Eastern matters and the Voynich manuscript’s drawings.

c.2700 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

This is a long post, but it’s meant for people seeking information to assist their own research, not idle passers by hoping to scrounge the odd “nugget” to re-use without effort or any attribution.

The previous post attracted a surprising amount of attention. Surprising for me, because I first realised in 2008 that most of the drawings had a non-Latin origin and began broaching the fact in 2009, publishing online research summaries until 2017. Analysis of that drawing from f.77r was published, as I said, in 2011- 2012. So I’m not sure why the stir should happen now.

It leads me to wonder if I really need to argue that Voynich studies needs to widen its vision of the medieval world; to open the traditional theory’s “iris shot”. Perhaps there are already enough individuals out there disenchanted with the older ideas and interested in revising them. If so, I can only say I wish I had begun publishing the research now rather than in 2009.

In 2009 I was soon made aware that Voynicheros of that time were not much interested in hearing that the manuscript wasn’t entirely a product of western Christian (‘Latin’) culture, and even to mention the possibility of European Jews’ having made the manuscript was treated as a fringe theory, while others which moved beyond Latin Europe altogether were treated as if impossible by definition. – Nick Pelling published a list of theories about Voynichese in 2012 but gave up trying to keep up soon afterwards.

I did spend some time, before offering my first study, thinking how to break the news gently and chose to make folio 25v the subject of that first contribution to the study. In that first essay I simply explained the drawing and identified the plant as the one known as ‘Dracaena draco’ when the drawing was made. I informed readers that this plant was endemic to Soqotra.

Note – added 23rd May 2023. Please see the second Comment below to correct a serious error in this post.

Only one person, a botanist, grasped the implications of that identification. He wrote privately to me, asking if I understood that the modern description of ‘D. draco‘ applies to a Mediterranean species. I replied, of course, that I did know, and it was my whole point: that when the manuscript was made, the plant called Dracaena draco was the one endemic to Soqotra and the same plant is the one referenced by the earlier Greek and Latin references to ‘dragonsblood’ (I later went on to make a separate post about the switched nomenclature.

Among all the others, who missed the point and implications – not being botanists – was Philip Neal ( a thoroughly decent person and fine if occasionally acerbic scholar), and though he kindly let me know that someone else once offered the identification ‘D. draco’ for that drawing (always good to know) he didn’t actually ask me why I supposed D. draco an eastern rather than a Mediterranean plant. Had be assumed there was a good reason, I could have said more. Instead, he said only that the identification “was nothing new”.

I was glad no hysterical comments had followed the posting of that essay, but Neal’s error had a lasting effect, because “not new” became one of those brainless memes which others produced whenever they could find no way to dispute or debate my sources, evidence or conclusions. It became ridiculous fairly soon: an analytical study of 3,00 words or so, explaining this or that, would be met with claims that someone or other, in some mailing list or forum I’d never heard of had once said they thought this looked ‘like a piece of fruit’ or something of that sort.

I was glad to hear that Edith Sherwood had also read the image as a type of Dracaena, even if she had erred in presuming that what is the modern taxonomic description for the Mediterranean species had applied to hat plant even before the time of Linnaeus. If two persons come independently to conclusions which – though not the same, are at least compatible, it’s a good thing – why should one have to say that? An engineered unanimity means nothing of itself and neither does mere repetition – the plagiarist is a faker and easily identified because he can’t provide a valid account of his process – his “working out” the problem.

The effect of Neal’s understandable mistake was also to blur that important distinction between one identification of the image as describing a Mediterranean plant, and the more detailed and historically documented one which showed it a plant endemic to an island off the coast of Arabia. That, in turn, provided a loophole and the “all western Christian product” theory stayed as firmly centre stage thereafter as it ever had done. About 5 years or so after I’d been publishing summaries of the ongoing work, it dawned on me that my findings were fairly consistently in tune with what Baresch had written in 1639 and what Panofsky had voluntarily offered as his opinion after spending two hours with the manuscript in 1932.

However, for those just beginning to consider non-Eurocentric alternatives, and effectively back where I was in 2010, the most pressing question (since we think the ms made in early fifteenth century Europe, or elsewhere under Latin auspices) must be whether records exist of persons likely to have known enough, been in the right sort of position, and had the right sort of interests, to carry this sort of ‘foreign’ matter into the western sphere before c.1440?

One study of importance as well as value in establishing a groundwork was published in 1943 in a Journal of Economic History. As you’ll know if you’ve read d’Imperio’s book, at that time a medieval manuscript was regarded as ‘important’ only by being linked to persons seen as important to Europe’s political or intellectual history – and preferably both. That’s why Wilfrid crafted his sales-pitch as he did. He wanted the manuscript to be seen as ‘important’ in those terms because he wanted a high price for it.

It would not be for some decades later that English and German historians stopped treating ‘economic history’ as a petty study of interest to none but trainee accountants and others ‘in trade’. In other words, unimportant.

It is no accident, then, that America and not Europe first elevated economic history to the same status as that of ancient or classical history. And that’s the sort of history we need here.

Lopez’ article of 1943 was so well-researched, with excellent notes and bibliography, that is remains today a useful foundation for a novice starting to study the story of medieval Europeans in the world beyond Europe.

  • Robert Sabatino Lopez, ‘European Merchants in the Medieval Indies: The Evidence of Commercial Documents’, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Nov., 1943), pp.164-184. recommended reading. [JSTOR]

Some of the paper’s notes are directly relevant – as for example in connection with the period just before Plague arrived. He says:

“The [Latins’] embargo against Egypt had never been so near to complete enforcement; even Venice, usually the best customer of that country, sent no convoys there from 1323 to 1345” – though he refers the reader to Heyd, II, 43 ff., with sources, before adding with proper caution that “As a matter of course, this does not imply that single ships did not go to Egypt from time to time, with or without a special license from the Pope”. (p.172 and n.26)

That embargo is one reason so many scholars presume that the first group of eleven ships which brought plague in 1347 must also have come from the Black Sea as did those who arrived in European ports in January of 1348.

Lopez also tells us – as so many accounts do not – what prompted that siege of Caffa to which the first infections are so often linked:

“… the disorders started at Tana in the first months of 1343. A Tartar was killed by a Venetian merchant; the angry populace therefore slaughtered Occidentals who had no time to take shelter on the galleys; plundered the houses of the westerners. This popular reprisal was followed by an official opening of hostilities against westerners by the khan of Kipchak, who besieged Caffa, the main Genoese colony on the Russian shores.” (ibid. p.179)

On this matter of Kipchak, and the absence of an “x” form among the Voynichese glyphs I might mention another paper, one to which I referred my readers August 2012. I cite it because it deals with an out-of-the way subject and its author, E.P. Goldschmidt, was another specialist whose advice had been sought about the Voynich manuscript before the Friedmans co-opted the study.

The paper is about his observations on place-names inscribed on a rose-gridded map of the Caspian Sea that he found in a Franciscan monastery in Dalmatia before WWI. He says, among other things:

There were plenty of place-names along the coasts, and the writing was clear enough: Odatubissi, Charutebassi, Allamoy, Chiseliha, and so forth. [yet] Not a single name could I find that sounded familiar.

He eventually concluded – rightly or not – that the place-names were local ones and were informed by languages that included Italian, and Greek, but also Russian, Persian, Tatar, and possibly Kipchak. It was a map of the Caspian Sea.

About the map’s maker, he wrote:

we cannot draw many inferences, but he may well have been a Dalmatian. .. I think we can assert that his spelling, his system of representing Tatar words phonetically in writing, corresponds to the conventions of the Venetian dialect, which would be the natural orthography for a Dalmatian. In Venetian spelling x would stand for our consonant “sh,” ch for k. When our pilot wrote Chexech I believe he meant us to pronounce it Keshek.

  • E. P. Goldschmidt and G. R. Crone, ‘The Lesina Portolan Chart of the Caspian Sea’, The Geographical Journal , Vol. 103, No. 6 (Jun., 1944), pp. 272-278.

I see this as another item in the balance against Venetian authorship or transcription of the Voynich text.

Venetians did use an ‘x’ shape, pronouncing it ‘sh’. Enciphering might alter the sound-value, but why would the letter-form itself be entirely absent from the set of Voynichese glyphs?

However, Voynichese is not my problem, so to returning to Lopez’ paper…

Lopez consulted archives of official diplomatic correspondence, court records, mercantile-legal documents, accounts of occidentals put to death in foreign countries, and so on. He gives details of all his sources.

That essay also helped resolve one basic question for me very early, namely why less first-hand information survives from the ubiquitous Genoese and their backers than from the far less numerous Venetian traders in the east, and Lopez also makes clear that the Venetians’ excursions were chiefly by the overland routes closed to occidentals (some permanently) from around the mid-fourteenth century. Speaking of China itself, Lopez puts it thus:

“The missionary archbishop of Peking, Giovanni Marignolli, was received in a solemn audience by the Great Khan as late as 1342; but this was the last known overland journey to China by an Occidental for centuries” (ibid. p.181).

On re-reading that paper today, I see he mentions Nishapur (noted recently in a posts about ‘swallowtail’ merlons). I’d forgotten that he spoke of that city’s having a fair number of Venetians semi-resident, and that the reputation of that same Sultan of Delhi* to whose court Ibn Battuta was attracted had even reached Venice, so attracting some Venetians to Delhi at the same time that Battuta was there.

*Muhammad ibn-Tughluk (1290-1351).

Another early, solid study focuses on the southern, maritime route.

  • Jean Richard, ‘European Voyages in the Indian Ocean and Caspian Sea (12th-15th Centuries)’, Iran, Vol. 6 (1968), pp. 45-52. [JSTOR]

To quote just one item from it:

The presence of numerous European merchants amongst the travellers who followed this maritime route, is evident from the story of the martyrdom of the Franciscans of Thana, concerning which place Jourdain of Severac mentions that multi mercatores latini venerunt, dicentess e fuisse presentes; it was one of these, Jacopo of Genoa, who made himself responsible for bearing Jourdain’s letter to Tabriz. (p.47)

Richard also speaks of Soqotra, then an important centre for international trade through the eastern sea, saying

A little before 1316, the Dominican… Raymond Etienne (who wrote the Directorium ad passagium faciendum which was attributed to ” Brocard “) spent twenty months at sea, nine of which were spent at Socotra waiting for a ship. Ibid. p.48

Like all research of quality, those papers are perfectly direct, and perfectly transparent about precedents and sources used.

In that way they serve as ice on the runners, ensuring that any who use them have a swifter and surer passage in their own work.

Among more recent relevant sources, I cannot speak too highly of Ciociltan’s magisterial study. I must say I found it invaluable during the later stages of my own investigations:

  • Virgil Ciocîltan: The Mongols and the Black Sea Trade in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, translated by Samuel Willcocks. (East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450 AD–1450 AD.) Brill (2012). highly recommended.

Overall my conclusions were that apart from the few drawings that may be attributed a European origin, the northern ‘silk’ routes and/or the Black Sea’s older centres had contributed a good number and especially the ‘ladies’ or astronomical sections – and possibly the present form of the ‘leaf and root section’. The large plant-pictures however, and some of the single astronomical diagrams speak very plainly to knowledge, customs, plants and products proper to the southern, maritime, ‘spice’ routes.

These routes should not be considered entirely discrete. In practice they were the complementary arcs of what could be and in some cases actually was a single round-journey.

The difficulty for a ‘Venetian’ theory of the Vms is that while we have considerable evidence of Genoese and Sicilians and even French-born people on that maritime route, we find no comparable evidence for Venetian traders’ using it. On the other hand, Genoese presence is attested in both.

On the matter of languages

There’s an interesting chapter – published as a pdf without its author’s name – on the website of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Its subject is medieval Europeans’ attitude towards languages and ‘foreign languages’. Following this link will open the pdf.

Any reader from MIT who may be able to find out more, I’d appreciate having full bibliographic details.

Postscript – ‘latest’ isn’t always best.

Readers accustomed to scientific and technical studies may suppose ‘the latest is the best’ in everything, but different standards apply in historical research. What you need to look for is the range and balance of sources and of evidence recorded in the course of a writer’s argument and reflected in its conclusions.

A fairly recent paper of the less happy ‘me-and-my-theory’ kind can be offered as a negative example. I cite it because it appeared today in my emails, promoted by academia. edu.

  • Alec Muklewicz, ‘A Medieval Religious Orientalism: The Perspectives and Environments of Mendicant Travel Writers in the Far East (1245-1368)’

I don’t recommend it. Even speaking of “mendicant travel writers” suggests a superficial knowledge of the period, its people and its documents. The phrase suggests the penniless tourist, begging and (so to speak) blogging as he goes.

The situation of Dominican and Franciscan friars sent abroad was quite unlike that. If it must be compared with modern practices, it would be better to compare it with an overseas posting by a major company. The person has a particular work they must do, and are expected to report – at least – on their return home. In some cases that report might be kept in written form, but in others just delivered orally Some of the friars may have kept journals but we have record of so few of those men that one can’t even guess whether many did. They weren’t at all “travel writers” in the sense the term carries today.

Muklewicz’ notion is that colonial attitudes to other countries can be imposed on the medieval world. He wants to assert a medieval “orientalism” existed comparable to that type of Romanticism which arose during the Napoleonic era by which Egypt and the near east were imagined by Europe’s sedentary populace in terms of gross stereotypes.

It doesn’t improve Muklewicz’ argument that he knows and fails to give due weight the objections earlier voiced against Said’s assertion (in 1978) that ‘orientalism’ existed in medieval Europe and even earlier.

His list of primary sources is predictable, regrettably short and omits many named by Lopez or by Richard. He lists

John of Pian de Carpine, Benedict the Pole, William of Rubruck, John of Montecorvino, Andrew of Perugia, Peregrine of Castello, Odoric of Pordenone, and John of Marignolli as those who “wrote [sic] the most relevant of the recovered mendicant accounts of the Far East”.

Muklewicz’ readers thus receive the distinct impression that he is unaware any debate exists, let alone serious doubts about the authenticity of two letters allegedly sent from China by Montecorvino, the contents of which constitute most of what Muklewicz’ considers that friar’s “travel writing”.

Arguing a theory is fun; but over the years much of the gloss has faded from the earlier enthusiasm with which theory-driven approaches were celebrated during the later 1970s to late-1980s. The results of that type of history-making have been so often light-weight, so often more informative of the writer’s mind than of the claimed topic, and so rarely reach an enduring and accurate conclusion that we are slowly turning back to a more evidence-first approach. After all, a theory is supposed to explain something isn’t it?

Claiming the Voynich manuscript ‘unique’ is another theory. I’m yet to see any effort made to argue the case, but I’d happily take the opposite position were any debate proposed.

3 thoughts on “Eastern matters and the Voynich manuscript’s drawings.

  1. I should add that Richard’s attribution to Raymond Etienne of the ‘Directorium ad faciendum..’ follows the opinion of R. Loenertz. This is acknowledged in the paper (n.25) and again in a biography of Etienne’s companion that Richard was invited to contribute to the Encyclopaedia Iranica.
    For readers wishing to follow this up, I add details of the note, but would caution any reader tempted to attribute the Vms to the work of Etienne’s better-known companion, Adam Guillaume, that though I looked into that possibility some time ago, I could find nothing solid to support the notion. It’s a dead-end. In addition, matter which is certainly the work of Guillaume is loathsome, a stain on the Dominican order but most importantly without support from any drawings in Beinecke MS 408. Attempting to tie the Voynich manuscript to matters military is a dubious idea in any case, and unless the written text proves to be Guillaume’s (which I doubt it will), an effort to justify such an attribution by appeal to the Voynich drawings could not – in my opinion – survive scrutiny by any external and impartial specialist in the relevant areas of history or of iconography.
    The content of Richard’s note 25.
    RHC, Documents arméniens II, pp. 387, 549-55; G. Ferrand, ” Une navigation européenne dans l’Océan indien au XIVe siecle “, JA, ser. 11, vol. XX (1922), p. 307; A. Kammerer, ” Le périple de l’Afrique a travers les Ages “, Bulletin du Comité des travaux historiques. Section de géographie LIX (1944), pp. 45-53. See also R. Loenertz, La société des Freres Pérégrinants, vol. I, (Rome 1937), passim.


  2. The post above contains a serious error. What I ought to have said was not “the plant known as Dracaena draco” but “the plant known as the Dragonsblood tree.

    It was not formally classed as a Dracaena until modern times.

    I won’t go back and re-phrase, but my poor expression means that once again – and this time entirely through my own fault – the important point is lost, that is – that the drawing shows a plant whose form was unknown to western botany until long after the Vms was made. Ergo, it was not a drawing first given its form in Europe.


  3. A ‘Science Direct’ article may also result in readers taking wrong inferences. The short article summarises an entry written by R.H. Brody and A.M. Pollard for the Encyclopedia of Spectroscopy and Spectrometry, (1999) and reads:

    “In Western antiquity, in the Roman Empire, one of the main sources was Dracaena cinnabari L., which was once prevalent around the Mediterranean coast, but now endemically localized to Socotra Island, off the Horn of Africa”.

    It was not Linnaeus who described the Soqotran plant as Dracaena cinnabari.

    Some readers might also suppose, from that Science Direct summary, that D.cinnabari was ‘prevalent around the Mediterranean coast’ in Roman times, but that is not so. Paleobotany shows that D.cinnabari existed around the Mediterranean coast at a time before the desiccation began that was to form the Sahara desert. The dessication occurred in two episodes — the first from 6,700 to 5,500 years ago and the second 4,000 to 3,600 years ago. … having occurred relatively quickly, over a few hundred years and so ending what is termed the African Humid period.

    By the time of the Roman empire, the true ‘Dragonsblood’ tree of the Romans could be seen only in Soqotra and until very recently was said to be endemic to that island.


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