re more likely looking at a period no earlier than the Seleucid kingdom.
The manuscript itself tells us, through these beautifully and precisely copied drawings – most unusual for the Latins who routinely re-worked or replaced other forms of image with ones in their own style and custom – that the community which had earlier preserved these drawings had inherited an originally Hellenistic Greek tradition, lived in a region where both types of elms grew, and had access to a source of bitumen directly or by importing it, and were involved in movement along the maritime routes to which most of the Voynich plants belong. Of those images I’ve investigated and made identifications for, only folios 5v* and 9r do not refer to plants of the maritime spice routes – from the Maluku islands to the Arabian shield.
We know further that (unlike the people who added those centres to the month-diagrams), these had an aversion to the literal representation of any living thing and – for reasons I cannot explain – were averse to things coloured in the mauve-purple-black range.
Nor did they like tangled lines. No ‘x’ shape among the glyphs; no interlace. Add those to the other absences – no mounted figures, no high-backed chairs or rostrums, no ‘bestowing’ images, no halos, no use of emblems specific to the Christian or the Muslim or the Hindu faith (except possibly the figure with fish-skin).. Who are those people? is the burning question.
Surely, at some stage we’ll have to look beyond the Mediterranean, that ‘absurdly small sea’ as Lawrence Durrell once called it. But for now, it is evident that the first enunciator was Hellenistic Greek. Maybe in Alexandria, maybe in Antioch or in what would become Trebizond or – in some eastern centre founded by Alexander (see map below). But Hellenistic – so for now, let’s work with that.
“The Mediterranean is an absurdly small sea; the length and greatness of its history makes us dream it larger than it is”- Lawrence Durrell, quoted in Joseph F. Stanley, ‘Negotiating Trade: Merchant Manuals and Cross Cultural Exchange in the Medieval Mediterranean’, Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, Vol. XXX, Issue 1, (January 2018): pp. 102-112. The quotation is on p.102.
Postscript – Eratostenes on bitumen, called ‘asphaltos’.
from Strabo, Geography, Bk 16.1.16
Asphaltus is found in great abundance in Babylonia. Eratosthenes describes it as follows.
“The liquid asphaltus, which is called naphtha, is found in Susiana; the dry kind, which can be made solid, in Babylonia. There is a spring of it near the Euphrates. When this river overflows at the time of the melting of the snow, the spring also of asphaltus is filled, and overflows into the river, where large clods are consolidated, fit for buildings constructed of baked bricks. Others say that the liquid kind also is found in Babylonia. With respect to the solid kind, I have described its great utility in the construction of buildings. They say that boats (of reeds) are woven, which, when besmeared with asphaltus, are firmly compacted. The liquid kind, called naphtha, is of a singular nature. When it is brought near the fire, the fire catches it; and if a body smeared over with it is brought near the fire, it burns with a flame, which it is impossible to extinguish, except with a large quantity of water; with a small quantity it burns more violently, but it may be smothered and extinguished by mud, vinegar, alum, and glue. It is said that Alexander, as an experiment, ordered naphtha to be poured over a boy in a bath, and a lamp to be brought near his body. The boy became enveloped in flames, and would have perished if the bystanders had not mastered the fire by pouring upon him a great quantity of water, and thus saved his life.
Poseidonius says that there are springs of naphtha in Babylonia, some of which produce white, others black, naphtha; the first of these, I mean the white naphtha, which attracts flame, is liquid sulphur; the second, or black naphtha, is liquid asphaltus, and is burnt in lamps instead of oil.”
Russell Meiggs, ‘Sea-Borne Timber Supplies to Rome’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, 1980, Vol. 36, The Seaborne Commerce of Ancient Rome: Studies in Archaeology and History pp. 185-196.,
Richard Burleigh, (Review): Trees and Timber in the Ancient Mediterranean World by Russell Meiggs. (1982), for The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology , 1988, Vol. 74 (1988), pp. 301-304.