O’Donovan notes – 7c.2 and 7c.3: Why a crocodile? Why November? Why c.1350?

A double post for your spare moments from now to the New Year. 🙂

The author’s rights are asserted.

Abstract: This post considers events around the time when Bodleian MS Douce 313 was made (c.1350), why the crocodile might be introduced (or re-introduced) as November’s emblem then, and whether the statements – and a guess of medicinal purpose – expressed in Georg Baresch’s letter of 1639 are compatible with events of the mid-fourteenth to early fifteenth centuries.

I want to be clear that what follows is no attempt to offer a wide historical survey of plague-related images or -history. It is a pin-point-narrow focus on how one image in a fifteenth century manuscript, and one seventeenth-century document, meet in relation to some few historical moments, persons, records, images and attitudes from the period c.1350-c.1438 and includes one eighteenth-century image because that best expresses a particular religious attitude.

It is an extraordinary moment when one realises that, when John de’ Marignolli left that garment of cannal cloth in Florence, he had just passed unscathed through one region after another where Plague was lurking, and had come back to a Europe where it had been raging for almost six years.

In a time when all Christians of Latin Europe were Catholic, there was added to fear of the disease and grief from loss, an additional fear for the souls of those buried without benefit of confession and too suddenly to have (so to speak) cleared their spiritual debts and made peace with their Gd. Even to be buried in unconsecrated ground was a misfortune.

In the Latin liturgical calendar November 2nd was the day when all the departed were remembered in every church, and with prayers reminiscent of the funeral service: at once asking Gd to forgive sin and offering words of comfort to those present. For many, in time of plague, that day must have gained added significance.

November’s being the month of the dead – the antiquity of that connection, and how Roman thought had come to associate it with Egyptian beliefs has already been outlined and images shown from a mosaic calendar from Roman north Africa and from the semi-Christian Chronography of 354AD.

In those cases the guide who saw souls safely across the bourne had been Anubis or Herm-anubis, but in parts of Egypt itself the ‘bearer/guide’ was a [celestial] crocodile.

more likely imagined as the small and tamer C.suchus than the more savage C.niloticus.

(detail) from a copy of the Book of the Fayum. (copy dated 1st century BCE-2nd century CE)

In connection with this drawing (above) I’d like to draw attention to a filler motif also seen in the Voynich calendar’s ‘March’ diagram (right) and in the Voynich map (the latter often called by Voynich writers the “rosettes page”).

On the other hand, that detail from the Roman-era papyrus contains single- and cross-hatching in the strictest sense, neither of which occurs, so far as I’ve seen, in any Voynich drawing.

From the late 1340s, and from a somewhat different angle, Latin Europe would revive that association between death and Egypt, not so much for hope of ancient medicines as for the antiquity and purity of Egypt’s “ancient” Christian tradition.

In the Voynich calendar, November’s beast is not shown simply as a crocodile, as it is in Bodleian Douce 313, but is specifically associated here with death by inclusion of the human skull, given the hat worn by a traveller or hunter, but which here may indicate ‘the messenger’ (angelos) which is death.

To that extent one can say that both Douce 313 and Beinecke MS 408 mean the crocodile to serve as memento mori. Perhaps I should also point out that the usual astronomical type for death was the constellation of Perseus in Greek, Roman and Islamic traditions. Perseus means ‘the Destroyer’. There is little doubt, however, that the Voynich crocodile is meant for Scorpius or for another nearby constellation (a question considered in earlier posts in this series).

Egypt – source of plague, and source of cure.

We do not know the direction from which the group of ten plague ships first brought the Black Death to the western Mediterranean.

They docked in Messina, in Sicily, in October 1347, observing the usual routine by which the Mediterranean sailing season formally ended in that month, not to begin again until the next March.

It is certain that Plague was present in Alexandria “in the autumn” of 1347. Messina, on becoming aware of what those ten ships had brought, ordered them out and they went on to infect nearby islands and Tunis before, or in the very beginning of, 1438.

Many suppose they came from the north as would some Genoese and Venetian ships in January 1348 when, flying for home through winter storms they brought the Plague to their home ports from the Black Sea.

The contagion (as it was described) now began moving through the continent, the very first lines of transmission providing another clear illustration of the most-used southern links. The map (below) omits the sea-link through Gibraltar to England via Bordeaux, scarcely used in winter.

This was not the first time that pestilence, or ‘plague’ had occurred, nor were the precedents unknown to Latin Europe. The best-known, in every case, had been associated with Egypt, or at least the north African coast.

There were the ten biblical plagues inflicted on Pharaoh, of course. The third century (c.261 AD) had seen ‘the Plague of Cyprian’ so-called, and in the mid-sixth century a wave of Plague had devastated the whole Byzantine empire. This last was indeed caused by Yersinia. pestis* as modern research confirms. In 9thC England, Bede reported another plague sweeping through England, one which – he believed – left southern England depopulated, though ‘decimated’ may be more accurate.

added note – (December 8th). A reader queries the date “c.261 AD”. It’s a rough description – hence the ‘circa’ – and really depends on what part of the Byzantine empire is meant. Overall, most historians are pretty much agreed the date-range for that episode of plague begins in about AD 249 and subsides by about 262 AD.

*would be more accurately called Yersin-Shibasaburia pestis, since the plague bacillus in Hong Kong in 1894: was identified simultaneously by Alexandre Yersin and Kitasato Shibasabur­ō.

  • Wael M. Lotfy, ‘Plague in Egypt: Disease biology, history and contemporary analysis: A minireview’, Cairo University, Journal of Advanced Research, Vol.6 (2015) pp. 549-544. Can be accessed through Elsevier ‘Science Direct’ website.
  • Description of the plague in Ireland in 1348, written by a Franciscan, John Clyn, has been included in a good wiki article, ‘Black Death in Medieval Culture‘.
  • HIGHLY RECOMMENDED – responses in the Islamic world. Justin K. Stearns, ‘Plague and Contagion’, muslim heritage (blog) published 24th August 2020. “We possess dozens of [plague treatises] from the fourteenth and subsequent centuries, and they display a wide variety of approaches to plague and contagion… when it came to medical remedies, … these varied but involved dietary proscriptions, bloodletting, and at times ointments of violets”. This is the only medical use for violets I’ve encountered before the mid-fifteenth century and might one day prove an explanation for the curious addition of that ‘ring-in’ image of the violas in Beinecke MS 408.

In fourteenth-century Europe where learned men were, almost by definition, members of the religious and these remained acquainted with the earliest Christian writers, the severely ascetic style of the first Egyptian anchorites and monks seemed to offer the best advice and solace, though no bodily cure existed. Focus would soon shift, in the Latin west, to less problematic figures than those ascetics but the 1350s have a distinctly ‘Egyptian’ focus on what is termed ‘mortification’. An entry in the Catholic encyclopaedia emphasises, however, that “spiritual writers never tire of insisting that the internal mortification of pride and self-love in their various forms are essential.. external penances good only so far as they spring from this internal spirit.”

Egyptian models.

To a modern viewer, unacquainted with that literature and medieval ideas about death, the sculpture of which part is seen in the header might be felt ‘weird’ or ‘creepy’ or given some politico-religious interpretation. But when the whole image is considered, including its being given the wings of an angel and the draped cloth evocative of Michael as carrier of souls, there is obviously some other intention behind it.

What the modern reader must appreciate is that, just as in the service (Mass) for the feast of all souls, the emphasis was less on hellfire than on overcoming the natural animal fear which people feel at the sight of death and when in constant fear of death.

Above the figure (below), a shield shows stars divided between upper and lower by a ‘wall’ and regardless of what family’s crest it might have been, the juxtaposition allows the viewer to see this as a reminder that above the visible stars is that other realm whose limits were impassable by mortals, the defended ramparts of heaven, which limit is sometimes marked by the ‘cloudband’.

Consider the whole figure, then, as if you were hearing a sermon in which Cyprian’s account of Plague in his time, and in Carthage, was being quoted.

From Cyprian’s De Mortalitate.

18thC work by Pierre le Gros the Younger in Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli. Rome. Tomb of Cardinal Cinzio Aldobrandini, (d.1610)..

That is not an ending, but a transit, and, this journey of time being traversed, a passage to eternity…

Let us show ourselves to be what we believe.. that when the day of our summons shall arrive, we come without delay and without resistance to the Lord when He Himself calls us...[via his messenger]..

Beloved brethren, with a sound mind, with a firm faith, with a robust virtue, let us be prepared for the whole will of God: laying aside the fear of death, let us think on the immortality which follows…

If we believe in Christ, let us have faith in His words and promises; and since we shall not die eternally, let us come with a glad security unto Christ…

So also in the Psalms, the soul that is devoted to its God in spiritual faith hastens to the Lord, saying, “How amiable are thy dwellings, O God of hosts! My soul longeth, and hasteth unto the courts of God”..

Eusebius in his Chronicon makes mention of the occasion on which Cyprian wrote this treatise, saying, “A pestilent disease took possession of many provinces of the whole world, and especially Alexandria and Egypt; as Dionysius writes, and the treatise of Cyprian ‘concerning the Mortality’ bears witness.” a.d. 252. On the 18thC outbreak, which reached the Adriatic, see here.

So the aim of that sculpture made when Plague was still a constant peril in Latin Europe, was not only to provoke a natural, animal terror at the constant presence of death but, without in any way trying to sweeten or to deny the validity of that fact or those feelings, to lessen that fear and remind the people that the angel of Death – for here it is a great Angel – has as its appointed role to carry the soul between the physical world and the waiting Christ in heaven as a midwife might lift the newborn into the light.

How a modern, secular person reacts to such a sculpture, or what their imagination offers as its explanation is hardly to the point. What we must do is to discover how people who produced this, or any image, used it to speak with their near contemporaries about matters, and in forms, which both understood easily. It is well to remember that in that other country of the past, one is a guest.

During the first wave, the most frequently-mentioned reason for re-emergence of Plague in Europe was excessive self-indulgence – greed, laziness, lust, vanity and gluttony, displays of wealth manifest in fine horses, furs and lap-dogs.

In the next painting, a fresco from burial grounds in Pisa, the theme of penitence and return to the ways of the ‘Desert Fathers’ is already a developed theme immediately before the Plague arrived. In the detail below, the characters are confronted by a man with a scroll and three coffins in which the body’s progressive corruption is shown vividly and accurately. This man with the long ‘ancient’ scroll is Macarius, termed ‘the Egyptian’ to distinguish him from another called ‘the Alexandrian’. He lived c. 300 – 391AD..

The reason for including him was, initially, for the content of his Homilies, but when Plague arrived, one passage would have driven home that call to asceticism and mortification embodied in these frescos, for a passage from the Homilies reads:

“Hearken unto me… and no plague shall come nigh thy dwelling”

Macarius had a prophetic vision, and said to the man who served him, whose name was John, ‘ Hearken to me, brother John, and bear with my admonition. Thou art in temptation; and the spirit of covetousness tempts thee. I have seen it; and I know that if thou bearest with me, thou wilt be perfected in this place, and wilt be glorified, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.

But if thou shalt neglect to hear me, upon thee shall come the end of Gehazi, with whose disease thou art afflicted.’

Modern scholars identify this ‘disease of Gehazi’ as elephantisis and/or Bilharzia (Schistosomiasis) the second producing spots on the skin and caused by a worm – cf. accounts of the ‘cocodril and hydra’ in Latin bestiaries.

Marcarius’ Homilies shouldn’t be supposed obscure. The saint is still commemorated in the Latin liturgical roster and in the Byzantine and Coptic Christian world whose church did not splinter as the western Church was soon to do, Macarius remains an important figure in the east and his Homilies current reading.

Notice that only the crowned figure displays any sign of shame or thoughtfulness, and note too the height of fashion in this part of Italy during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. correction made 6th Dec., with thanks to Martin K. Menzies for noticing the slip.

From whence? Voynichese

*Concerning the ‘census’ of Franciscan houses mentioned below – that list was not compiled in 1350AD, but from several documents for 1350AD.*

It has to be said that the written text in Beineke MS 408 could have come from almost anywhere, other than the New world or sub-Saharan Africa.

Just two years into the plague’s devastations – that is, in 1350 – a list was compiled that is described as a census of Franciscan houses but better considered a simple record of claim because it does not mention the number of inhabitants in each house.

What it does, for us, is illustrate the range and distance over which, to that time, links had been established between some Europeans and the rest of the world.

Roads were not one-way. Information, goods and people could move along those routes in either direction and by the end of the thirteenth century to, or from, as far as China.

The list of 1350 mentions no house in Egypt, but we know that traders and pilgrims regularly crossed the Mediterranean. Otherwise and apart from the great many Franciscan houses established in mainland Europe, there were now no fewer than fifteen around the Black Sea, including Caffa (‘Vicariate of Aquilonis; Tartaria Aquilonaris). In addition, there are a number listed for Tabriz, another in Amalek on the overland route eastwards, one apparently in what is now Afghanistan and four in China proper.7 For others east of Europe, see the full ‘census’, linked above.

7. The first Franciscan sent to China had arrived sixty years before de’ Marignolli – in 1293/4. This was John of Montecorvino. Here again, I note that the current ‘wiki’ article grossly inflates Friar John’s social status while omitting mention of the fact that he travelled as a Franciscan friar, not in the least as a secular diplomat might do by the sixteenth or seventeenth century,.

John was largely dependent for assistance on an Italian merchant who was already by that time established in India and, apparently, in China. Friar John was never permitted to return home and died in China in about 1328. Scholars doubt the authenticity of two letters attributed to him. The very late, and Chinese, image of him which the wiki writer has used is highly imaginative.

(detail) Yale, Beinecke MS 408 folio 1r

I do not, however, discount the possibility that we might owe to John some, at least, of what is now in Beinecke MS 408. As I pointed out some time ago, the first folio of Beinecke MS 408 displays a motif that appears to me as an effort to copy, using a quill pen, an inscription originally written with the vermillion brush. Other proposals have been made by other writers. By September 12th., 2010 Rich Santacoloma had collected and shared ‘single bird’ images found in western manuscripts. The work was done again with greater or less success by later writers.

Once again, I should say that the historical data is not offered to promote, or even to infer some theory of authorship for the Voynich manuscript.

At present, the aim is to show that Egypt was not some misty, distant place but an ordinary and busy part of the Mediterranean world – and to show too that for some in western Europe, first-hand knowledge of regions lying east of the Mediterranean did not wait on da Gama. Nor did it depend on some Latin having to ‘fetch’ everything. Some things were brought and simply bestowed upon the west. I’ve noticed that many traditionalists struggle with the idea that in contacts between Europe and elsewhere, the active ‘masculine’ role was not inevitably played by the Latin.

Whatever cryptographers and linguists may think about Jorge Stolfi’s statistical analysis of Voynichese, history presents no obvious opposition to his conclusions..

And while my own analyses of the plant-pictures found them not especially concerned with medicine, we must at least ask whether Baresch’s guess that the work was about medicine is reasonable. I think that though he does not say so, his hope was that the manuscript contained a remedy against plague. After all, Plague had driven Rudolf II from Prague and had killed John Dee’s wife in England. In the seventeenth century, it was still a present danger.


Egyptian Medicinal goods – without prejudice.

“There is no man who lives and, seeing the angel of death, can deliver his soul from his hand.” Psalm 89:48 from the Targum – the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew bible.

That John Tiltman appears to have conducted a pretty thorough survey of the western herbal manuscripts and related literature and then spoken, in highly diplomatic phrasing, of the null result should have been taken as significant by all Voynich researchers thereafter. But that is another important piece of evidence either ignored or for which some ad.hoc. ‘excuse’ has been offered by traditionalists intent on the hunt for evidence to lend the old ‘Latin herbal’ idea more colour.

It is simply for the sake of balance, then, that I’ll touch on this question of physic in terms of links between southern Europe and Egypt during the Plague years of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries.

About forty years after we think the Voynich quires were inscribed, an Italian Jewish traveller, Obadiah da Bertinoro, wrote of his journey to Egypt. He speaks of the crocodile’s scales as ‘spots’ but for us the most interesting part of his account are details he gives about a fellow passenger on the ship carrying them from Italy towards Egypt in 1481.

Da Bertinoro describes R. Meshullam ben R.Menahem of Volterra as a merchant whose brother R. Nathan, a physician, was then the most distinguished man in Rhodes’ Jewish community.

An early fifteenth-century manuscript by a Venetian of Rhodes who is known simply as ‘Michael of Rhodes” can be seen and its contents discussed in pages at the website of the Museo Galileo, Museum and Institute for the History of Science. [HERE] Michael was first introduced to Voynich studies several years ago in posts to Voynichimagery treating analysis of the Voynich map in the context of maritime matters, mathematics, fifteenth-century iconography and cartography.

Rabbi Meshullam also gave an account of that journey. It too has survived. We learn that in Egypt he encountered the Nagid, the most important official in Cairo, and found that the man was one who had come to his father’s house in Florence more than twenty years before. The Nagid, in true Muslim* style, was generous in his turn, had sought out the son of one who had earlier offered him hospitality in Italy, and we are told that among the many honours and benefits be showered on R. Meshullam was one that was very valuable indeed, not least for the Rabbi’s brother. It was

“a list [or catalogue, or inventory] of all the goods which come into Egypt twice a year, which the gentiles take to Christian countries. There are 3,000 different kinds of goods, mostly spices and medicines.”

*I ought to have said ‘Islamic’ because while Cairo’s culture was informed by Muslim attitudes to the stranger, R. Meshullam is vague about whether the Nagid was a Jew (and if so whether Rabbanite or Karaite), or whether by then Muslim. He might even have been a Mamluk. The position of ‘Nagid’ suggests particular responsibility for the Jewish communities. – note added Dec.5th., 2022.

This is no basis for arguing direct connection between R.Meshullam and the Voynich manuscript’s contents. It does illustrate the lines of connection between southern Europe and Egypt during the fifteenth century, and further that such a list, or catalogue, or inventory was part of the city’s administration at that time, and at that time most of what was being bought by Christian traders (chiefly Genoese and Venetian) were ‘mostly spices and medicines’.

The fact that the Nagid presented R. Meshullam with that list, and the Nagid was chief overseer of tax collection is interesting for two reasons: first because it suggests the list/inventory/catalogue was part of Cairo’s administration and not one produced solely by and for those who bought, sold or used the goods.

Taxation is the most obvious reason for the Nagid’s having such a list, or inventory, or catalogue and it would be wrong to imagine that by presenting the list the Nagid was simply trying to obtain another buyer for those goods. We know from other merchants handbooks and records (such as the Zibaldone da Canal), that merchants simply traded direct with other merchants, the authorities’ involvement being linked to taxation and to criminal matters.

That ‘list’ was a gift of value because while, say, a tourist can travel through any foreign market and see what plants are on offer – living, dried or otherwise – he has no words from the local language with to name them and no idea of their virtues without some additional guide. In what languages, or how many languages those 3,000 and more ‘exotic’ items were named in the list given to R. Meshullam; whether the list/inventory/catalogue was illustrated.. and much else one would love to know, the Rabbi simply does not say.

Taxation is certainly the constant theme of the authorities and of the foreign travellers and traders, who never fail to speak of it.

By analogy with known practices elsewhere on the ‘spice routes’ we may raise the possibility that in Cairo too, the text-book for taxation for such goods took as its template some well-known herbal, all goods including those being taxed on entry and on exit.

The Chinese is the best-known example of using a herbal – in this case works of the ‘Bencao’ genre – as a basis for taxation, but this is not the place to revisit my investigation of the ‘tax-list’ possibility and objects described by archaeologists as ‘tax buckets’. I include one among the images shown in those posts and I daresay that somewhere in the filing cabinet of some Voynich ‘completist’ there may exist printed off copies of the whole series of posts. (And no I didn’t conclude that all the artefacts in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section were tax-buckets).

Within medieval Latin Europe some pharmacies, we know, did display those herbals and others texts they were expected or obliged to have and use.

In fifteenth-century Cairo, instead, foreigners purchased goods from and some actually maintained the type of warehouse complex called by Arabs and by some Euroeans ‘funduks’. Genoa, Venice and ‘the Franks’ had, according to R. Meshullam, five such fonduks in Cairo: two each for the first two city states and one for all ‘the Franks’. Overall, one has to agree with Georg Baresch that “it is easily conceivable that..

..some man of quality went to oriental parts in quest of true medicine (he would have grasped that popular medicine here in Europe is of little value). He would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art, brought them back with him and buried them in this book in the same script. This is all the more plausible because the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in Germany.

Letter of Georg Baresch to Athanasius Kircher, 1639 AD (transcription, transliteration and translation by Philip Neal).

He also says, and others who wrote to Kircher attempted to support him in this, that Baresch’s interest was not in money but in medicine, as:

“the most beneficial branch of learning for the human race apart from the salvation of souls”.

There’s no suggestion of medicine or of money about the Voynich calendar’s month-emblems and I think it reasonable to conclude that its November emblem speaks more to the soul’s peril as to the body and that in this case the constellation or sign is of secondary interest.

which . if you’ve read this series from the beginning … is pretty much where we began.

next post: Money Matters: Remedies, wealth and secrecy.

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.