As I’ve said, there are only a handful of images in the Voynich manuscript which employ a visual language, or express a worldview compatible with the customs of medieval western Europe.
However, there is some reflection of Christian beliefs to seen in some of the drawings, one of which is among the plant-pictures.
Having discussed that image quite some time ago, I’ve decided instead to republish part of a different post from voynichimagery, one which alludes to the ‘nails in the wood’ idea, and as a sort of peripheral note for efforts (presently being made by Koen Gheuens and Cary Rappaport) to re-assert the oldest and most traditionalist Voynich theory, namely that the whole content in Beinecke MS 408 as an expression of Europe’s medieval Catholic culture.
I doubt that theory will find support from any qualified and experienced external specialist in western Christian art and culture, but so little is impossible
The written part of what follows I’ve simply copied-and-pasted from the original .. I’ve remounted the illustrations, because wordpress won’t let you see images transferred in that way.
As you’ll see, this comes from what was the last post in a series, published through voynichimagery on May 8th., 2013. I’ve left the written part precisely as published and left in the weblinks for historical reasons.
Afterword (May 8th., 2013) – I have found a late fifteenth-century description of a garden in Egypt where balsam was harvested. It reads very like the image in Manfred’s herbal. – D)
The miracle of life preserved within death.
The paradox of true Balsam oil was that greatest of all; life in and arising from that which was not, or appeared not to be, living.
Even today, in Afrikaans, plants of the Commiphora group ( corkwoods having scented resin; the group includes myrrh) are all known as the ‘unkillable’ or ‘cannot die’ (kanniedood) tree. I expect the Africaans word preserves more ancient terms, once current in lands taken by the Dutch. Exactly the same idea is embodied in a pre-Islamic image from Christian Egypt. Here the Balsam is pictured on the left and with a rising star.
Nor did Christianity first create an association between tree, its two nails and belief in resurrection.
A stele carved for a queen of Egypt’s First dynasty embodies the same ideas (the object to the left standing for the ‘Great House’, and the time of the annual ‘crossing over’ as well as the constellation on which the spirit rose was identified initially with Orion. The term ‘star of the crossing [- over’] remained current in the seventh century AD and mentioned in the Qur’an.
For Egyptian Christians, Coptic was the liturgical language; Christians of Ethiopia developed Ge’ez, but Syrian Christians of the pre-Islamic period maintained Syriac, former language of Rome’s eastern empire, in their texts both secular and religious.
From Syriac originals first-generation translations into Arabic continued to be made to at least as late as the thirteenth century, so had the western church not rejected their more learned brethren in the east, they might have had a copy of Dioscorides a thousand years earlier.
That Coptic manuscript (shown above, and first shown on Alin Suciu’s site) is also what permits me to suggest that Dioscorides’ description o Balsam may not have been referring to C. gileadensis at all, but to a cultivar and possibly a hybrid of Commiphorae now extinct. Dioscorides describes it, as it is shown in that image, as a plant growing no more than a meter or so in height, and having leaves that are ‘like rue’.
Loss of the old groves from Judaea, and balsam being (apparently) soon reduced to a single grove in Egypt, so with the loss of that grove to over-use and a great flood, we may have lost the original plant forever, the grove in Egypt being restocked with C. gileadensis, brought as replacement from Arabia.
(On the reduction, and loss of the first grove at Heliopolis, see article by Milwright, cited below).
C. gileadensis has a more solidly tree-like form, and by the thirteenth century, certainly, that is how Balsam is pictured.
Clear connection to the older Egyptian associations for Balsam are plainly being maintained in the Arab-Christian tradition from which came the picture below. In most Arabic texts, that tradition of the graceful tree is soon lost and the two nails become two knives. Balsam is already a tree in the late tenth-century manuscript from Samarqand.
From Egypt through to Arabia and thence (it would seem) to upper Mesopotamia, older ideas about Balsam were evidently along a line of connection pre-dating the coming of Muslim rule, and passing from Egypt, to Arabia, to Mesopotamia.
More relevant to the Vms’ botanical section, is the typically Egyptian (and, later Indian) custom of picturing a plant with its fruit at the top of the plant and turned upward towards the sun.
This is not invariable, but evidently conventional and a convention unusual enough to be remarked upon.
It is seen in the Coptic image, and in the Voynich imagery, as in Indian art of the Gandharan period, but is much rarer in Muslim art within Islam.
What we find instead is, often, a subversion of the older imagery to remove from it such figures as the heavily robed ‘ancient’ priest and even his young assistant. No longer haloed (or hallowed) figures, they are removed, or reduced to their emblems – here simply knives and not the formerly-traditional iron nails.
However, since it had not been the custom in ancient or even Hellenistic Egypt to provide plants with their roots (save for a few images in medical texts such as the Roberts Papyrus), to add scholia as hieroglyphics, actual or virtual, would be natural enough, creating forms parallel to those of the herbals which Aldrovandi described as ‘of the alchemists’. Here is the usual form for depicting plants in earlier Egypt. This from Karnak’s “herbal chamber”.
As Neal points out, existing manuscripts of that ‘alchemists’ type apparently derive from some original that was in northern Italy in the earlier part of the fifteenth century.
It was in 1419 that Buadelmonte brought Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica to Italy, electrifying the renaissance men of that time, both clerical and lay. Then began a characteristic effort among these people to apply the principles of such ‘hieroglyphiks’ in imagery of their own creation. Dürer most famously.
It should not be forgotten, though, that there were a considerable number of monuments inscribed in hieroglyphic within Rome itself. One Emperor had been so besotted with things Egyptian that he had his own official decrees translated and carved in hieroglyphs. How the populace managed to understand and obey those decrees, history does not relate.
(If you’d like to see the Hieroglyphica in parallel Latin and Greek text, an edition is available at archive.org).
In this way, it is not so surprising to find herbals of that type in vogue for a time in Italy, just as the iconoclastic imagery which tended to replace human figures with emblematic objects, persisted in some regions of Islam.
In my opinion, the absence of natural, or realistic, human figures throughout the Voynich manuscript is due to that same, constantly-recurring objection to picturing living forms which is characteristic of the eastern sphere and communities originating from it. In my opinion, the figures within the Voynich are meant as abstractions, and even then are drawn marred and deformed. In this, I may be in a minority, but it is also a custom attested from before the Roman era, and not absent even from the modern world. For a time it even affected the imagery of Christian Byzantium, as ‘iconoclasm’. However, like the ‘ornate P’ form in the script, this avoidance is most characteristic of regions eastward from the eastern Mediterranean and never noticeably affected the dominant culture of mainland Europe.
Back to the Balsam.
Increasingly, during the later medieval centuries, ‘Balsam’ is shown not as a herb but as a tree with a long, bare trunk.
I should mention in passing that Brit.Lib. ms Egerton 747 is not an exception to the dictum that Europe had no knowledge of the Balsam’s appearance until long after the time the Voynich manuscript was made.
Pace Pavord, I do not think this represents the ‘balsam poplar’ but rather that it is a generic image, a product of some verbal information that the plant resembled a herb or young tree. The form given it has the typical poplar leaf but I think it is probably a generic form and based on no more than that the scent of balsam is very like that released when any poplar’s catkins are crushed. Modern descriptions still speak of it as a balsamic odour.
Thus the wall may be at once imitating an exemplar which in the same way used a generic form for its tree or talisman, or simply a way to remind the reader that Balsam, and the recipe for the Myron was to be closely guarded (‘secretum’).
Even that tenth-century image in the manuscript from Samarqand manuscript might show no more than a generic image for trees that yielded oil or resin. Very similar forms (minus the knives) are used for olive, ben oil and so forth.
The true balsam that had been planted in those groves in Judea to which the Jews took such exception may have been of a cultivar, a sport, or a hybrid which could never be readily propagated and which were first reduced to no more than a single grove at Heliopolis before becoming, in all probability, extinct** due to over-working and a flood.
The tree-like C.gileadensis was certainly the plant brought from Arabia to re-build that grove, until the last of them also died.
So exactly how the original plant looked we don’t know, nor whether it was the plant from Ein Gedi. What is certain is that the older imagery does not show a tree, but something more like a herb, springing without bole or trunk directly from the ground.
C. gileadensis was surely a close relation among the Commiphorae if not the original Balsam.
** an inference by the present writer, from consideration of imagery over the centuries, and Milwright’s account of the Egyptian grove.
I shan’t pursue this topic any further here, but if the reader finds it interesting, do include the following if you can in your reading.
O. W. Wolters, The “‘Po-ssŭ” Pine Trees’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1960), pp. 323-350.
Marcus Milwright, ‘The Balsam of Maṭariyya: An Exploration of a Medieval Panacea’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 66, No. 2 (2003), pp. 193-209.
All the above to explain why, as late as the seventeenth century, a European botanist was able to treat the question of Balsam as still an open one, writing a dialogue discussing its source, and having as the three interlocuters an Arab, a Jew and the European author.
Paradox, mystery and closely-guarded secret.
Balsam oil (C. gileadensis) can be listed on some commercial sites even today. One seller stamps the catalogue-entry with a bright red notice: ‘Expensive’ and then writes ..
Unfortunately, this tree is rare, difficult to cultivate, and highly protected in areas where it will grow. Because of this situation, it seems unrealistic that genuine authentic oil is easy to find.
Note – [27th July] wordpress had kindly let me see images that I’d lazily just copied-and-pasted from my earlier work. Apparently they were not allowing anyone else to see them, which is reminder to me not to take the lazy way in future. If any are still invisible to you, leave a comment or email me.
The author’s rights are asserted.
The ‘T-0’ issue
Those determined to maintain the old Eurocentric narrative have encountered a major difficulty in the fact that there is no evidence of Catholic forms and themes despite its having been the core about which western literacy developed.
It is therefore understandable that a traditionalist whose aim is to find or create support for that Eurocentric Wilfrid- Friedman narrative or some variation of it, will feel inclined to leap on any evidence of input from the Latin west. Despite there being quite literally hundreds of drawings and details in this manuscript that have no counterpart in medieval Latin Europe’s visual vocabulary, the existence of just one Latin practice may well be flourished as proof-positive that everything in the manuscript is an expression of western Christian (‘Latin’) culture and an assertion of Latin gate-keeping over anything which is too obviously ‘foreign’.
One nicely problematic instance is provided by the peripheral north emblem on folio 67v-1.
Biblical Noah, his three sons and Isidore’s little sketch.
Latin Europeans had included together with specifically Christian writings (Gospels, Acts, Epistles), many books of Jewish law and teachings to become their Bible, although few Latins read the Jewish works other than in Latin translation and very, very rarely consulted the Jewish commentaries of which most Latins seem to have remained ignorant.
The Jewish law and writings were also read by Muslims and quite apart from the written tradition, popular tradition itself throughout the near east maintained that after a great flood, none had survived on earth save Noah, his three sons, their wives and such creatures as were taken into the Ark.
Among Latins, however, the habit was to ignore Noah thereafter, and suppose that the world had been divided between- and re-populated by the three sons: Ham occupying Africa; Shem Asia and Japheth, Europe.
That notion was believed, quite literally, by European Christians to as late as the seventeenth century. It was also the origin of the ‘T-O’ diagram of which various Voynicheros have made much, and the earliest example of which comes from a copy of Isidore’s Etymologies.
T-O diagrams were always oriented with largest area of the three always Asia, and always separated Asia from the rest of the world by a line drawn directly along a North-South line.
So there’s a first problem.
This isn’t how the apparent ‘T-O’ diagram is drawn and aligned on folio 67v-1. Instead, the line is drawn at forty-five degrees from that North-South line. Again, I’ve turned the page north-up for readers’ convenience, and shown the European ‘T-O’ diagrams as they were drawn – East up (upper register) and then turned North-up (lower register).
As you see, this emblem in the Voynich manuscript can be described as a ‘T-O’ not because the underlying drawing shows the circuit divided in that way, but because of how the pigments have been added. And here I want to emphasise the detail and precision with which one face of the four has been drawn.
It would be very helpful to know whether the lines marking this circle into three were laid down by the draughtsman-copyist or were a decision made by the overseer-painter(s) whose presence is evidenced in many of the manuscript’s drawings.
So now what do we have here? Was the emblem designed as a ‘T-0’ or has the painter thrust ‘T-O’-ness upon it? Short of spectral analysis I could not offer any opinion save ‘unproven’. (I have checked the reverse using the Beinecke scans and in my copy of the facsimile edition but while what one sees is certainly interesting, and the circle itself is clear, the lines of division are again defined by the pigment, not the underlying drawing.
And neither the drawing itself, nor the pigments explain why the division between Asia and the rest of the world has been differently defined: that is, not by the simple North-South division we find in the Latin T-O diagrams. It’s another instance of why these peripheral emblems do not seem ‘native’ neither according to the Arab, nor to the Latin context.
Of course, there are numerous examples of a four-fold division of the heavens and of the earth, including diagonal divisions which were most natural (for example) in the ornament given a dome. Here’s one from Byzantine-influenced Sicily during the 12thC.
Another drawing from the 12thC correlates another type of fourfold division with the tripartite division of the circle.
and then, from late in the fifteenth century, we find a divergence appear – a traditional ‘T-O’ in a manuscript written in humanist script, versus one written in a “neat, mercantile script”.
The first example comes from a copy of Gregorio Dati’s ‘Sfera’, described by the holding library as:
A navigational treatise in the form of a poem, with numerous illustrations and maps, written in Pesaro on 7 August 1484.”
The second comes from another copy of the same work, described by the holding library as
Manuscript on paper .. of Gregorio (or Leonardo?) Dati, ‘La Sfera’. This rhyming treatise (ottava rima) is divided into two parts: 1) a treatise on astronomy; 2) rules for navigation and the determination of the position of the sea.
Yale University, Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. This manuscript has been digitised. A detailed description and bibliographic record was created by BPL staff based on description by Dr. Lisa Fagin Davis.
It will be recalled (by those who read the posts about dissemination of a ‘4’ shape for the numeral) that introduction and dissemination for that ‘4’ shape occurs in just this same environment (mercantile, computing and navigational) and, further, that the numeral in that form is recorded as early as 1375 – again in a map using the ‘rose-gridded’ style of the new maritime charts.
This great map by Cresques, a Jewish cartographer in Majorca, at a time when none but Genoese and those Majorcan-Jewish cartographers were producing such charts for the Latin world.
More, in that same work we find confirmation that there was a belief then prevalent among the Jews that world after the flood had been divided into four parts, not three, with Noah’s portion being western north Africa where he re-planted the vine – that is, the grape-vine.
That view of the world’s division after the flood was widespread among the Jews, many believing that North Africa had been the original promised land.
Readers may also recall that it was from the south-western Mediterranean and chiefly from North Africa that the new Hindu-Arabic numerals and related forms of calculation were first encountered by Latins, brought to Europe by merchants who encountered them being taught in specifically commercial schools (called ‘abaco’ or ‘abacus’ schools by Latins) of which to that time Latin Europe had none. The numerals and the development of merchants’ “calculation schools” spread in tandem and the students – both adult merchants and their sons – were more interested in practical skills that served their own practical needs than in the theoretical and academic style of the universities.
The convention of separating ‘commercial’ from ‘academic’ streams in education would in fact continue in the western education (or more exactly systems of education in the European sphere) well into the twentieth century.
I am not suggesting that any part of the Voynich text copies Dati’s Sfera – apart from other considerations, that easily-memorised school-text was not produced until August of 1484 – but what it contains was certainly known earlier and it is in the same environment of practical, commercial and navigational knowledge that the peripheral emblems on folio 67v-1 fit best.
What I would suggest is that the diagram might have been meant to have four divisions, not three and that the ‘overseer’-painter has attempted to exercise a form of censorship-as-correction to bring this diagram into line with the ‘official’ forms of traditional Latin scholastics gained from Aristotle and/or Sacrobosco.
As to the stars we find here, they are ones vital to navigation within the northern hemisphere.
What follows was first explained by me in 2012, met by silence – as again when I re-presented the information for the new audience in 2017. Since I find no reason to change my identification and explanation for the four stars and their role in signalling ‘North’, I see no reason not to offer the information to a still more recent and more engaged audience. This is taken from the version published in ‘Ring-o’-Roses Pt 2-ii of 2′ (last updated in 2017), and details as I expressed them in ‘Crux and Ursa Minor in the Voynich manuscript’, voynichimagery.
As I said, when first explaining this North emblem … it seems so very long ago now, but perhaps that impression is magnified by the ensuing silence … the reference here is to Ursa minor, whose β and γ stars were widely known by terms such as the ‘Guards’, or ‘faithful ones’, for their continually patrolling the perimeter of the north, circling about the Pole and serving as a reliable means to mark the watches of the night, guide the traveller, and allow determination of the Pole star’s position when it is obscured.
 all the above has been explained in more detail in earlier posts. e.g. D.N. O’Donovan, ‘fol 67v-i ~ chronological strata’, (first published April 6th 2012; re-printed with minor edits through voynichimagery.wordpress.com October 18th., 2012).The last five years’ work [2012-2017] has refined my reading of various drawings in this manuscript, but I find no reason to alter the explanation provided for this detail from folio 67v-1, and though I no longer think (as I did in 2012) that we must invoke the Armenians as middle-men, it remains a possibility.
South of (below, beneath, under) the Pole star… Polaris and β Ursa Minoris.
Ursa Minor as ‘Phoenicians’ marker of the Pole.
It is important, here, to recall that classical Greek and Roman navigators had not used Polaris, or Ursa Minor to determine the point of the northern celestial Pole.
The top of the Axis is occupied by constellations well known to hapless mariners, guiding them over the measureless deep in their search for gain. Helice, the greater [-Bear], describes the greater arc; it is marked by seven stars which vie with each other in radiance; under its guidance the ships of Greece set sail to cross the seas. Cynosura [the lesser Bear] is small and wheels about in a narrow circle, less in brightness as it is in size, but in the judgement of the Tyrians it excels the larger Bear. Carthaginians count it the surer guide when at sea they make for unseen shores.
Manilius, Astronomica 1.294-302. (1st C. AD)
while Edwin Brown points out that the distinction became a proverbial one:
It became a literary topos that the Greeks guided themselves by the Greater Bear, the Phoenicians by the Lesser … And Gundel is surely right in giving this Phoenician practice as the primary reason why “the majority’ ‘ according to the Eratosthenic Epitome call the Little Bear Phoenice.
Edwin Brown, ‘The Origin of the Constellation Name “Cynosura” ‘, Orientalia, Nova Series, Vol. 50, No. 4 (1981), pp. 384-402
and so ‘Poinike/Phoenike/Phenice’ etc. also became labels for Polaris, while Cynosura became a common term for its constellation, Ursa minor. But that name for Polaris also deserves a reminder for readers that the label by the North star in folio 68r-1 is, in my opinion, meant to read with the same sense.
It is not certain that the Phoenician mirror (detail illustrated right) meant to represent the Dioscuri, but this large ‘compass’-star means they may represent the ‘Guards’ of Polaris who then, as now, could assist those at sea in finding the position of the Pole if that star itself was obscured and for counting the hours of the night watches.
The clearest explanation for the latter use, when it came to be employed by Latin navigators, is offered by E.G.R. Taylor.
For the more on medieval practice in the west, see
E.G.R. Taylor, The Haven Finding Art (1971 edition)
for vocabulary used in the Mediterranean:
Alan Hartley, ‘Astronomical Names in the Romance Languages of Western Europe from Late Antiquity to Early Modern Times”, Romance Philology, Vol. 73 No 2, (2019), pp. 507-30 and his website ‘Logotheros‘.
added (2022) for recent research into the Phoenicians of the west
José Suárez Padilla et.al., ‘The Phoenician diaspora in the westernmost Mediterranean: recent discoveries’, Antiquity Vol. 95 (384) pp. 1-16.
Carolina López-Ruiz, Phoenicians and the Making of the Mediterranean (2022)
However, the easier course is often taken today, using stars in Ursa Major. The following diagram is not literal.
The Mediterranean’s ‘Phoenician star‘ and later western navigators.
Taylor mentions that, for the Latin west, the system which recognised ‘the Guards’ was known “at least by the time of Ramon Llull” – once again turning our attention to the south-western Mediterranean, Majorca and North-west Africa during that period of most interest to us in attempting to discover when the matter in Beinecke MS 408 entered Latin horizons. Ramon Llull was born in Majorca and lived from 1232 to 1315/16, contemporary with the first maker of those ‘rose-gridded’ charts in the Latin world. Pietro Vesconte was a Genoese whose work flourished 1310-1330.
By good fortune, a couple of classical works survive whose authors explain why the Pole star gained its name as ‘ Phoenice’. No such record exists of how its constellation, Ursa Minor, came to be called Cynosura and the question had puzzled historians of astronomy and etymologists, both. Edwin Brown addressed the question once more in 1981, and satisfactorily resolved it, though his paper is not well known, and is all too rarely cited.
Edwin Brown, ‘The Origin of the Constellation Name “Cynosura” ‘, Orientalia, Nova Series, Vol. 50, No. 4 (1981), pp. 384-402.
However, since this section of my post is more relevant to an image on another folio in Beinecke MS 408, I omit for the present post (2022) much of what followed.
* * * * * * *
Identity of stars used for ‘North’ in folio 67v.
While I assume that the single ‘North’ star seen inside the diagram proper should represent Polaris, It might then be considered problematic as to whether the four stars used in the peripheral emblem are intended to refer to Ursa minor or to Ursa major, but just as we saw a trace of eastern influence retained in the diagram on folio 85r (part), so again I believe the Asiatic face signifies eastern influence in content and not just in form.
As I did in the original post, I note again that Hinkley Allen speaks of β Ursa minoris‘ being known to the Chinese as ‘the emperor’ and the larger of the constellation’s doubled stars (γ1) as ‘the crown prince’. On both counts, however, the paper by Y. Maeyama must be preferred though it requires no alteration of my identifications for these four stars: i.e. that the ‘four stars’ are stars of Ursa minor; do not include the Pole star itself, and thus that the Asiatic face is a personification for β Ursa minoris.
We must differ from Maeyama only on one point: β Ursaminoris is not ‘adjacent’ to the Pole but directly ‘below’ it, (see FIG. 8, above) so of all the seemingly discordant sources which Maeyama cites, the nearest to what we see here, informing the drawing in f.67v-1, is the dictum from one of the oldest, most respected, and thus constantly repeated authorities, namely Shih Shen (5thC BC). I reproduce this passage from Maeyama’s paper directly:
What Maeyama concluded from that study of Chinese sources and the Dunhuang star-maps is that the term Thien-i (Celestial unique) was always applied to the Pole star for any given epoch, but Thai-i refers to “the unified celestial symbol of the Pole star and the terrestrial emperor, designated to a star adjacent to the Pole star”. [emphasis, present author]. For the last passage I think it more accurate to say “…assigned to a star below the Pole star” – i.e. β Ursa minoris.
We cannot then say that Polaris was unknown to any but the Phoenicians during the Greek and Roman classical eras. In terms of modern astronomy, of course, Polaris (α Ursa minoris) did not occupy the point of North until the 5thC AD, but the testimony of classical writers is unequivocal: it was certainly no later than the 1stC AD that Phoenician mariners were habitually taking Polaris as Pole star; which practice the Romans saw as some peculiar and semi-religious quirk of Phoenician mariners alone, and saw no reason to adopt themselves.
The overseer-painter who addressed the detail on folio 67v-1, being apparently without authority – at first – to prevent the drawings being rendered with near-facsimile exactness, even if they expressed forms and ideas opposed to the Latins’ world view, academic traditions, religious beliefs, and conventions in art, has had to be content with overpainting – an act of semi- ‘translation’ that alters the sense of the original but which has also distorted the normal orientation and subject of a Latin ‘T-O’ diagram. The ‘T-O’ was exclusively a description of the physical world. Its imposition here on detail whose content is entirely astronomical attempts to assert that although an Asian king might, in fact, dominate the physical world, the same could never be true of that higher ‘world’ of the northern heavens. As we have seen, however, the Chinese at least, saw a closer link between the two.
That the resulting form (as a ‘T-O’) is oriented neither to the usual East, nor to a other cardinal point, but half-way between two of them is another indication that this layer it was not original to the drawing but apparently imposed on it, and awkwardly imposed at that. I think we may fairly attribute the addition of the pigments – and the peculiar result – to some Latin scholastic.
By the time of interest to us, the ‘T-O’ diagram was far more than what it had been – just schematic diagram of ‘three continents’: it had become for the Latins intrinsic to a highly developed and closely-woven mesh of theological, geographic and quasi-historical ideas. It wasn’t something that scholars and theologians could discarded simply because better geographic knowledge had come along, and I find no evidence to suggest that any idea of the physical world as composed of four continents was known to, or accepted by, the Latins’ official learning before 1440. I might mention, though, a diagram from an Occitan manuscript dating to c.1350 or so, and which I’ll have reason to refer to again in the next series of posts.
Merchants and merchant-venturers were more pragmatic than the more sedentary and academic Latin scholars, and what I think we can take from the emblem on folio 67v-1 is that here again we have a drawing of non-Latin origin, brought into that environment by person(s) with open attitudes, wider links and mental horizons, and so conflicting with the ‘official’ learning of scholars and theologians who, like physicians, studied Aristotle and Ptolemy, not works produced for sailors and ‘mere shop-keepers’. As we’ve seen, ‘T-O’ diagrams continued to be produced in formal Latin works for more than a century after the first rose-gridded cartes marine were produced in Genoa and Majorca, and which showed plainly enough that the physical world was not so neatly disposed.
By the time that Dati (or his brother) composed his poem, the era of easy western travel to as far as China had long ended.
Its heyday began after 1291, when Mamluk control over Syria had expelled the last of the foreign occupation forces and the eastern trade which had come through that region was being re-routed through the Black Sea, and Genoa and Venice struggling for dominance in that region. Venice had a certain advantage in the longer term, being included with Byzantine intermediaries as the two great powers – the Mamluks of Egypt and the Mongols – negotiated a working alliance. Latins’ access to the eastern trade via Alexandria fluctuated, being the subject of efforts at embargo and of prohibition by the Mamluks and by European authorities. As so often, the maritime city states put calculation and profit over more theoretical imperatives.
Postscript (July 26th., 2022):
This post is so long that I’ve decided to omit the summary of research into the history of the type of head-dress worn by the Asiatic figure. It is not a Papal tiara, though it is not impossible that Bonifiace VIII added a second ring to assert primacy over the eastern Byzantine regions and that Benedict XII found his contact with eastern Christians a reason to add a third ring to the papal crown.
I found nothing similar associated with a Mongol ruler, but I believe the type of headdress is one descended ultimately from an older type (attested in ancient Harran and associated with Nabonidus), but more nearly related to forms attested in pre-Islamic southern Arabia and in southern India. The example shown at right (FIG 15) shows a Pandyan ruler. Since those regions were Christianised either directly from Egypt during the 1stC AD (as was the oldest Community of Thomas in southern India) or were Christianised from Syria during the 3rdC AD, it is natural to suspect that the figure in folio 67v-1 may be meant for some eastern Christian (‘Nestorian’) patriarch or for a Christian mongol ruler. I note that the first western Pope who increased the number of crowns on the Latin pope’s ‘tiara’ from one to two was – Benedict VIII, who seems to have done this only after representatives of the Church of the East and of the Mongols had come to Italy, France and England. As to the Mongols’ religions:
During the time of the Mongol empire (13th–14th centuries), [the Mongols] were primarily shamanist, and had a substantial minority of Christians, many of whom were in positions of considerable power. Overall, Mongols were highly tolerant of most religions, and typically sponsored several at the same time. Many Mongols had been proselytized by the Church of the East (sometimes called “Nestorian”) since about the seventh century, and some tribes’ primary religion was Christian. In the time of Genghis Khan, his sons took Christian wives of the Keraites, and under the rule of Genghis Khan’s grandson, Möngke Khan, the primary religious influence was Christian.
wikipedia, ‘Christianity among the Mongols’
The Latin pope’s ‘tiara’.
the following is edited from the entry in the Catholic Encyclopaedia.
It is clear from the “Constitutum Constantini” and from the ninth Ordo of Mabillon (ninth century), that for this first period the papal ornament for the head was a helmet-like cap of white material. There may have been a trimming around the lower rim but it had nothing of the character of a royal circlet. The first proven appearance of the word tiara [from the Persian] as designation for the papal head-covering is in the life of Paschal II (1099-1118). The monumental remains give no clue as to the period at which the papal head-covering became ornamented with a royal circlet, but it is mentioned in a statement of Suger of St. Denis (c.1130). During the next period ( up until the pontificate of Boniface VIII 1294-1303 AD, the diadem remained a simple although richly-ornamented [single] ring.
The election of 1294 would bring a change. As Boniface VIII, Benedetto Caetani would add a second crown. It is evident from the inventory of the papal treasures which had been undertaken in 1295 that the tiara at that era had still only one royal circlet.
Three statues of Boniface VIII that were made during his lifetime and under his eyes, and of which two were ordered by Boniface himself, leave no doubt that he introduced the second circlet. Two of these statues are in the crypt of St. Peter’s, and the third, generally called erroneously a statue of Nicholas IV, is in the Church of the Lateran. In all three the tiara has two crowns.
What led Boniface VIII to make this change, whether merely love of pomp, or whether he desired to express by the tiara with two crowns his opinions concerning the double papal authority, cannot be determined.
The first notice of three crowns is contained in an inventory of the papal treasure of the year 1315 or 1316. As to the tombs of the popes, the monument of Benedict XI (d. 1304) at Perugia shows a tiara of the early kind; the grave and statue of Clement V as Uzeste in the Gironde were mutilated by the Calvinists, so that nothing can be learned from them regarding the form of the tiara. The statue upon the tomb of John XXII is adorned with a tiara having two crowns.
The earliest representation of a tiara with three crowns, therefore, is offered by the effigy of Benedict XII (d. 1342), the remains of which are preserved in the museum at Avignon. The tiara with three crowns is, thereafter, the rule upon the monuments from the second half of the fourteenth century.
For more information about the detail I’ve shown above as Fig. 5, see
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 deemdeel 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.
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 (大元). 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.*
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 Horde‘ for 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:
Subsolanus vel Apeliotes: [EAST] “Subte phebe tono,” “I thunder from beneath the [rising] Sun.”
Eurus vel?? [SSE] “Flatus nubes gigno,” or “I cause the clouds to blow.”
Euroauster [SE] “Tellus denique calescit,” or “The Earth finally becomes warm.”
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.
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.