O’Donovan notes #6i (cont.2) Refining the date-range.

c.3200 words

The author’s rights are asserted..

Continuing a demonstration of analytical-critical method.

At the end of post #6h, we asked how the drawing might be oriented.

In post #6i Part 1, details given one of the four figures led to assigning that figure the northern quadrant, considering the fourfold divisions in terms of the Mediterranean custom which named directions by the winds from each quarter.

At the same time, the sun in the diagram’s centre informs us that either this first identification is mistaken, or that the diagram was actually designed to face South – which was certainly not the practice in Latin Europe.

That first detail, together with reference to the wind-rose in Walters MS 73 has led to tentative dating for first enunciation of this diagram to about the last quarter of the 12thC.

So now, turning the diagram so that this northern quadrant is upright – a little east of North as Walters MS 73 has for the wind ‘Apeliotes vel Boreas’ we now consider the figure which lies to our right.

Apeliotes – Ἀπηλιώτης (Apēliṓtēs) – named the South-east wind in the Greek tradition. In the Walters diagram it names the wind for due East, with Apeliotes vel Boreas ‘Nor-nor-East’.

It might seem natural to say, ‘Given that the female figure is for the North, so this is represents the Eastern quadrant’, but it is far too early to presume that our interpretation of the first detail is right. By ‘right’ I mean the way the first enunciator expected it to be read.

In this sort of work, to be too sure, too soon, is very often to fall very short of the mark.

I’ll be as brief as I can.

This figure wears Chinese costume; other details suggesting the Mongol era. It also appears to reflect ideas about the Mongols that circulated in Europe, and elsewhere, as early as the last quarter of the twelfth century, though I concluded, overall, that this detail is unlikely to have been given its present form until 1270-1301 AD.

The telling detail is the slightly uneven line, paralleled by a pale band, which runs diagonally (on the figure’ right side) from a narrow neck-band or -collar to below the armpit.

The following illustration is undated, but the colour contrasts make the purpose of that line and its parallel, pale band, very clear.

The Mongol horsemen wore the deel, a robe which wrapped around to fasten at the wearer’s right side, near the waist. Its sleeves might be longer or shorter – but this ordinary form is not quite what we see in the Voynich drawing.

Court robes of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries show the development of a wider neck-band over time, but not quite a fastening which begins so high on the neck as we have drawn in folio 85r (part).

To find a garment of the Mongol era where the overlap-fastening begins on the left-hand side of the collar band, we must move into a period after 1270-71, when the Mongols’ conquest of China saw Kublai Khan found a new dynasty, called the Yuan dynasty. Below is how court robes changed their design, although such ‘Yuan’ robes were still to be seen as court robes worn so late as the early twentieth century.

The Voynich figure’s dress, in reflecting that more courtly style, makes it still more interesting, because while untold thousands and tens of thousands in the near east and in parts of Europe had seen the deem deel at first hand before 1404-1438, far fewer saw such court-dress and still fewer were Europeans.

To imagine that the first maker of the diagram on folio 85r might have been a European is one thing; even to imagine his or her name may be found in what remains to us from Latin sources is an exercise in extreme optimism, not to say outright folly. We simply don’t need to play ‘name the author’ game at all. It is an old habit inherited by the Voynich traditionalists, but one which can, and which I think should be avoided by those trying to do these drawings justice.

The Latin west was certainly aware of the Mongols’ existence by the last quarter of the twelfth century, as reports flooded in from Latins in the eastern Mediterranean, and from Byzantium. The pleas for military assistance were desperate and blood-curdling stories were plainly widespread- some more accurate than others.

The earliest effort to make direct contact was between the western Pope and a leader of certain Christians of Asia, whose contemporary head was known as The Elder, John, or as ‘Prester John’.

There is so much confusion in today’s tertiary sources, about the history of western contact that I’ll quote here from the official Lives of the Popes, compiled by Mann who had access to the papal archives in addition to other sources.

As may be gathered from a letter of Alexander III, among those Westerns who now began to penetrate into the Far East, was the Pope’s own physician, Philip. On his return he assured the Pope that he had conversed with the chief men of “John, the magnificent king of the Indians, and most holy of priests,” and that they had assured him that it was their ruler’s wish “to be instructed in the Catholic and Apostolic doctrines, and that it was his fervent desire that he and the realms entrusted to him should never hold any doctrine at variance with those of the Apostolic See.” Alexander, accordingly, wrote to the aforesaid “illustrious John,” and .. assured him that he had heard … from his own physician [Philip] of his desire for instruction in the Catholic faith, and for a place at Jerusalem in which good men from his kingdom might be fully taught the true faith. Despite, therefore, “the far distant and unknown countries” in which he lived, he had decided, he continued, to send him the said Philip, who might instruct him in those articles in which he was not in unison with the Christian and Catholic faith… But to this letter, ” given at Venice on the Rialto,” no answer ever came. (Horace K. Mann, Lives of the Popes… Vol.10 p.230)

Horace K. Mann, Lives of the Popes… Vol.10 (p.230)

Whether the physician Philip himself returned, history does not relate. That there could be any communication, verbal or written, between that eastern Christian elder and the papal court would require the presence of competent interpreters and/or translators who knew John’s language and Latin.

The period when Philip was sent east must have been between 1159-1181, and though Grousset is often credited with suggesting that the ‘Prester (Christian elder) John’ was a Kerait, the information that John was head of a [Nestorian] Christian Mongol community in the far east comes from two early sources, Benjamin of Tudela and Bar Hebraeus, the latter certainly having been in a position to know.

I should mention here that the language of the Keraits’ [also as ‘Kereits’ and ‘Keraites’] was Jurchen, the language which Jorge Stolfi’s statistical analyses of the Voynich texts led him to propose as the language of Voynichese.

In 1165, Benjamin of Tudela left from the north-east of the Iberian peninsula, returning in 1173 and though his information about the Mongols was gained partly, at least, from hearsay, it was included in the book of his Travels. I think it noteworthy that from Jewish communities he also learned of ‘Prester John’ as an elder or a priest-king among certain Mongols.

So by the last quarter of the twelfth century, when the Walters manuscript was made, it is possible that someone in Europe might have known the style of formal eastern dress, as well as that earlier taken by viking-style costume. But if so, no other evidence of such knowledge is to be seen in European sources extant from that time, or even by the mid-thirteenth century when Matthew of Paris has no idea of what Mongols wore, despite his own constant references to them – or rather what was being said and written about them.

In his Chronica Major, for the year 1242, Matthew includes a letter written by Ivo, Bishop of Narbonne.

Ivor’s focus was chiefly on defending himself against charges of associating with groups of western Christians of whom the Latin church disapproved, but he does speak about the Mongols’ invading the Duchy of Austria in 1242, of the horrors perpetrated, the Mongols’ physical stature and habits, and – speaking of interpreters – of a very interesting Englishman.

At the approach of a large Christian army, the Tatars suddenly retreat back into Hungary. Several of the former besiegers are captured, including a multi-lingual English outlaw, who had served the Tatars as an interpreter and envoy, since they needed such talents in order to attain their goal of conquering the world.

But even though Ivo’s letter reports, thanks to that nameless Englishman, the Tatars’ physique and character, and even includes drawings, nothing is said about their dress and the drawings are clearly more reliant on imagination than one might have expected.

All of which makes the accuracy of the Voynich figure’s dress the more fascinating – and all the less likely to have been enunciated first by a sedentary European.

It is not the costume, however, which leads me to think that whoever first formed this drawing was probably of the Abrahamic faiths but rather the form given the right hand.

Unless its being given six fingers is due to no more than some some slip of the pen, it would remind those who knew their bible – Jews, Muslims and Christians of every stripe – of a passage from the second book of Samuel:

”And there was yet a battle in Gath, where was a man of great stature, that had on every hand six fingers, and on every foot six toes, four and twenty in number; and he also was born to the giant.”

Add to this the passage from Ezechiel (Ez. 38:15, 38:12) which seems to prophecy the coming of the Mongols, and promises that God’s people will be saved in Israel, and one sees what impact it would have had when the Mongol’s devastations in Syria and Palestine were halted by a Mamluk army in 1260 wo defeated them at ‘Goliath’s well’.

All of which leads me to think that the figure’s hand has been given six fingers less as part of any portrait than to recall those passages from biblical text, and a widespread idea the Mongols were sons of ‘the giants’ whom legend had it Alexander walled up behind the ‘Caspian Gates‘.

for notes and references, see following post.

In England, as elsewhere, the thing everyone knew about giants, apart from their size, was that they ate people and were descended from tribes of Gog and Magog. Those ideas (save giant stature) also pervade the panic-stricken letters sent to Europe from Syria and the Holy Land before the second Council of Lyons.

Papal mission to the Mongols (1245–1247)
Given the prevalence of such ideas among Byzantines and Latins prior to 1260, one can only admire the courage of André of Longjumeau, assigned as leader to one of four missions to the Mongols sent by Pope Innocent IV. Longjumeau left Lyon for the Levant in the spring of 1245, vising Muslim centres in Syria and representatives of the Nestorian and of the Jacobite churches in Persia, before finally delivering the papal correspondence to a Mongol general near Tabriz.

While in that large and multi-cultural city, a hive of traders and of scholars, he met a monk from the far east named Simeon Rabban Ata, to whom the Khan had given responsibility for supervising, protecting and overseeing Christians in the recently-conquered nearer east.

We owe our knowledge of Rabban Simeon chiefly to Vincent of Beauvais. (Speculum historiale XXX, 70) though Vincent also had access to matter from John of Plano Carpini and from a book written by one Simon of Saint-Quentin, now lost.

Saint-Quentin is not an uncommon place-name in France, though in the present context, that in Aisne is obviously an attractive possibility.

Named by the Romans Augusta Viromanduorum, by the 12th and 13th centuries Saint-Quentin in Aisne was noted for three things: its great Abbey which was a pilgrimage centre, its prosperity thanks to the production and trade in woolen textiles, and its high vulnerability in times of war. The Abbey was ruined and presumably most of its ancient library lost during the first World War.

What turns our attention towards that northern and overland route from the Black sea that was taken by Simon of Saint-Quentin and others, is not simply the garment given the Voynich figure, or what little is recorded of the official journeys, but the final part of this detail from the diagram: the flower-like form shown just above the figure’s upraised right hand. It also offers a narrower dating for the diagram’s first enunciation.

Emblematic detail

One possibility which has often sprung to the minds of modern readers is that this is the ‘Lily’ of Sicily’s Lilibe or Lilybaeum embodied by the Anglo-French and Sicilian ‘fleur-de-lys’. Another is that it is some flower more closely associated with the East and with the Mongols.

By way of one argument that the fleur-de-lys represents an Iris flower (for the Greek Iris was goddess of dawn), the ‘fleur-de-lys’ idea has some merit.

The difficulty, however, is that the form given this item isn’t that of the western, or indeed the of eastern “fleur de lys”.

In Europe, as elsewhere influenced by the Latins, the fleur-de-lys is formed with a bar across it and with its centre given a sharp, blade-like tip. Here is how it appears even in the south-eastern Mediterranean during the fourteenth century.

If one thinks the Voynich detail an allusion to Sicily’s Lilybaeum, known to the Greeks as Lilibaion but called ‘Lilybe’ in some medieval works, one then might imagine this figure, in its Mongol dress and in the pose of a preacher or orator, as meant for some known person such as the Sicilian John of Montecorvino – but there is little evidence that any of the four human figures in this diagram is meant to be a portrait, and one is left then with the simple fact that the detail is not drawn like the western fleur-de-lys and that the diagram is not European either in its being is oriented to the south, rather than to the east or north as the Latins’ habit was.

I note that an article ‘John of Montecorvino’ in the Catholic Encyclopaedia says that John started on his journey in 1289, having been provided with letters to Arg[h]un, and to the great Emperor Kublai Khan, to Kaidu, Prince of the Tatars, to the King of Armenia and to the Patriarch of the Jacobites…From Persia John went by sea to India, in 1291, where he preached for thirteen months …. Travelling by sea from Meliapur, he reached China in 1294. That much of is supported by reliable evidence, but much else in that article relies on just two letters, said to have come from John, but whose authenticity is doubted. John of Plano Carpini travelled to Mongolia (1142-47 AD) though not to preach, so much as to serve as papal representative and courier.

My own view is that the object says “yuan“, which named the Mongol dynasty and which means literally ‘circle’ or ‘coin’. The character ‘yuan’ (元) appears on Chinese coins from well before before the Mongol century or the establishment of the Yuan dynasty (). On the earlier, T’ang dynasty coin illustrated (below, left) the character ‘Yuan’ is seen lowest of the four.

When considering the diagram’s female figure, we noted that fabrics might serve a form of currency, and so now the possibility arises (and must be tested) that all four figures may include mention of the means by which tribute was to be given. It is not unusual to find multiple layers of meaning in drawings from the pre-modern world. People today ask ‘Is it about geography OR about astronomy OR about religion OR…’ though an image can refer to a number of such things at once.

Once again, I’d urge anyone interested in the drawings in Beinecke MS 408 but who suppose medieval people had unsophisticated minds, to buy and read cover-to-cover these two books as their basic introduction to our subject:

  • Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory
  • Veronica Sekules, Medieval Art (Oxford History of Art series)

The following information is not offered casually, and was not casually obtained. If it seems a bit ‘Hey-presto’, I hope readers will understand that I’m trying to keep the post as short as I can.

In another of the sources consulted, I found the following paragraph:

Almaligh produced money in 650H and 651H [1253/4], and Bukhara and Samarqand issued large flat billon, probably in 651H. …. All of these inscriptions were similar to those of Bulghar and Tiflis, specifically 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 …

Judith Kolbas (2013), The Mongols in Iran: Chingiz Khan to Uljaytu 1220–1309.

I was unable to find any image of such a coin minted for Fars in 1253/4, but found a later example (below) – not minted in Fars, though it may have been circulating in Amaligh.*

It was Qaidu II who ruled from 1272 to 1301 AD

So – what do you think? Near enough to what one might remember of such an emblem?

Having previously offered a date for first enunciation of the diagram on folio 85r (part) in the latter part of the twelfth century, we must now extend it to between 1270-1301 AD, a period when Latins were not only visiting regions under Mongol rule, but had established residence there. In this the most prominent by far were Italians – chiefly from Siena, Pisa and above all from Genoa but as the northern Mongol rulers,* converted to Islam, attempted to establish friendly diplomatic relations with Mamluk Egypt, Venice came to enjoy their favour.

*that is ‘northern’ in terms of the greater Mediterranean. See the wiki article Golden Hordefor quick overview. The critical period was during the rule of Uzbeg Khan (1312–1341), who adopted Islam.

It remains now only to see whether this figure agrees, once more, with utterances given the winds in Walters MS 37 73.


For winds in the eastern quadrant, we have:

  1. Subsolanus vel Apeliotes: [EAST] “Subte phebe tono,” “I thunder from beneath the [rising] Sun.”
  2. Eurus vel ?? [SSE] “Flatus nubes gigno,” or “I cause the clouds to blow.”
  3. Euroauster [SE] “Tellus denique calescit,” or “The Earth finally becomes warm.”
  4. Austro vel [S*] “Pluuias cum fulmine initio,” or “I begin rain and lightning.”

* for ‘Austroafricus

‘I thunder from beneath the rising sun’ – EAST – seems appropriate enough: not only for the thundering of Mongol horsemen, but for this figure’s stance as orator/preacher.

Subsolanus vel Apeliotes – Subte phebe tono
“I thunder from beneath the [rising] Sun.”

NOTE – Anyone chiefly interested in Voynichese should be aware that there is a wide diversity between manuscripts in their assignment of compass-directions and wind-names. Between one manuscript and another, between one linguistic or regional tradition and another, such assignments and the wind-names may (and usually will) differ widely. Variations of that sort continue well into the early modern period.

Material used for this post derives from research, summaries from which were published by the present writer through voynichimagery, including – but not limited to, the following articles –

  • D.N. O’Donovan ‘Thundering jackets and ‘fleur-de-lys’
  • __________________, ‘Response… re f.85v-1’ (a series of four articles, written before the Beinecke page repaginated the manuscript)
  • __________________, ‘Response to Nick Pelling’s recent post’ (in two parts).
  • __________________, ‘Winds and Wings’
  • __________________ ‘Some events of the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries…’ (a series related to part of the map’s analysis).


The footnotes, references, quoted passages and additional notes specifically relevant to study of Beinecke MS 408, adding more than 3,000 words to this post, have been removed and will be posted separately.