Glass and the pearl band

two prior:

FOR AN ARCHAEOLOGIST, or anyone specialising in a some specific field of technology or art, one’s first instinct when presented with a problematic artefact is to seek that point, within the axes of time and of geography, that it rightly belongs. In the present case, though, another preliminary step must intervene, because since 1912 Beineke MS 408 has been seen through an old and narrowly-defined Eurocentric lens.

That narrative is still substantially that which Wilfrid Voynich created, which was early adopted and maintained by William Romaine Newbold, and later fixed in the public imagination by its repetition in prestigious sources such as d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma and the holding library’s catalogue entry.

Pressures of repetition, and earnest efforts to justify one or more aspects of Wilfrid’s narrative after the fact (while still altering it the better to support some variant) have fixed an impression among most people that among the few items we can say ‘we know’ is that the whole content of the manuscript should exhibit an exclusively western Latin Christian character.

Given the consistency with which those assumptions have been maintained despite (or perhaps because of) never being investigated with a critical eye, it is perfectly understandable that any suggestion about the content’s perhaps including unmediated foreign matter would cause disquiet.

So in this post, rather than risk being thought to have dispensed arbitrarily with a Eurocentric focus, I’ll do what I can to re-define what might be called the medieval ‘European horizon’.

In the map below, the darker coloured area had been, over the centuries, part of the Persian empire, then of Alexander’s empire, and next of the Median-Persian and Sasanian empire. It then became part of the Islamic empire until, during the thirteenth century AD, much of it fell to the Mongols, whose policy during the first wave of conquests was to wipe from the map any city offering active resistance.

Some sites named in that map (above) were household names in medieval Europe because they find mention in the Bible. Nineveh is mentioned repeatedly and not only in the Jewish religious books incorporated into the Christian bible but in the Christian testament itself (e.g. Luke 11:32).

Babylon was another proverbial name, so well known that when the western pope took his court to Avignon and it remained there almost seventy years (1309 to 1376), the period was commonly called its  ‘Babylonian captivity’.

Tabriz I’ve had reason to mention* as the city where Claudius’ Ptolemy’s astronomical co-ordinates were updated and that new data acquired  by the Byzantine scholar Gregory Chioniades between 1295-96. He called it the ‘Persian syntaxis’.

*see post of July 11th., 2021

Across the whole width of that territory and to as far as China, western Christian missionaries, diplomats and traders were already passing before the end of the thirteenth century.

By 1350 – about half a century before the Voynich manuscript was made – a census of Franciscan houses lists twenty-two on the route from Constantinople through the Black Sea and overland to as far as China, with four houses established by then in China itself – two in Peking at the terminus of the overland routes, and two in the southern, foreigners’ port known as ‘Zayton’ (Guangzhou) where the Genoese or Venetian Katarina Vilioni had died in 1342.

For a time, early in the seventh century, the Sasanian Empire had included the whole of present-day Iran and Iraq and also much of the eastern Mediterranean (including Anatolia and Egypt.

The Byzantines had reason to remember the Sassanians, whose army had alone succeeded in resisting Rome, and it was never forgotten that in c.260AD King Shapur had captured the Roman Emperor Valerian and him kept in captivity for the rest of his life.

(Those familiar with the Voynich manuscript may recognise in Shapur’s stepped-turreted crown a form similar to that given a female figure appearing twice in the Voynich calendar. In both cases (see diagrams for July and August); the figure holds a large 9-pointed ‘aster’ and is set on the innermost tier at 90 degrees right from the vertical. The inset in the picture (below) shows the example from July, where the crown and certain other details are evidently late additions to the original.

In 532 AD and following several major losses to the Persians, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I agreed to pay 440,000 gold pieces in return for an ‘eternal peace’.

Justinian evidently treated this final defeat as a triumph of diplomacy, and it is memorialised in a mosaic made for the basilica S.Vitali in Ravenna, the work begun in 526 and completed in 547.

Sassanian seal-ring set with a carnelian ‘sardion’.

The mosaic shows Justinian wearing as his ‘badge of honour’ a gem then called a ‘Sardion’ after the city of Sardis, stones of this type often used as a seal-stone by the Sasanians (see example at right).

Worn as Justinian’s badge of honour, the stone is shown surrounded by ‘ring of dots’ as pearls – another typically Sasanian-Persian motif in textiles, ceramics and glass but one equally characteristic of Byzantine art.

The bowl which Justinian carries is also patterned in Sasanian style, though the glass appears richly gilded.

(detail) Justinian I. 6thC mosaic, Ravenna. Basilica San Vitale.

Chan mentions that within each of the hexagons that form that bowl’s basic honeycomb pattern is set another and smaller one. In the upper left of the photograph (above) one of them can be seen fairly clearly – it appears as a ‘dot’.

However, the Sasanian emperor almost immediately broke that first ‘eternal peace’ and another mosaic portrait of Justinian, made for Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, shows Justinian now without his ‘sard’ and wearing a different expression.

This mosaic is believed made in 561 AD or shortly before, when work on Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was completed. A second ‘eternal peace’ would finally be achieved in 562, after six hundred years’ war between the Romans and Sasanian Persia.

The point I want to make is that even if we ignore the probable significance for the Sasanians of that ‘circle of pearls/dots’ it was an established motif in Byzantine art, and for those who made glass, and fabric, and mosaics.

Tesserae of both stone and glass were employed for mosaics, and such motifs as the ‘pearl band’ remained as a constantly present model for the ‘finishing’ or ‘crowning’ touch, even when the subject was not a member of the Byzantine court.

Ravenna is a little more than a hundred miles down the Adriatic coast from Venice, and its magnificent basilicas remained a model of what could be achieved, if only one had the technical means and skilled artisans. Thus, we know (although not every Venetian site will say so) that when Venice decided to remodel the Basilica of S.Marco during the thirteenth century, it imported both eastern materials, and workers. A nicely condensed account of this basilica’s complicated history is offered by the author of a wiki article, who writes:

The earliest surviving [mosaic] work, in the main porch, perhaps dates to as early as 1070, and was probably by a workshop that had left Constantinople in the mid-11th century and worked at Torcello Cathedral.* They are in “a fairly pure Byzantine style” but in succeeding phases of work Byzantine influence … was reduced by stages, disappearing altogether by about the 1130s, after which the style was Italian in essentials, reflecting “a change from a colonial to a local art”. The main period of decoration was the 12th century, a period of deteriorating relations between Venice and Byzantium, but very little is known about the process .. The main work on the interior mosaics was apparently complete by the 1270s, with work on the atrium continuing into the 1290s.

*we have already noted, in the post previous to this, that at Torcello  the glass objects were made ” using cullet (glass refuse) or glass cakes imported from the eastern Mediterranean’.

The basic drawings may have been ‘local art’ but the artisans were apparently not from any local tradition of mosaic-making, for..

After [the 1279s-90s]the St Marks workshop seems to have been disbanded, so that when a fire in 1419 caused serious damage, the only Venetian capable of the work had just died and the Signoria of Florence had to be asked for help; they sent Paolo Uccello.

San Marco never made the transition to fresco wall paintings … probably partly due to Venetian conservatism and also to a wish to support the local Murano glass industry, which supplied the tesserae. The point is that from 1290 – 1419 (at least) no mosaics were added.

Who then is the ‘old master’ among the 13thC images of Venetian trades? His ‘Sasanian’ cap is enough to point us in the right direction, even without the visual pun of his ‘Mosaic’ beard.

It cannot be Master Aldrevandin, but is perhaps his teacher.

Work on S. Marco’s mosaics finished officially in the 1290s – during which time glassmakers were first confined to Muran and then prohibited from leaving the city. Master Aldrevandin, as we know, then made beakers which introduced the the long-traditional ‘pearl band’ of Sasanian and Byzantine work into the traditions of Muran. They served initially in western Europe as his own hallmark and then became a standard motif on Murano glass. Sasanian ‘crystal’ glass had been known to as far as China by the 3rdC AD.

Sasanian clear glass beaker
coins Sasanian headwear
photos: (above) two versions of Sasanian headwear.

Ge Hong (283-343), a well-known .. Daoist philosopher with an expertise in alchemy left an important information in his work ‘Baopuzi’ that ‘the crystal bowls made in foreign countries, are in fact prepared by compounding five sorts of (mineral) ashes. Today this method is being commonly practiced in Jiao and Guang (that is, Annan and Guangdong). Now if one tells this to ordinary people, they will certainly not believe it, saying that crystal is a natural product belonging to the class of rock crystal.’

  • Mei-Ling Chen, ‘The Importation of Byzantine and Sasanian Glass into China during the fourth to sixth centuries,” in Harris, Incipient Globalization?, 47-52 [pdf].

One of the curious details relayed to Nick Pelling by the curators of the Murano glass museum was the secret by which Angelo Barovier produced his hard, clear glass in 1450, was allegedly  “a special flux, made of a sort of alum obtained from eastern plants.” (Curse p.). 

Plant-ash sodas are not a form of alum, but that type of plant-ash alkali was regularly preferred in Muran, even when other Italian glassmakers used natron, and was known popularly as alluma catana, literally ‘basin alum’.  Of itself, however, it couldn’t harden or clarify glass and in theory the ashes from sola kali would not produce a different result, whether burned in Spain, in ‘the east’ or in Italy. The important question, of course, is “how could Barovier know?” If the seller told him the virtues of a new type of plant-ash, it was not Barovier’s invention. If not, where and how would a man restricted to his island and prohibited from discussing his craft, even think to look for and then to find and import the right sort of ‘plant-ash’? Is it more likely that some Venetian trader brought back both the material and an understanding of those ‘five mineral ashes’?

I suspect the ‘eastern plant ash’ was another of those memories passed down in Murano from the time of Master Aldrevandin, but Barovier’s method for clarifying and hardening glass is still not easy to discover.  The answer may lie in one of the following references. I’ve been unable to sight either during the past few months.

  • Cesare Moretti and Tullio Toninato (eds.) and David C. Watts and Cesare Moretti (ed. and trans.),Glass Recipes of the Renaissance: Transcription of an Anonymous Venetian Manuscript. (2011).
  • Antonio Neri, L’Arte vetraria = The Art of Glass, translated and annotated by Paul Engle, 3 vols., (2003–2007).

for those references, I am indebted to the author of

Ravenna mosaic three wise men and artefacts. Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo

(above) The three wise men from the east. Artefacts display characteristically Sasanian techniques in metalwork (and glass?). detail of a mosaic in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.


POSTSCRIPT – regarding the figure who holds a nine-point ‘aster’ in the Voynich calendar’s months of July and August:

Persia’s star was ever Perseus ‘the destroyer’ envisaged as a horse mounted by a skeleton or phantom rider. The equation was known to Herodotus in the 5thC BC and still in the fifteenth century AD – at least to some. Herodotus therefore has Perseus as the progenitor of the Persian people. Ibn Majid, writing in the fifteenth century, names this horse (as the constellation was earlier envisaged) ‘Al Kumait’ – the unbridled. The image on the card below, showing the rider ‘backward-turned’ is the older and more authentic form.  See also Alamy image (WP338D) which I cannot include here.

The pictures in this set of 17 cards show a markedly different origin and intellectual level from all others known in Europe. Unlike most who comment on such game-cards, I’m of the opinion that these represent an original type and I’m quite prepared to believe such cards as these might have served as tutorial aids in fourteenth century France.

Perseus and Perseids





Sasanian head band

Sasanian hunt backward turning

If that ‘aster’-holding figure is meant for the Persians’ star, it is most likely to refer to Algol, properly named Al-ghul in the Arabic, though I don’t know the old Persian term for it.  The star was envisaged as a blaze, or trophy (see above, and below) on the horse’s hip, though at other times represented as a trophy-head -or even as a wine or water-skin.  (see further below).

Sasanian hunt with trophy.

…as a wine-skin or water-skin. 

Sasanian hunt as stellar triumph oveer zodiac

Due to precession, Perseus’ ‘rain of arrows’ (the Perseid meteor showers) now  peaks in August.  For more on this see: here. The floating scarves parallel the wisps of the Milky Way.

On retention of pre-Islamic elements in later Iranian art, including the ‘flying gallop’ and the scarves, see ‘ART IN IRAN xii. Iranian pre-Islamic Elements in Islamic Art’, Encyclopaedia Iranica. (online).

image courtesy Encyclopaedia Iranica.

In the Greek astronomy, Perseus is a human figure and the ‘ghul’ the trophy as Medusa’s head.

PPS – apologies to readers for the numerous ‘updates’ – mainly typos, grammatical errors and other small annoyances. Just had my second inoculation and the brain isn’t working properly.

What magic? Where magic? 5c folio 67v (cont.) Seeing as others saw.

Header image: (left) Isidore of Seville, from the Aberdeen bestiary; (right, upper register) detail from Brit.Lib. MS Add. 17808 f.89r (lower register) left: detail from Yale, Beinecke MS 408 f.67v; right: (detail) tapestry from the formerly Hellenistic region of Bactria.

Two posts prior:

Note – (July 25th). These posts are being written ten days to two weeks before they are published, so there may be a delay in noting responses.


Part A treats of the ‘bearded sun’; of a ‘sun of night’ in eleventh-century Burgos; and of the regular passage of persons, goods and information back and forth across the Mediterranean during the medieval centuries. It is far from inconceivable that the material now in Beinecke MS 408 might have been collected in ‘eastern parts’ including medieval Egypt and contain (as Baresch also said) pictures of plants not native to Europe.

Part B considers earlier Latin attitudes to the stars, and another eleventh century manuscript – one made in northern France. It is the first known Latin copy of the astrological work, Liber Alchandri.  In the margin of one folio two very large green stars were placed, apparently by the copyists’ overseer. 

This is another post that includes enough material for three or four. I regret being unable to make editorial comment optional, collapsed text. 


A diagram on folio 67v has at its centre the face of a woman or of a young man that is provided with artificial hair and beard, and with eyes unfocused, surrounded by stars apparently disposed in seventeen unequal sectors. (see previous post)

(detail) Yale, Beinecke MS 408 f.67v. The image is clearly not classical Egyptian but accords with Hellenistic forms. Sekhmet’s leonine character was not so popular in Ptolemaic Egypt as formerly she had been.
amulet – Egypt. bearded, feline, Sekhmet daughter of Re’. wife of Ptah, guardian of boundaries. Regularly portrayed with sun-disk and uraeus in older Egyptian art.

Comparable forms for an artificially-bearded sun are attested from the eastern side of the Mediterranean – first in artefacts from pre-Christian Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. The oldest show a leonine female (Sekhmet) termed ‘daughter of the sun’ who was typically shown with the sun-disk and serpentine uraeus. The word for sun takes male gender in the Egyptian language as it does in Greek and Latin, the image on folio 67v nicely ambivalent creating a ‘universal’ form. Its having a human face points to origins in a Hellenistic- rather than a Pharaonic environment, I should think.

As to the sun’s gender, that varies with language. Some languages have it female, and among those, some – including Hebrew – allow its description as male or as female, though as not both at once. The image on folio 67v is not alchemy’s rebis.

We have some reason* to believe that matter now in the Voynich manuscript may have been copied from materials collected in “eastern parts” though the Voynich manuscript itself was made in the earlier part of the fifteenth century and is reasonably thought to have been made in Europe.

*Letter of Georg Baresch to Athanasius Kircher (1639)

Sekhmet as mistress of mariners. A statue now in Genoa.

Since the sun-face on folio 67v with its artificial mane and serpentine sidelocks is plainly no Christian helios but does shows this sun-face surrounded by stars, one must ask how the fifteenth-century copyist, or the person for whom the manuscript was being copied, might have understood this motif and the diagram’s purpose.


First – is any other sun-of-night attested in medieval western Europe and if so, when and where? The answer is ‘yes’ – but rarely and in the earlier medieval period – that is, before the twelfth century. It was not envisaged by the Latins as female.

Sun of Night’ in medieval Spain.

Among several examples noticed and translated by Carey, one comes from an eleventh-century manuscript produced in  Silos abbey of Burgos. It uses the instructional mode:

Tell me: does the sun shine at night, or not?It does.

Tell me: in what way? – For three hours in the abyss, for three hours in the sea, for three hours in the city of Nataleon, and for three hours in the city of Jerusalem. Then it returns to the east [i.e. the point of sunrise on the western viewer’s horizon] in the first hour of the day, and shines for the twelve hours of the day, and returns into the west.

  • John Carey, ‘The Sun’s Night Journey: A Pharaonic Image in Medieval Ireland’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 57 (1994), pp. 14-34. Carey does not provide full details of the manuscript. It may be the Silos Apocalypse but I’ve not been able to verify.

Carey does not mention it, but the four stages may be equated with the four elements – abyss (air); sea (water); nataleon (fire – by association with the lion); Jersualem (earth as foundation). 

Transmission and exchange across the Mediterranean.

Given that our clearest extant example of the artificially-bearded sun is in an ivory attributed to Phoenicians and some Phoenician cities in the western Mediterranean were as much as seven hundred years old before the rise of Rome, so we do not necessarily have to pass very far from Burgos to find the source of ideas and images akin to those in folio 67v.

  • Gerard Gertoux, Dating the Foundation of Carthage’ (paper at

 On the other hand, Baresh’s letter seems to demand that we do, so I include the  following broad-brush overview as editorial, not least to serve as counterweight for the now traditionally-Eurocentric narratives created for the Voynich manuscript, almost all being derived from that which Wilfrid Voynich forged from no more than a signature in the manuscript and a rag of unsubstantiated, third-hand hearsay.  Though rarely questioned, the Mnishovsky rumour is certainly questionable historical evidence. Assertions such as that the manuscript is ‘known’ to have been in Rudolf’s library, or that Rudolf ‘bequeathed’ it to anyone are due to more recent writers’  historical imagination.

In the following editorial comment, I mean to emphasise that by present standards, the old assumptions of a western Europe unaffected by any unsolicited ‘foreign’ matter can no longer be maintained.  In the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries which were the formative years for those first involved with the manuscript, it was imagined that no non-Latin matter entered the western Christian (‘Latin’ European) intellectual horizons except it were deliberately chosen and  – as it were – passed  the rigors of  ‘customs inspection’,  monitored transition, ideological cleansing and subsequent naturalisation. The stories of Leonard of Pisa (Fibonacci), Gerard of Cremona etc. serve as paradigm for that idea of a ‘white-walled’ Europe. 

An idea that nothing could arrive in Europe but what been ‘passed’ does apply, to an extent, to the Latins’  ‘bookish’ tradition, but the Voynich manuscript offers much in its internal evidence, and of course Baresch’s letter to Athanasius Kircher adds more, which should have led more researchers than John Tiltman or Erwin Panofsky to doubt the story created by Wilfrid with William Romaine Newbold. 
Europe’s Christianity was scarcely well rooted before the time of Columbanus and his fellows, but Irish monasticism in turn had its source and model in earlier Egyptian monasticism, and with it their liturgical calendar and computus, their tradition of copying older manuscripts and, tellingly, their dissemination and use of that extraordinary work, The Marriage of Mercury and Philology in which- by the way –  the ‘number of the sun’ is explicable only by reference to the old Boharic Egyptian-Coptic dialect.
  • Leslie S. B. MacCoull, ‘Coptica in Martianus Capella De Nuptiis 2.193’, Classical Philology , Oct., 1995, Vol. 90, No. 4 (Oct., 1995), pp. 361-366.
In northern Italy, the monastery of Bobbio (in whose library Gerbert of Aurillac would later say he found a copy of Manilius’ Astronomica) was founded and its library first furnished by the Irish Columbanus. Similarly  St.Gallen was founded one of Columbanus’ fellows and it  oldest manuscripts too were copied by Irish peripatetic scribes.
Egyptian life and traditions did not vanish at the moment when Caesar first set foot on Egyptian soil, nor when the last Pharaoh died, though some Voynich writers have supposed it so, dismissing Baresch’s comments from that erroneous belief.   Not until the third century AD were Egyptian temples closed by Roman edict, and many still stood in the 7thC AD.  The role of liturgical Coptic in assisting our understanding of the older Egyptian language and script is now well known, and as Baresch’s letter to Kircher shows, it was in response to Kircher’s appeal for material to help decipher hieroglyphics that Baresch sent the copied sections.  Regardless of indications in the imagery, however, results of numerous statistical studies of Voynichese have not suggested derivation from any Egyptian dialect, or any other language as it was spoken and/or written in Egypt.  The matter in the manuscript may have been gained ‘in the east’ but that is not reason enough to presume the same is true for the present manuscript’s written text.
  • Alan K. Bowman, Egypt after the Pharaohs 332BC-AD642. (1986).
Throughout the medieval centuries, however, Egypt continued to be a major entrepot though which  Mediterranean traders and pilgrims passed constantly during the sailing year from the beginning of Spring until October-November and, occasionally locally, December. 
In twelfth-century  Exeter, for example, evidence of direct free contact is offered by some of the misericords’ carvings.  Those are not ‘official’ carvings, but a space which the workers might ornament ad.lib. That shown (below) accurately represents a pair of Egyptian ‘ba’ birds, both in their form and still more strikingly, with their original significance.  For these two ‘souls’ he almost got the forms perfect. (I regret not being able to show here a facing pair from Karnak).  The most interesting point is that so late as the mid-thirteenth century someone – some guide, presumably – had still been able to rightly explain the sense of the originals. Exeter06.3 ba birds
Though the ‘ba’ bird usually stood on bird-feet, where these are provided hands, it is an understandable mis-reading if (as I suspect) he’d seen high above him and foreshortened, the pair at Karnak.  He certainly meant to make the  faces European, and one must wonder whether these ‘soul-mates’ are the woodcarver and his wife.
Europeans in medieval ports and markets had little difficulty with language.  As one mid-fourteenth century traveller describes: 
If you ask how I could converse with the interpreter .. the interpreter is of Jewish descent and came to Misr [Egypt/old Cairo] to return to Judaism, because he is a Spaniard.. He knows seven languages – Hebrew, Italian, Turkish, Greek, Arabic, German and French.   .. In Misr there are many fondaks … a thousand and more warehouses in each fondak..
extract from a Florentine ms. translated in 
    • Elkan Nathan Adler, Jewish Travellers (801-1755), London: Routedge (1930) pp.156-208
Venice and Genoa had more than one fondak  assigned exclusively for their use at various times, though free access to Egypt fluctuated with changing political tides. Practical reasons for travel included the chance to buy cheaply in the east what might be sold at greater price in the west – such things as Indian gems, Chinese silk and plant-products whose ultimate source was India and south-east Asia.  
Studies of the Latin, Greek and Arabic antidotaries tell us, for example, that a trade in eastern plants was maintained – not directly, but via Cairo or some other eastern centre –  from southeast Asia to as far as England before the twelfth century. One of the first to engage with that topic was John Riddle. Today there is a great body of scholarship available for study of medieval pharmacy, antidotaries and related trades, but in 1965 Riddle could speak of,
a manual for traders, composed possibly in the 11th century or even earlier, lists ambergris along with camphor, musk, aloes, pepper, cinnamon, and ginger.
and e.g. that
The word cafora, coming from the Arabic kâfôur, is found in the same manuscript as ambergris and also in an antidotary written in Lombardie script in the 9th or 10th centuries. As a product of the plant cinnamomum camphora nees, cafora or camphor is found only in the orient.
    • John M. Riddle, ‘The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages’, Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, Bd. 49,H. 2 (JUNI 1965), pp. 185-198.
Note – I have tried as far as possible throughout all these posts to cite articles accessible through libraries and online outlets such as researchgate, JSTOR and  I’ve selected them not only for the article’s content, but the value of an author’s sources and bibliography to assist in further research. In some cases this was simply not possible and I’ve had to cite the works used i my own research, some of which I know only the keenest researcher would care to hunt out, but the necessary information is nowhere else.  

Altogether, it is now clear that ideas prevalent in the nineteenth century and which Friedman, or d’Imperio took as ‘givens’ into the post-WWII period, were badly skewed.   Medieval Europe lived in no cultural ‘bubble’. The monks and secular scholars who made Europe’s ‘bookish’ history and textual traditions did, it is true, become increasingly skittish over time about having ideas they thought contrary to western Christian doctrine brought west by foreign residents and by such groups as the Italian humanists. The less able the authorities were to ignore  or to control such  information, the more savage their efforts became to ensure it was not disseminated through the western Christian populace without being provided a western Christian commentary and interpretation.  But these efforts were long limited to the more highly educated class, no effort made during the earlier medieval period to monitor the activities of traders, incoming travellers, or minority non-Christian communities. If a text was neither in Latin nor (later) widely circulated in the vernacular, it could be ignored.

The practice of just ignoring ‘foreign’ material saw some sad losses to European learning, and it is surprising to see how much valuable information was ignored.  As one example, we may refer to Idrisi’s radically new astronomical-geography completed after all most two decades’ work, in Sicily, in 1154, at least one copy having been prepared in a Latin translation, but we find no interest in it ever shown by Latin Europe for almost five hundred years – not until a copy of the Arabic text was published in Rome in 1592 by the Medici Press

 Idrisi did not simply copy or update  Ptolemy’s data, Over nineteen years, Idrisi had permission to interview any of the myriad travellers, traders and pilgrims who, perforce, called in at Sicily during their east-west journeys.
The result was a new astronomy as well as a new geography and,  using both in tandem, it described the world from China to Britain, region by region. Some of Michael Scot’s work is thought to have depended on Idrisi’s astronomical information. 
Perhaps the Latins (i.e. western European Christians) rejected it because they disapproved of Roger’s multi-cultural ‘international’ court. Perhaps it was one of those times when Roger was under ban of excommunication. Perhaps it was because Idrisi used south (the direction of the Latins’ Hell) as his primary direction.  Perhaps because the real world didn’t display a neat tripartite division reflecting the Biblical assignment to one part to each of Noah’s sons.  Who knows?  Here’s a reconstruction of Idrisi’s south-oriented world-map. 
For a  ‘north-up’ view, see here
Idirisi world map
The people who brought ‘caphora’ to Cairo, or to north Africa, or to Lombardy didn’t need a map of this sort, nor a handbook of geography to do it.
*Frances Carney Gies, ‘Al-Idrisi And Roger’s Book’, Saudi Aramco World, Volume 28, Number 4 (July/August 1977) pp.14-19. online.

To further illustrate the range over which the  ‘Sun of night’ had been accepted in the older near east, I’ll mention the Babylonian version, too and Europe does acknowledge a passive debt to Babylonia in mathematical astronomy.

  • Wolfgang Heimpel, ‘The Sun at Night and the Doors of Heaven in Babylonian Texts’, Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 127-151.


Having found mention of a ‘sun of night’ in eleventh-century Burgos (see above), we may now  consider another manuscript of that period, this one made in northern France (Brit.Lib. MS 17808).  To understand how its material was viewed at that time, we must better appreciate how Latins thought about the stars in those days, and how they regarded mathematical calculations.  

By the eleventh century, the two greatest voices in Latin Christianity were those of the north African, Augustine, and that of Isidore of Seville.

Augustine (354 – 430 AD) had been of Phoenician parentage, had a passion for studying the stars (in a combined astronomy-and-astrology), then became attracted to the original form of Manichaeism, at that time  one of the major world religions and which by the tenth century was established to as far as the borders of China. Along those eastern roads, it was a major provider of centres for traders and travellers –  groups largely associated with the spread of that religion.  In north Africa, however, Augustine had eventually abandoned his early interests, converted to Latin Christianity and through his writings become one of western Christianity’s earliest and most revered theologians.

With regard to astronomical learning, and the seeking of  wisdom from Egypt, I might also mention Gregory the Great (540 – 604 AD), author of the ‘Commentary on Job’, but Isidore, his contemporary, had much broader and more lasting influence.

Isidore of Seville lived from 560-636 AD.  His huge work,  Etymologiae, remained the standard reference  for information about  .. well, almost everything…  from the time of its composition to as late as the sixteenth century.  Today there survive more than a thousand manuscripts in which the work is found copied in part, entire, or as a compilation of excerpts. According to one anonymous modern author, the full text of the Etymologies was printed in ten separate editions between 1470 and 1530, that is, at the height of the Renaissance. 

We can safely suppose, therefore, that what Isidore says about the stars would have been known to the monks of Burgos, as to the scribes in northern France who made Brit.Lib. MS Add. 17808 in that same century.  Of this second manuscript, more below.   Here are some of Isidore’s dicta: 

Astronomy distinguished from astrology.

The difference between astronomy and astrology

There is some difference between astronomy and astrology. Astronomy concerns itself with the turning of the heavens, the rising, setting, and motion of the stars, and where the constellations get their names. But astrology is partly natural, and partly superstitious.

It is natural as long as it investigates the courses of the sun and the moon, or the specific positions of the stars according to the seasons; but it is a superstitious belief that the astrologers (mathematicus) follow when they practice augury by the stars, or when they associate the twelve signs of the zodiac with specific parts of the soul or body, or when they attempt to predict the nativities and characters of people by the motion of the stars.

Bk2 xxvii.

Despite that last sentence, his Etymologiae was still copied, and then published to a willing public, long after the ‘zodiac body’ became a commonplace in medical texts.

Proper purpose for stars – including those of the zodiac.

Constellations (sidus) are so named because sailors ‘take bearings on’ (considerare) them when they set their course, lest they be led elsewhere by deceptive waves and winds. And for that reason some stars are called signs (signum), because sailors observe them in steering their rowing, taking note of their keenness and brightness, qualities by which the future state of the sky is shown. 
But everyone pays attention to them for predicting the qualities of the air in the summer, winter, and spring seasons, for by their rising or setting in specific places they indicate the condition of the weather.

Bk.III, lxx.4

That is why so many medieval breviaries and calendars can include emblems for the 12 constellations. It is not evidence for, nor indication of, astrological reference, but that has proven difficult for some Voynicheros to absorb, since today many regard any zodiac as if astrological by definition, and regard the constellation emblems as no more than ‘birth signs’.

Mathematics and improperly ‘calculating’ the stars.

For Isidore – and thus for most medieval Europeans – the evil uses were those employed by a calculating mind.

 But whatever the type of superstition with which they have been named by men, the stars are nevertheless things that God created at the beginning of the world, and he set them in order that they might define the seasons by their particular motions. Therefore, observations of the stars, or horoscopes, or other superstitions that attach themselves to the study of the stars, that is, for the sake of knowing the fates – these are undoubtedly contrary to our faith…

But some people, enticed by the beauty and clarity of the constellations, have rushed headlong into error with respect to the stars, their minds blinded, so that they attempt to be able to foretell the results of things by means of harmful computations, which is called ‘astrology’ (mathesis) .


and again:

24. These are commonly called astrologers (mathematicus); the Romans call this kind of superstition ‘constellations’ (constellatio), that is, observation of the stars – how they relate to each other when each person is born.

The first interpreters of the stars were called Magi (magus), as we read of those who made known the birth of Christ in the Gospels; afterwards they only had the name mathematicus.

Knowledge of this skill was permitted only up until the time of the Gospel, so that once Christ was born no one thereafter would interpret the birth of anyone from the heavens. 

Bk. VIII.ix.24-25

A scholastic miscellany made in France between 1309 and 1316, Brit.Lib.Burney MS 275 includes matter from Boethius, Aristotle, Euclid, Adelard of Bath, and Ptolemy and its tables (e.g. on f. 398) are written in Hindu-Arabic numerals.

Nonetheless, the margin of f.336r includes a visual ‘warning off’ about these numerals as founded on matter ‘of the devil’.

In depictions of the liberal arts, the teacher is normally an allegorical figure, but here she is made alive, a woman looking upon these innocent students and with wide, bold eyes (i.e. in an ‘unwomanly-wicked’ way). Even so late in European history, there was plainly some residual suspicion of Arabic numerals, introduced to Europe as they had been in association with the Arabs’ ‘mathesis’.

Understanding these ideas, it is easier to appreciate what implications might be carried by two large green stars set in the margin of a page in Brit Lib. MS Add 17808, whose incipit (first phrase) reads:

 ‘Mathematica Alhandrei – summi astrologi..’

Mathesis and astrology and from a foreign author and he not Christian.

Very worrying stuff for an eleventh-century monastic scribe, concerned for his immortal soul, yet bound by a vow of obedience even as Isidore’s words came to mind, “harmful computations, which is called ‘astrology’ (mathesis)”.. “undoubtedly contrary to our faith”.

Green stars.

green stars faith hours BritLib Add MS 1708 header
green stars alone from Brit Lib Add 17808
detail folio 108r

These marks are so unusual that the cataloguer describes them as “stars(?)”.

They are not formed like the asterisks which, in Latin manuscripts, mean that a passage ‘a‘ links to passage ‘b‘. Nor are these like Quire 20’s flower-stars.

The Latins’ textual asterisk was formed as an ‘X’ with a dot in each quarter – as Isidore says:

In the eleventh-century manuscript (Brit.Lib. Add. MS 17808) the first of those two ‘green stars’ is set beside an area left blank.

We would usually suppose that the space had been left for the pictor to add some image, and since the other ‘starred’ paragraph names the 12 constellations of the zodiac, we might expect that image to be a depiction of the 12 constellations or their emblems, and further suppose that the pictor just never got around to it. This is not the only example of such blank spaces in medieval manuscripts.

However, those easy assumptions are not so easy in this case, because the character of this text is unorthodox for that time and someone – presumably the same overseer who put those green stars in the margin – has instructed the scribe to go back and insert into what had been a paragraph space, immediately after the names of the twelve constellations, the text of biblical passage and to write it all in capital letters.

The passage is from the book of Genesis. Its quotation, in this context, conveys a caution – even a warning – to scribes and subsequent readers. Given the nature of the text and Isidore’s proscriptions, the addition of the sentence: ‘God disposed them as signs for the hours of the night’ reminds a reader that the purpose in copying this material is to assist with correct observations of the night offices and the calendar, so as to remain in step with the divinely ordered heavens.

For that, no anthropomorphic images of ‘pagan’ gods were necessary; the constellations (constellatio) need not be drawn. The hours’ stars could be pointed out in the sky and calculation limited to that needed for computus, to establish the date of easter.

An entire side of folio 100 is also left blank.

That manuscript is very well known today and despite any effort to keep its use on the right side of a theological line, the Liber Alchandi came to be associated chiefly with ancient mysteries and near-magic. Not everyone felt so averse to picturing the pagan constellations, of course.

Thorndike refers to this manuscript when noting that Peter  of Abano, in his  Lucidator astronomiae (1310) “mentions Alchandrus…

“ a successor of Hermes Trismegistus in the science of astronomy but as flourishing before the time of Nebuchadnezzar.”

Thorndike comments

Al chandrus was  scarcely as ancient as that, but the treatise ascribed to him also exists in Latin in a manuscript of the tenth century.. it is full of Arabic and Hebrew words, and professes to cite the opinions of Egyptians, Ishmaelites, and Chaldeans in general as well as those of Ascalu the Ishmaelite and Arfarfan or Argafalan or Argafalaus  the Chaldean in particular.”

Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science, Vol.1 p.711 ff  

Additional references:

The holding library recommends this paper which I’ve not yet seen:

  • Charles Burnett, ‘King Ptolemy and Alchandreus the Philosopher: The Earliest Texts on the Astrolabe and Arabic Astrology at Fleury, Micy and Chartres’, Annals of Science, 55.4 (1998), 329-68 (pp. 334, n. 28, 335, 339, n. 55, 341, 343, 368).

Marco Zuccato’s paper is well researched and documented. It’s available at JSTOR.

  • Marco Zuccato, ‘Gerbert of Aurillac and a Tenth-Century Jewish Channel for the Transmission of Arabic Science to the West’, Speculum , Jul., 2005, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Jul., 2005), pp. 742-763

In sum: Editorial ‘green pencil’?

All of which, together, leads me to think that the ‘green stars’ in that French manuscript are more like marks from an editor’s blue pencil – Someone had to instruct the scribe to add the biblical passage, and perhaps instructed the pictor that his work would not be needed for some parts of the copying.

Might the green stars on folio 67v of Beinecke MS 408 be another case of an overseer’s corrections, rather than indication of the three stars’ having some special significance?

I’ll take a closer look at that in the next post and touch on the fascinating topic of colour and its associations in pre-Renaissance period.

More ideas from Isidore about the stars.

Isidore was a man of his own time, not ours and also believed the following:

lxi. The light of stars (De lumine stellarum). Stars are said not to possess their own light, but to be illuminated by the sun, as the moon is.

lxii. The location of the stars (De stellarum situ) Stars are unmoving and, being fixed, are carried with the heavens in perpetual motion. They do not set during the day, but they are obscured by the brightness of the sun.

lxiii. The course of the stars (De stellarum cursu) Stars are either carried or move. The ones that are fixed in the sky and turn with the sky are carried. But some [like] planets, that is, ‘wanderers,’ move. However, they carry out their roaming courses within a defined boundary. 

  • Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, Oliver Berghof, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, CUP (2006)

Addendum to Part A. extracted from a much longer post first published in Findings (May 15th., 2010). I add it for those interested in the traditions which came to inform western medieval ideas and art, but not to assert or imply that the makers of our fifteenth-century manuscript were so deeply informed.

The ‘bearded sun’ wasn’t the first intimation that the manuscript’s pictorial text’s themes and forms  do not originate in medieval European culture, but it was an important detail, and the idea of a bearded sun was not unfamiliar, but chimes rather well with what Georg Baresh believed about how the material for the manuscript had been gathered.

Carthage between the horns and wine-dark sea as city of god

 I began explaining the diagram and its implications quite early, sharinngthat information, initially, in a post of April of 2010,  and adding more in subsequent posts to clarify e.g. a link to Carthage, to the ‘grape-pressing’ motif seen in early Latin representations of (St.) Barbara and explaining that character’s ancient origin in North Africa, where the ‘grape-crushing’ is partly an allusion to suffering, but also to the “wine-dark sea” as Homer knew. 
Barbara tanit Phoenician stele
As late as the fifteenth century, Ibn Majid confirmed that the mariner-pirates of the north African shore had the same skills and star-lore as his own, and that the two were therefore brethren by that an inheritance which predates the 7thC Ad.  Here’s a little of what I posted on  May 15th., 2010, including the two previous illustrations above and those below. (Notice also the wreathed face at the apex of that Punic tombstone).
In Vezelay, the carver knew, pretty well, what he was about. He knew this figure, the spirit of the wine, was ‘la femme de le barbe’ – or ‘la femme a barbe’ though today the commentary is likely to argue the figure a saintly ‘master’ rather than celestial mistress of the wine. The carver has even known to place the figure’s foot on the highest leaf of the vine
In the classical period, North Africa had a very considerable industry in wine and grapes. It was remembered by the maker of the Atlas Catala, Abraham Creques, who wrote that after the Flood, Noah came to rest in North Africa, and first planted the vine there on the shores between the sea and Monte Clara.
Bedu woman with traditional tattoos. The Bedus traditional star lore relates to wayfinding and maintains proverbs of astonishing antiquity, remembering when Canopus (the ‘lucifer’) fell from a higher place and when the northern pole star was one in Draco, which astronomers inform us was the case from 3942 BC, until 1793 BC when alpha Draconis held that place
The Berber and Bedu tribes of North Africa had been largely instrumental in finding the way for the Muslim armies to successfully enter Spain. At that time they spoke of themselves as the “men of the ribat” – the military tower. The same term is used in that region for the sequence of lunar asterisms which the Arabs call the moon’s resting-places, or manzil al kamar. That sequence described as of 27 or of 28 asterisms is a convenient way to make finer divisions of the year’s circle, and thus to reckon such things as direction time and tide.
The name ‘Barbara’ sounds innocuous enough, but it seems it anciently named the star-[worshipping] people who considered stars to be small, distant lights: “grandchildren of the sun” [bar-bar-ra].
Hourani reports of the eastern tribe of the Azd, formerly of Arabia, that when were these Arab mariners [of the eastern sea] found themselves deep in a trough between mountainous waves, a chant was started which ran: “Barbara and Jafuna: look to your waves. Jafuna and Barbara: your waves are wild [lit: mad]. Jaffna is still the name of a Tamil area in Sri Lanka; the Barbara belonged to both the eastern and western horns of Africa. The greeks employed a similar term to mean ‘barbarians’ as persons who did not speak Greek.