O’Donovan notes #12.4: Rukh, Rocco, Rocca (bird-Merlons).

The author’s rights are asserted.

I’ve decided to post this before, rather than after, taking the month off and to combine what were two 1500-word posts. (Lucky you 😀 ).

Header – added 17th March -all but the lower right detail first introduced to Voynich studies by the present author. That detail, from a small fortress-tower on Euboea introduced by Peter M.

Introduction and Aims

Intrigued by the problem of whether there was some link between the ‘swallowtails’ in western defensive architecture and the form used for the fortress/tower/rook chesspiece, I began from the period of the Piacenza mosaic (11th or early 12thC) and set a limit of about c.1350 AD. Other work had already convinced me that our fifteenth century manuscript’s contents, while they may have contained material first created much earlier, had received their next-to-final version no later.

I began by looking for a linguistic connection between the chesspieces and the ‘swallowtailed’ fortress in other contexts. The key to much pre-modern imagery is not prior drawings, but informing word.

I wanted mainly to test the validity of certain traditionalist habits in Voynich studies.

Knowing that any results from this one, very minor, question and map-detail could not offer definitive answers about when, where or by whom the Voynich map was first created, nor when or where its final recension was made, still I felt that this bit of digging might add clarity to questions about the sense intended for the detail, and perhaps also the range over which it would be reasonable to seek precedents for the Voynich glyphs and what range of scripts and languages might inform a text reaching Latins by c.1350.

For all that, it was a minor matter and I gave it no more than a bare mention in the research-summaries published through Voynichimagery.

Bringing more of the research forward now, I hope it may interest people who like chess and/or who like Beinecke MS 408. I hope too that it may serve to balance, a little, some among the constantly repeated assertions and assumptions made about the contents in the Voynich manuscript.


To begin: linguistic links between bird and fortress.

Here’s one commonly held opinion about chess ..

When the Arabs learned Chess from the Persians, they kept the name rukh, which sounded like the Arabic word for a giant mythical bird… .. When the Italians got the game from the Arabs, the name of rukh was italianized to rocco, which sounded like rocca, the Italian word for fortress.

https //www.chessvariants org/piececlopedia.dir/rook.html

Another way to put this is that when Persian chess-players adopted Arabic, they found no need to change the word ‘rukh’ because it could now be explained using an Arabic etymology. Much the same happened for speakers of Italian, and eventually of English, where rukh became ‘rook’.

The Charlemagne set’s merlons

History often consists of a high, middle and low story, and the same is true for stories how chess came to western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe.

The high story has chess brought directly to the court of Charlemagne by an embassy from Constantinople or from Baghdad. The middle story has it come with unnamed but courtly speakers of Arabic. The low story is that one or more forms of chess were so well known in regions where Christians and Muslims interacted, that knowledge of chess crossed from one to the other by what you might call osmosis.

In this case the high and the middle stories are most likely for early medieval Europe. Most accounts of the dissemination of chess say so, too, and may be summarised as:

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, after chess had spread to the Levant, North Africa and the Byzantine Empire via the Islamic conquests, chess was played only in noble and royal circles, and so the sets were often made from luxury materials such as ivory and rock crystal. The game is mentioned in writings from the period, notably by Firdausi (934-1020). During the Abbasid period it had been the most popular indoor game played in Baghdad.

The game’s reputation as a game for kings is as old as the legend of its invention by an equally legendary king of India, Shahram.

In the Bibliotheque Nationale de France are what remains of the so-called ‘Charlemagne’ chess set, though it is certainly two centuries later than Charlemagne’s day, and the pieces are generally thought to have been made in Salerno. Despite this, I’m inclined to accept that the embassy from Baghdad whose travails are described by Notker the Stammerer had indeed brought a chess-set if not the one in the BNF, when they came bearing gifts from the Caliph Harun al-Rashid.

The pieces in the BNF are of ivory and so large and heavy (the king weighs 2Kgs) that it has been suggested they served as models in an ivory-carving workshop.

On one we see merlons that are neither square nor swallowtail, but which are attested in Sicily. The same ‘gap-tooth’ design is visible in old photographs of Gibellina, where they adorn a tower but since the photos blur when enlarged, I’ve added another example (a rebuild) from what was a Franciscan friary in nearby Erice. (note that pigeons prefer a lower perch).


Another ivory in the same, Byzantine-influenced, style is attributed again by some to Salerno but by others to Amalfi. This is dated to late in the eleventh century, and shows that merlons of this type are still taken as standard, even while the chesspiece is a ‘swallowtail’ for the makers of that mosaic in Piacenza. We’ll soon see that the ‘swallowtail’ rook/fortress of chess is attested at least as early as the tenth century in Nishapur, and was normal along other parts of the east-west ‘silk’ roads.


The first point to notice. so far, is that the usual practice of calling the detail from the Voynich map a ‘castle’ is perhaps less accurate than to describe it as a fortress or fortified area (It. rocca). True, the chess-rook is today also called, in English, a castle, but the different connotations are important for how the drawing is perceived in the Voynich map.

We have already seen an Italian and a Byzantine ‘winged’ form for the rook, the Italian example a mosaic in Piacenza dated 11th-12thC and the Byzantine piece in ivory to the 12thC. But for newcomers, here they are again.


Having thus passed, with a nod towards Baghdad and Aachen, from Italy, to Byzantium, we’ll now track further along a northern path, widening our temporal and geographic range to do so.

We find, now, that the curious forms given some other pieces in the Piacenza mosaic become easier to understand by reference to a rare set surviving from Persia – from Nishapur – and dated to the 10th-11thC “or earlier”.

FIG 4. sold by Southeby’s from the collection of the late Lothar Schmidt (1928-2013)

Nishapur lies on one of the chief ‘silk roads’ between the Black Sea and China. It is interesting for Voynich research, and for historians of chess, because the city was founded by Shapur 1, the Sasanian-Persian king who kept a Roman emperor a prisoner for life, and to whose court chess is said to have been first introduced from India. Shapur ruled from 240-270 AD.

FIG 5 In the July diagram, the crown in drawn in darker ink, suggesting it a later addition or a later over-drawing to clarify the original.

In representing that moment when chess first came to Persia, a copy of the Shanameh dated 1300-1330 AD shows the rook still has the same ‘swallowtail’ form as in that set and in Piacenza, though the rest of the scene has been re-envisioned to reflect current political reality: Persia under Mongol rule.

FIG 6 https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/shnm/hd_shnm.htm

(Fig. 6 above) “Buzurgmihr Masters the Game of Chess”. Made in Iran or Iraq c.1300-1330. Folio from the First Small Shahnama (Book of Kings) composed by Abu’l Qasim Firdausi (Iranian, born Paj ca. 940/41 d. c.1020 Tus). New York Metropolitan Museum, Accession No 57.51.32

Other physical examples fill the interval between the tenth and twelfth centuries AD. The British Museum holds a twelfth-century set from Nishapur and here, incidentally, one can appreciate why the line of ‘gap-tooth’ merlons might suggest the evenly-spaced ‘little stones’ (It. Gibellina) of a chessboard.

FIG 7 from 12th century. Iran, Nishapur. Stonepaste; molded and glazed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Pfeiffer Fund, 1971 (1971.193a–ff) https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2011/the-game-of-kings-medieval-ivory-chessmen-from-the-isle-of-lewis/exhibition-blog/game-of-kings/blog/carving-out-a-collection

So far as I can discover, no chess-sets survive from Sicily of the 11th- or 12th- centuries, or even from, 13th- or 14th- centuries, but one can hardly doubt that in an area so heavily influenced Byzantine cultural, artistic and religious traditions, together with the centuries of Arab rule, and the noted acceptance of both Muslims and Jews in the courts of Roger and Frederick had seen the game of chess become well-known.

More important for understanding the sense of the detail in the Voynich map is that Rooks of the ‘swallowtail’ sort were known across those roads between Persia and Byzantium. In this summary I won’t repeat the matter I gained initially from fairly obscure sources. Instead, I can refer you to an article I found just a couple of days ago, but which was written in 2013. The next two images I have from that blogpost.


A find from Novgorod – again dated 14thC


It is not difficult to explain why the chesspiece should be associated with that mythical bird the rukh/roc by speakers of Arabic. Ancient sets had an elephant piece where we now have a bishop* and the roc’s chief character in legend is that it is stronger than elephants. In modern chess, a rook/rukh is worth 5 points where a bishop/elephant is worth only 3 – the rook being the stronger just as the rukh/roc was best known as the destroyer of elephants. 😀

*not, as is so often said, in place of the rook.

In western Europe, merlons – even the ‘swallowtail’ type – took various forms, but there can be little doubt that in the west the type consciously associates defensive military architecture with the character of game’s fortress-tower. The piece in the ‘kings game’ bore that significance long before we see the architectural version appear in Italy, associated with the Sicilian-Norman rulers as ‘Gibbeline/Ghibbeline’.

It would be pedantic to begin speaking of them as rukh-merli rather than ‘swallowtail’ or ‘fishtail merlons’ but it would probably be more historically accurate.

For our reading of the Voynich map, the point is that anyone who knew chess-pieces of that form, including non-Europeans, would easily take the form, and merlons in that form, to mean a fortress or fortified structure.

It would be common knowledge among those who travelled or spoke to travellers that some Latins preferred ‘rukh-merlons’ while others, like the Byzantines, used square merlons. And of course if one spoke an Italian dialect, there would be a reflexive association between rocco and rocca. It bears repeating that the fortress-drawing in the Voynich map includes merlons of both kinds.

Within Latin Europe itself, use of the ‘swallowtail’ in drawing could be literal, or might be purely decorative, but one hadn’t to go further west than the Black Sea to know that the Byzantines preferred the one, and the Latins the other, or that in Constantinople (among other places) the defenses in terms of manpower inclued of both Latins and Byzantines.

The history of the rukh-merli is a fascinating sidelight on the way motifs translate between various media and various regions and tongues, but that tiny detail in one roundel in one drawing, cannot tell us where even that detail was first drawn, let alone when or by whom or where our present manuscript was manufactured.

All we can say from the inclusion of those merlons is that the place being indicated was considered heavily fortified. And since my own conclusion after working through the whole map (a task which took an unexpectedly long time) is that the fortress is meant for Constantinople-Pera, it’s fair to mention that the walls of Byzantium were renowned for just that reason.

Postscript to Part 1 (added 17th March). I meant to include the following when speaking of sets associated with Charlemagne; I add illustrations and text as a jpeg to preserve the text.

The roads of chess and of merchants.

Our period of most interest is that century from the early fourteenth to the early fifteenth. The Voynich manuscript was dated to the early fifteenth century by an informed (if anonymous) consensus by Kraus et.al., and this confirmed by a radiocarbon-14 dating of some samples of the vellu which returned an adjusted range of 1405-1438 AD. For reasons explained above, though, our focus is on the century to c.1350 AD.

It may be difficult to accept, but throughout that century, western Christian Europe was no more than a remote marginal area lying at the western limit of the known world. It had almost no importance in the geopolitical scene, even in the Mediterranean where the major powers were the Mongol empire and the Mamluks of Egypt. Constantinople served as middleman in their negotiations and the western trader-states, chiefly Italian, were alternately encouraged or discouraged by the one or the other of the two major powers.

Europe had simply nothing much to offer, apart from its ships and some mercenaries. It is telling that Pegolotti’s guide to the overland route speaks of taking gold and silver coin, but when it comes to trading goods mentions nothing but linens and refers to only one place the trader was likely to find buyers,

Anyone from Genoa or from Venice, wishing to go to [these] places … and to make the journey to Cathay, should carry linens with him, and if he visit Organci he will dispose of these well.

The benefits gained by permitting westerners to pass along those roads was chiefly the benefit of taxation on what they brought, and what they returned with. The Mongol treasury also benefitted by acquiring western silver in the form of coinage, for as that guide says,

Whatever silver the merchants may carry with them as far as Cathay the lord of Cathay will take from them and put into his treasury. And to merchants who thus bring silver they give that paper money of theirs in exchange. This is of yellow paper, stamped with the seal of the lord aforesaid. And this money is called balishi; and with this money you can readily buy silk and all other merchandize that you have a desire to buy.

Nishapur, the old city founded by Shapur I, and where numerous chess-sets from the medieval centuries have been found, was a main hub of those overland routes travelled in both directions by many peoples under the Pax Mongolica and now, for the first time, including some from the Lain west as well as some enthusiastic religious. Though the Genoese and Franciscans appear most often in the historical record, there were some Venetians, and Sienese, and others.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Franciscans’ Rule included a twelfth chapter treating of missions “among the Saracens and other infidels” and assigning their oversight to the order’s Societas Fratrum Peregrinantium propter Christum inter gentes.

We know that before 1350, some Latins had already come to know Amaliq, and that news travelled fairly rapidly from so far to parts of Europe. Frescos made in Siena before 1350 memorialise the execution in 1339, in Amaliq and by the Mongol ruler Jehan Ali, of six resident Franciscans together with a visiting a bishop, an Indian interpreter and a Genoese merchant, the last of whom may have been using their friary as his hostel.

On those Sienese paintings see:

  • S. Maureen Burke, ‘ The “Martyrdom of the Franciscans” by Ambrogio Lorenzetti’, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 65. Bd., H. 4 (2002), pp. 460-492. Lorenzetti was active c.1317 to 1348 AD.

I mention Amaliq in particular for a detail seen in a drawing now found on the reverse of the Voynich map and a coin that was circulating in that part of the world from the end of the thirteenth century. This isn’t new information for longer-term readers; it was published at Voynichimagery*, but for those who have come to this blog more recently.

FIG 10

Opinions (as you see) differ on its minting but the point for us is that it circulated before 1350 and is unusual in having the tamgar drawn in a graceful form likely to evoke for a modern, western viewer the French fleur-de-lys.

That coin and comparison to a detail in Beinecke MS 408 was introduced by the present author in January of 2015.

Steve Album attributes that coin’s design to the Taras mint and a date between 1270-1302; Kolbas appaently associates its use with Fars and identifies the tamgar as an unusual form of the imperial tamgar. For reasons explained in my original post, but not repeated here, this coin does not appear to have been used in Fars, even if produced there. However, here is what Kolbas writes:

“”Almaligh produced money in 650 and 651H, and Bukhara and Samarquand issued large flat billon, probably in 651H. …. All of these inscriptions were similar to those of Bulghar and Tiflis in not having the name of the local dynast except in Fars. Instead, they had the great khan’s name and, except in Greater Khurasan and Transoxiana, his tamgha. In Fars, the imperial tamgha was artfully  drawn to resemble a graceful fleur de lys …..from mid-665H” [= 1247 AD].

Judith Kolbas, The Mongols in Iran: Chingiz Khan to Uljaytu (1220–1309) pp.149-50.

Nishapur, Fars, Amaligh and other places named so far in these posts lie along the overland ‘silk’ roads, Fars (mod. Fasa) on the road linking the high overland route to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf.

The following map shows the round-journey between the Mediterranean and China, but after 1291, access though the Levant was heavily restricted for Latins. Some of these roads had been travelled by Alexander the Great when he advanced through Persia to the borders of India.

FIG 11

Below – places which have cropped up so far in this blog, in the course of analysing one drawing or another from Beinecke MS 408.

FIG 12 map based on the ‘Silk Roads’ map offered as a pdf by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On the extreme right of the map above lay Amaliq, where one might have heard Italian spoken early in the fourteenth century.

FIG 13 – courtesy google maps and wiki ‘Amaliq’ article.

Rather than quote from my research sources for the next paragraph, I’ll paraphrase:

Before the mid fourteenth century, Amaligh was a multi-cultural and multi-lingual city. During the so-called Pax Mongolica, Europeans making the journey towards China would stop here. Inscriptions prove that among the various cultural and religious groups found in Amaligh to that time were Nestorian Christians, attested even so late as the third quarter of the fourteenth century.

Giovanni de’ Marignolli speaks of it as ‘Armalec’ and similar forms are found in other Latin works, but as with all place-names, would-be translators have an unenviable task.

When Tughluq Temur became Khan of Moghulistan ( c. 1351) the city became less diverse. Plague soon followed, and when to those factors were added the weakening of the western Mongol-Tatar dynasty, the high overland routes became effectively closed to peoples from the far western edge of the known world.


Who, by the mid-fourteenth century, might be in position to represent defensive walls by merlons of the square and the ‘swallowtail’ type?

Answer: just about anyone with access to the Black Sea or the Mediterraean.

Easterners need have gone no further than the Black Sea (Caffa) to know the Latin ‘Ghibelline’ type resembled the chess rook and no further than Trabizond or Constantinople to know the Byzantine-, square, or ‘Guelf’ type. Both Latins and Byzantines were resident in greater Constantinople and some Latins had interacted with others across the trade routes to as far as China.

A far more telling detail is that sparkling spiral by which the fortress is placed, but that’s another detail, another part of the research into this drawing and so a matter for some other time, perhaps.

To end.. Yet another variety of ‘swallowtail’ merlon.

FIG 14

One thought on “O’Donovan notes #12.4: Rukh, Rocco, Rocca (bird-Merlons).

  1. As counterweight to the paper by Burke which I’ve mentioned in the blogpost, let me recommend the following excellent study

    Roxann Prazniak, ‘Siena on the Silk Roads: Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the Mongol
    Global Century, 1250–1350*’, Journal of World History, Volume 21, Number 2, June 2010, pp. 177-217 (JSTOR)

    Well-informed critique and scholarly debate is the very lifeblood and moving force i the critical sciences. There is not, and never can be ‘one voice’ in such studies.


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