Tabula picta f.5v* katekhismos.

Greek katekhismos, from katekhizein “teach orally, instruct by word of mouth”

Note (8th March 2022). In my determination to keep this post to 1500 words or less, I left out some quite crucial points – such as repeating that these image have a ‘default’ for their construction. This also informs the ‘cathechismal’ sequence, viz.

That the plant’s habit is quite literal; the leaves and petiole(if any) almost always so – for details see post ‘folio 5v* – The Plants’.

In addition, plants included to form any group will

(a) occur naturally in proximity – that is, occur in a common habitat;

(b) have comparable appearance and/or uses and

(c) usually simultaneously, complementary qualities and approximately equivalent commercial value – such as, for example, flax and hemp, or two (or more) kinds of sorrel-leafed vegetable, or an eastern and a western source for dragonsblood (minim).

Most groups are not formed of just two items, and my decision to take just two ‘Elms’ here has caused difficulties because the whole focus of these plant-pictures is on eastern species even if their groupings appear (to me, at any rate) to hearken back to some system used much earlier (much earlier) in the Mediterranean.

In fact, I would expect a number of other elms were intended to be recalled to the user by this image, including the Wych elm, the Siberian Elm and the Chinese elm. Members of this group referenced on folio 5v* might literally see you safe from the Mediterranean to China.

It was simply to reduce the shock of the ‘foreign’ in a study whose traditional narratives have been intensely and – occasionally fervently – Eurocentric that I decided to limit east-west equivalence to that between old Colchis and the Italian peninsula.

I also neglected to remind readers that as they go through that set ‘default’, they should be running down the image and seeing how each detail in the drawing is able to evoke memory of one and another qualities in these elms. It’s perfectly ok to use the same detail (such as the ‘charioteers’ hands) as cues for more than one memorised item. That’s the awesome skill of the first person to form the image,

so, for example, the ‘hands’ are formed like pomegranates – the Phoenician emblem and the Twins are said to have had that origin. But they also hold red-coloured rods.. which you may link to the sukhumi’s rods, and its usefulness in making fire.. and so on. Looked at another way, you might see those ‘rods’ as a chisel or hammer, and treenails. That’s ok too. It’s all historically true of these elms and multivalence is the true skill of such tabula picta.

And finally, I left out the fact that among the trees the Venetians harvested in the Po valley was Wych elm. A fairly important point, you’d think. 🙂

I’ve added a couple of extra pictures, but omitted the specifically geographic part and the ‘ant-worm’ because that was earlier explained.


IT IS MY PRACTICE, before completing any analytical report, to cross-examine my findings and the same was so for this analysis – the drawing on folio 5v from Yale, Beinecke MS 408.

It’s nothing dramatic; more like the routine we run through before leaving the house. The chief advantage of this routine is to make very clear to me what I have, and have not been able to explain and to adequately document.

Of course, I wouldn’t include it in any formal report, but I thought such a run-through might give those readers who’ve read the ‘Uses’ posts a chance to see how much they’ve absorbed and appreciate their own cleverness as well as that of the person who first crafted this ‘tabula picta’ as readers’ aide memoire.

I’ve set the Q-and-A in our imagined moment of first contact where the recipients are well-informed craftsmen from Genoa and the ‘translator’ has some degree of Greek heritage. Enjoy.

Q, What is this figure?

A. The charioteer.

Q. What else?

A. One of the Twins.

A. How do you know?

A. High cap topped with a flower. The form agrees.

Q, Show me.


Q, Just one of them?

A. No, the pair – headstars right relative distance too.

Q. Why not some other pair – maybe Adam and Eve? One’s covered by a big leaf

A. Adam and Eve wore fig-leaves. These aren’t fig-leaves. … (but Gemini is sometimes mis-drawn as one male and one female).

Q. You think they can’t be one human male and one human female it the allusion is to Gemini?

coin of Sidon 78-77 BC. image – wildwinds

A. Star-flower hats say no later than c.2ndC BC and Seleucid or possibly Phoenician. But I say Hellenistic Greek.

detail of coin – Antiochus VII. Antioch

A. So if not male and female.. should they be?

A. One immortal – Polydeuces; one mortal – Castor.

Q. Why is one half-hidden? A. Errrm. a shadow of the first?? Stronger shields the weaker? I don’t know.

Q. Ever heard the passage: “as man and woman He created him”?

A. Oh yeah. I thought that was ours.

Q. (*sigh) Moving on… Explain the figure’s headwear.

A. (The modern writer steps in. Fourteenth-century Genoese wouldn’t know it, but this ‘egg’ or ‘white crown’ helmet is a much older Syro-Phoenician emblem for the Twins. It is seen on Seleucid coins after their capital moved from Seleucis on the Tigris to Antioch.

Q. So – what plants are associated with the twins – any you know of?

A. Vervain and gladiolus. [true, if dubious. My only source for it is Gleadow, ‘The Origin of the Zodiac’ – who says (pp.85-6) that this was an association “made by Greek astrologers” but in researching folio 5v, it was an early possibility, and one I looked into, so I include mention of it here).

Template: 1.HABIT… 2. LEAF…

Q. Are the leaves and habit in our drawing (folio 5v*) those of gladiolus?

A. No.

Q. Like Vervain?

A. Yes-and-no.

Q. Go on.

A,The habit’s different but leaves are not unlike the Voynich plant’s. And every Vervain leaf and branch has its ‘twin’,

Q. So how are the Twins like Vervain?

A. errrm. self-sacrifice?.. I don’t know.

Q. Back to what’s on the page. The figure is bow-legged like a horse-rider but appears to be standing up balancing. What does that remind you of?

A. Riding a barrel . …. Circus riders .. (ditto)…

Q. Who else walks with a rolling gait?

A. seamen.

Q. And the Twins are ..

A. patrons for those travelling by land and sea but especially by sea.

‘Land and Sea’ on a coin of Sidon made (386-372 BC), when Aristotle was teaching in Athens.

Q. Why are horses Poseidon’s?

A…. ?

Q. If you’d been educated in Constantinople or Trebizond you’d surely know this! (here, the modern writer quotes Jonathan Harris: “…reading classical Greek and even composing in the same style were an integral part of Byzantine higher education. .. those who took their education beyond the age of fourteen would be instructed in the works of the ancient Greek poets, historians, dramatists and philosophers. Thus any educated Byzantine in the imperial service would have had a knowledge of these [ancient and classical] works which would have been the envy of many educated Italians.” – Jonathan Harris,  ‘Byzantines in Renaissance Italy’.  (webpage).

[Also – though again I expect the fifteenth-century readers would not know this, many Hellenistic Greeks would have known that there wee such things as horse-headed ships. One online source that the connection came from a semitic root – that for a ‘springing’ horse being פנך pnk pinnuk. I repeat here, without prejudice, the entry for ‘pinnace’ in a modern etymological dictionary:

from French pinace (earlier spinace, 15c., from Old French espinace, Modern French péniche; also attested as Anglo-Latin spinachium (mid-14c.); a word of unknown origin.

The French word perhaps is from Italian pinaccia or Spanish pinaza, so called for being built of pine wood, from pino “pine tree; ship” (Latin pinus “pine tree” also had a secondary sense of “ship, vessel”). But variations in early forms makes this uncertain. In old slang also “a woman,” especially “a mistress, a prostitute” (1560s). Some may know the old Celtic image of ship-goddess and understand why I doubt the word derives from ‘pine’ – which isn;t a good ship-timber.

Phoenician ships of Tyre carrying goods as tribute to Sargon (British Museum).

Q. – Try another way – White-capped waves are called ‘White horses.. why? Any relevance there to the drawing on folio 5v?’

(Comment: Yes of course there is, Oddly enough exactly the same question would be raised at Quora: “Why are breaking waves referred to as “white horses”? Peter Trznadel, a former Merchant Seaman replied: “Sailing ships, on such a day sailing nearly with the light wind, had those breaking waves all nicely lined up in rows and columns, ranging along in the same direction and at more or less the same speed, it looked as if the ship was being drawn along by teams of white horses” Something any surfer could relate to. What travellers want is a nice, smooth voyage with no more than a light breeze – hardly enough to ruffle the sprig in one’s hat. Even so, I must also share with you an illustration which Charlie Nicol added to his own answer.

Q. Even though the drawing shows a plant whose habit is not like Vervain, maybe there’s a hint here. Can you think of plant which has similar leaves and, like the Twins, serves to keep travellers safe, by sea or land – but especially by sea?

A. [craftsmen consult… ] Oak?,, NO, leaves are wrong. Fir? Same problem. (etc…) Elms. Has to be the two elms.. and maple.

Q. What does an elm look like?

A. Which one? the straight sort or the bending sort?.

Q, Look at the figure’s legs.

A. Could be either, could be both.

Q. Go on.

A. One sort bends like a bow. Other sort we use to make cattle-yokes.

A. Which one has leaves more like vervain’s?

A. Hard to say. Leaves are a bit like Vervain and a bit like maple. Even a bit like mulberry. But the right ones have leaves with twinned teeth: I mean double what most do.


Q. How to they protect travellers?

A, Usual things… shelter, fire and light. Keeps the vessel or wagon from foundering. And Food.

Q. Start with food.

A. You can eat the leaves and the inner bark (cambium). Some have good-tasting flowers. [modern writer adds: not actually flowers, but the fruit – samsaras. The ‘Siberian elm’ (U. pumila), which grows all across the north of Eurasia and survives even into the Gobi desert has edible samsaras described very positively by at least one person today. We are told that the seeds can also be used to make a kind of flour]. As I said, the group shows plants regarded as ‘rock elms’ – to use a modern vernacular term. Here we’ve treated just two seen in that way before the advent of modern-style botanical classes and nomenclature.]

Q, Light and fire? .. and so on.. [use the image to refresh your memory of ‘Uses’ for trees in this Elm group]

A. [see previous posts ]


Q. What can be done by either of these two woods equally well?

Q, What can one do that the other cannot?

A. [again, see ‘Uses’ posts].

And so on ….. till

Q. Give a specific instance of such use for these ‘elms’ from the Latin world during the period c.1350-1438.

A. [this is a new question, for which I’ve found precise answers so far only for the case of Venice, and thanks to just two historical studies.

  • Karl Appuhn, A Forest on the Sea: Environmental Expertise in Renaissance Venice. (2020)
  • Michael S. Beaudoin, MA Thesis, ‘Lawyers and Sawyers, Venetian Forest Law .. (1350-1476). online pdf

From these sources I learn that a letter written in 1410 led to increasing efforts by Venice to subsume to itself the rights over forests previously considered the prerogative of the city in whose domains the forests grew. The impetus was increasing hostility and imminent hostilities between Venice and Milan; the Venetian response was to accelerated efforts to claim all rights over forests, though by Roman law and tradition, forests belonged to the city-state where they grew. Among the cities whose rights were reduced by Venice was Belluno.

Beaudoin lists as the four timbers essential for Venetian ship-building: Sessile oak (Quercus sessiflora), European beech (Fagus sylvatica), Silver Fir (Abies alba) and European Larch (Larix decidua). There may be rock-solid evidence for those four, but given the comments made about the poor weathering capacities of F. sylvatica, I’d leave open the possibility that the Beech in question was actually hornbeam, Carpinus betulus which – as we saw – proved very difficult for westerners to classify and one of the suggestions was that it was a kind of beech. Beaudoin also mentions (pp.61-2) that the Wych Elm was another harvested by Venice: we guess (but I don’t know) that it was used for their own marine-crossbowmen’s equipment.

The Venetian wars with Milan occur at just the time the Voynich manuscript was put together. It’s also worth noting that the Venetian ‘Arsenal’ was popularly called ‘Il Sagittario’, meaning the ‘arrow-store’.

There were undoubtedly Latins who, between 1350 and c.1438 had opportunity, means and motive enough to feel interested in any information about timber for galleys and what was needed to equip, maintain and stock ships, whether naval or merchant.


3 thoughts on “Tabula picta f.5v* katekhismos.

  1. I can’t vouch for this, because no references are offered, but for what it’s worth:
    “European Hornbeam is found widespread in Europe and western Asia. Reportedly, it has the hardest wood of all the trees in Europe. The wood has been used to make furniture and flooring. In the past, Romans used the wood from this tree to make chariots.

    The genus name, Carpinus, is Latin for “hornbeam.” The species name, betulus, is Latin and means “birch or birch-like.” The common name, European Hornbeam, is derived from “horn,” meaning hard, “beam,” meaning tree in Old English, and European signifying its place of origin. ”

    from: https //

    The current wiki article ‘Carpinus betulus’ says it’s a kind of birch. Others – including modern sources say it isn’t.
    *shrug* – taxonomists!


  2. In case any reader is wondering – NO I don’t have a “theory” that the Voynich manuscript is written in Phoenician script. If some linguist competent in Phoenician were to say it is, n I might be less surprised than others, but I wouldn’t be surprised, either, it if turned out to be anything else spoken and written before 1400 AD.


  3. I’d hoped to quote this earlier, but thought it best not to precis from memory but quote exactly. Now the published copy has arrived, I can.
    This is from a French study of wrecks from different periods lying along the coast near Marseilles and to either side of it.
    Frédéric Guibal and Patrice Pomey, ‘Timber supply and ancient naval architecture’ in Carlo Betrane (ed.), Boats, Ships and Shipyards: Proceeding of the NInth International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology, Venice, 2000. (Oxbow Books, 2003).

    The authors note that twenty-four species of wood were found in those ships, (thus supporting the contention of one specialist in a pers.comm. to me that boat-makers and -menders used “whatever they could get.”)

    Guibal and Pomey put it this way,

    “The number of species varies according to the wreck: within the same shipwreck, variationof species frequency is such that some species may be dominant while others may be poorly represented, for instance only by joinery elements. Therefore species distribution will be described according to architectural structural elements.”


    Under heading ‘Axial Elements’, they go on to say,

    A preferential use of three sorts of species appears clearly:

    Broadleaved species with high resistance quality: evergreen oak (in one wreck); oak and elm (in another); and also Hornbeam or beech (sic.)


    Though most planking was of pine in these ships, with Aleppo pine preferred, in one ship all the planking had been of elm, only being repaired here and there with pine. It suggests that elm was more valued, but also more expensive/harder to get.

    I must also amend my earlier comment about Fagus sylvatica (beech). It use was widely found in those wrecks.


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