A double post for your spare moments from now to the New Year. 🙂
The author’s rights are asserted.
Abstract: This post considers events around the time when Bodleian MS Douce 313 was made (c.1350), why the crocodile might be introduced (or re-introduced) as November’s emblem then, and whether the statements – and a guess of medicinal purpose – expressed in Georg Baresch’s letter of 1639 are compatible with events of the mid-fourteenth to early fifteenth centuries.
I want to be clear that what follows is no attempt to offer a wide historical survey of plague-related images or -history. It is a pin-point-narrow focus on how one image in a fifteenth century manuscript, and one seventeenth-century document, meet in relation to some few historical moments, persons, records, images and attitudes from the period c.1350-c.1438 and includes one eighteenth-century image because that best expresses a particular religious attitude.
It is an extraordinary moment when one realises that, when John de’ Marignolli left that garment of cannal cloth in Florence, he had just passed unscathed through one region after another where Plague was lurking, and had come back to a Europe where it had been raging for almost six years.
In a time when all Christians of Latin Europe were Catholic, there was added to fear of the disease and grief from loss, an additional fear for the souls of those buried without benefit of confession and too suddenly to have (so to speak) cleared their spiritual debts and made peace with their Gd. Even to be buried in unconsecrated ground was a misfortune.
In the Latin liturgical calendar November 2nd was the day when all the departed were remembered in every church, and with prayers reminiscent of the funeral service: at once asking Gd to forgive sin and offering words of comfort to those present. For many, in time of plague, that day must have gained added significance.
November’s being the month of the dead – the antiquity of that connection, and how Roman thought had come to associate it with Egyptian beliefs has already been outlined and images shown from a mosaic calendar from Roman north Africa and from the semi-Christian Chronography of 354AD.
In those cases the guide who saw souls safely across the bourne had been Anubis or Herm-anubis, but in parts of Egypt itself the ‘bearer/guide’ was a [celestial] crocodile.
more likely imagined as the small and tamer C.suchus than the more savage C.niloticus.
In connection with this drawing (above) I’d like to draw attention to a filler motif also seen in the Voynich calendar’s ‘March’ diagram (right) and in the Voynich map (the latter often called by Voynich writers the “rosettes page”).
On the other hand, that detail from the Roman-era papyrus contains single- and cross-hatching in the strictest sense, neither of which occurs, so far as I’ve seen, in any Voynich drawing.
From the late 1340s, and from a somewhat different angle, Latin Europe would revive that association between death and Egypt, not so much for hope of ancient medicines as for the antiquity and purity of Egypt’s “ancient” Christian tradition.
In the Voynich calendar, November’s beast is not shown simply as a crocodile, as it is in Bodleian Douce 313, but is specifically associated here with death by inclusion of the human skull, given the hat worn by a traveller or hunter, but which here may indicate ‘the messenger’ (angelos) which is death.
To that extent one can say that both Douce 313 and Beinecke MS 408 mean the crocodile to serve as memento mori. Perhaps I should also point out that the usual astronomical type for death was the constellation of Perseus in Greek, Roman and Islamic traditions. Perseus means ‘the Destroyer’. There is little doubt, however, that the Voynich crocodile is meant for Scorpius or for another nearby constellation (a question considered in earlier posts in this series).
Egypt – source of plague, and source of cure.
We do not know the direction from which the group of ten plague ships first brought the Black Death to the western Mediterranean.
They docked in Messina, in Sicily, in October 1347, observing the usual routine by which the Mediterranean sailing season formally ended in that month, not to begin again until the next March.
It is certain that Plague was present in Alexandria “in the autumn” of 1347. Messina, on becoming aware of what those ten ships had brought, ordered them out and they went on to infect nearby islands and Tunis before, or in the very beginning of, 1438.
Many suppose they came from the north as would some Genoese and Venetian ships in January 1348 when, flying for home through winter storms they brought the Plague to their home ports from the Black Sea.
The contagion (as it was described) now began moving through the continent, the very first lines of transmission providing another clear illustration of the most-used southern links. The map (below) omits the sea-link through Gibraltar to England via Bordeaux, scarcely used in winter.
This was not the first time that pestilence, or ‘plague’ had occurred, nor were the precedents unknown to Latin Europe. The best-known, in every case, had been associated with Egypt, or at least the north African coast.
There were the ten biblical plagues inflicted on Pharaoh, of course. The third century (c.261 AD) had seen ‘the Plague of Cyprian’ so-called, and in the mid-sixth century a wave of Plague had devastated the whole Byzantine empire. This last was indeed caused by Yersinia. pestis* as modern research confirms. In 9thC England, Bede reported another plague sweeping through England, one which – he believed – left southern England depopulated, though ‘decimated’ may be more accurate.
added note – (December 8th). A reader queries the date “c.261 AD”. It’s a rough description – hence the ‘circa’ – and really depends on what part of the Byzantine empire is meant. Overall, most historians are pretty much agreed the date-range for that episode of plague begins in about AD 249 and subsides by about 262 AD.
*would be more accurately called Yersin-Shibasaburia pestis, since the plague bacillus in Hong Kong in 1894: was identified simultaneously by Alexandre Yersin and Kitasato Shibasaburō.
- Wael M. Lotfy, ‘Plague in Egypt: Disease biology, history and contemporary analysis: A minireview’, Cairo University, Journal of Advanced Research, Vol.6 (2015) pp. 549-544. Can be accessed through Elsevier ‘Science Direct’ website.
- Description of the plague in Ireland in 1348, written by a Franciscan, John Clyn, has been included in a good wiki article, ‘Black Death in Medieval Culture‘.
- HIGHLY RECOMMENDED – responses in the Islamic world. Justin K. Stearns, ‘Plague and Contagion’, muslim heritage (blog) published 24th August 2020. “We possess dozens of [plague treatises] from the fourteenth and subsequent centuries, and they display a wide variety of approaches to plague and contagion… when it came to medical remedies, … these varied but involved dietary proscriptions, bloodletting, and at times ointments of violets”. This is the only medical use for violets I’ve encountered before the mid-fifteenth century and might one day prove an explanation for the curious addition of that ‘ring-in’ image of the violas in Beinecke MS 408.
In fourteenth-century Europe where learned men were, almost by definition, members of the religious and these remained acquainted with the earliest Christian writers, the severely ascetic style of the first Egyptian anchorites and monks seemed to offer the best advice and solace, though no bodily cure existed. Focus would soon shift, in the Latin west, to less problematic figures than those ascetics but the 1350s have a distinctly ‘Egyptian’ focus on what is termed ‘mortification’. An entry in the Catholic encyclopaedia emphasises, however, that “spiritual writers never tire of insisting that the internal mortification of pride and self-love in their various forms are essential.. external penances good only so far as they spring from this internal spirit.”
To a modern viewer, unacquainted with that literature and medieval ideas about death, the sculpture of which part is seen in the header might be felt ‘weird’ or ‘creepy’ or given some politico-religious interpretation. But when the whole image is considered, including its being given the wings of an angel and the draped cloth evocative of Michael as carrier of souls, there is obviously some other intention behind it.
What the modern reader must appreciate is that, just as in the service (Mass) for the feast of all souls, the emphasis was less on hellfire than on overcoming the natural animal fear which people feel at the sight of death and when in constant fear of death.
Above the figure (below), a shield shows stars divided between upper and lower by a ‘wall’ and regardless of what family’s crest it might have been, the juxtaposition allows the viewer to see this as a reminder that above the visible stars is that other realm whose limits were impassable by mortals, the defended ramparts of heaven, which limit is sometimes marked by the ‘cloudband’.
Consider the whole figure, then, as if you were hearing a sermon in which Cyprian’s account of Plague in his time, and in Carthage, was being quoted.
From Cyprian’s De Mortalitate.
That is not an ending, but a transit, and, this journey of time being traversed, a passage to eternity…
Let us show ourselves to be what we believe.. that when the day of our summons shall arrive, we come without delay and without resistance to the Lord when He Himself calls us...[via his messenger]..
Beloved brethren, with a sound mind, with a firm faith, with a robust virtue, let us be prepared for the whole will of God: laying aside the fear of death, let us think on the immortality which follows…
If we believe in Christ, let us have faith in His words and promises; and since we shall not die eternally, let us come with a glad security unto Christ…
So also in the Psalms, the soul that is devoted to its God in spiritual faith hastens to the Lord, saying, “How amiable are thy dwellings, O God of hosts! My soul longeth, and hasteth unto the courts of God”..
Eusebius in his Chronicon makes mention of the occasion on which Cyprian wrote this treatise, saying, “A pestilent disease took possession of many provinces of the whole world, and especially Alexandria and Egypt; as Dionysius writes, and the treatise of Cyprian ‘concerning the Mortality’ bears witness.” a.d. 252. On the 18thC outbreak, which reached the Adriatic, see here.
So the aim of that sculpture made when Plague was still a constant peril in Latin Europe, was not only to provoke a natural, animal terror at the constant presence of death but, without in any way trying to sweeten or to deny the validity of that fact or those feelings, to lessen that fear and remind the people that the angel of Death – for here it is a great Angel – has as its appointed role to carry the soul between the physical world and the waiting Christ in heaven as a midwife might lift the newborn into the light.
How a modern, secular person reacts to such a sculpture, or what their imagination offers as its explanation is hardly to the point. What we must do is to discover how people who produced this, or any image, used it to speak with their near contemporaries about matters, and in forms, which both understood easily. It is well to remember that in that other country of the past, one is a guest.
During the first wave, the most frequently-mentioned reason for re-emergence of Plague in Europe was excessive self-indulgence – greed, laziness, lust, vanity and gluttony, displays of wealth manifest in fine horses, furs and lap-dogs.
In the next painting, a fresco from burial grounds in Pisa, the theme of penitence and return to the ways of the ‘Desert Fathers’ is already a developed theme immediately before the Plague arrived. In the detail below, the characters are confronted by a man with a scroll and three coffins in which the body’s progressive corruption is shown vividly and accurately. This man with the long ‘ancient’ scroll is Macarius, termed ‘the Egyptian’ to distinguish him from another called ‘the Alexandrian’. He lived c. 300 – 391AD..
The reason for including him was, initially, for the content of his Homilies, but when Plague arrived, one passage would have driven home that call to asceticism and mortification embodied in these frescos, for a passage from the Homilies reads:
Macarius had a prophetic vision, and said to the man who served him, whose name was John, ‘ Hearken to me, brother John, and bear with my admonition. Thou art in temptation; and the spirit of covetousness tempts thee. I have seen it; and I know that if thou bearest with me, thou wilt be perfected in this place, and wilt be glorified, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.
But if thou shalt neglect to hear me, upon thee shall come the end of Gehazi, with whose disease thou art afflicted.’
Modern scholars identify this ‘disease of Gehazi’ as elephantisis and/or Bilharzia (Schistosomiasis) the second producing spots on the skin and caused by a worm – cf. accounts of the ‘cocodril and hydra’ in Latin bestiaries.
Marcarius’ Homilies shouldn’t be supposed obscure. The saint is still commemorated in the Latin liturgical roster and in the Byzantine and Coptic Christian world whose church did not splinter as the western Church was soon to do, Macarius remains an important figure in the east and his Homilies current reading.
Notice that only the crowned figure displays any sign of shame or thoughtfulness, and note too the height of fashion in this part of Italy during the
late fourteenth and early fifteenth late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. correction made 6th Dec., with thanks to Martin K. Menzies for noticing the slip.
From whence? Voynichese
*Concerning the ‘census’ of Franciscan houses mentioned below – that list was not compiled in 1350AD, but from several documents for 1350AD.*
It has to be said that the written text in Beineke MS 408 could have come from almost anywhere, other than the New world or sub-Saharan Africa.
Just two years into the plague’s devastations – that is, in 1350 – a list was compiled that is described as a census of Franciscan houses but better considered a simple record of claim because it does not mention the number of inhabitants in each house.
What it does, for us, is illustrate the range and distance over which, to that time, links had been established between some Europeans and the rest of the world.
Roads were not one-way. Information, goods and people could move along those routes in either direction and by the end of the thirteenth century to, or from, as far as China.
The list of 1350 mentions no house in Egypt, but we know that traders and pilgrims regularly crossed the Mediterranean. Otherwise and apart from the great many Franciscan houses established in mainland Europe, there were now no fewer than fifteen around the Black Sea, including Caffa (‘Vicariate of Aquilonis; Tartaria Aquilonaris). In addition, there are a number listed for Tabriz, another in Amalek on the overland route eastwards, one apparently in what is now Afghanistan and four in China proper.7 For others east of Europe, see the full ‘census’, linked above.
7. The first Franciscan sent to China had arrived sixty years before de’ Marignolli – in 1293/4. This was John of Montecorvino. Here again, I note that the current ‘wiki’ article grossly inflates Friar John’s social status while omitting mention of the fact that he travelled as a Franciscan friar, not in the least as a secular diplomat might do by the sixteenth or seventeenth century,.
John was largely dependent for assistance on an Italian merchant who was already by that time established in India and, apparently, in China. Friar John was never permitted to return home and died in China in about 1328. Scholars doubt the authenticity of two letters attributed to him. The very late, and Chinese, image of him which the wiki writer has used is highly imaginative.
I do not, however, discount the possibility that we might owe to John some, at least, of what is now in Beinecke MS 408. As I pointed out some time ago, the first folio of Beinecke MS 408 displays a motif that appears to me as an effort to copy, using a quill pen, an inscription originally written with the vermillion brush. Other proposals have been made by other writers. By September 12th., 2010 Rich Santacoloma had collected and shared ‘single bird’ images found in western manuscripts. The work was done again with greater or less success by later writers.
Once again, I should say that the historical data is not offered to promote, or even to infer some theory of authorship for the Voynich manuscript.
At present, the aim is to show that Egypt was not some misty, distant place but an ordinary and busy part of the Mediterranean world – and to show too that for some in western Europe, first-hand knowledge of regions lying east of the Mediterranean did not wait on da Gama. Nor did it depend on some Latin having to ‘fetch’ everything. Some things were brought and simply bestowed upon the west. I’ve noticed that many traditionalists struggle with the idea that in contacts between Europe and elsewhere, the active ‘masculine’ role was not inevitably played by the Latin.
Whatever cryptographers and linguists may think about Jorge Stolfi’s statistical analysis of Voynichese, history presents no obvious opposition to his conclusions..
And while my own analyses of the plant-pictures found them not especially concerned with medicine, we must at least ask whether Baresch’s guess that the work was about medicine is reasonable. I think that though he does not say so, his hope was that the manuscript contained a remedy against plague. After all, Plague had driven Rudolf II from Prague and had killed John Dee’s wife in England. In the seventeenth century, it was still a present danger.
Egyptian Medicinal goods – without prejudice.
“There is no man who lives and, seeing the angel of death, can deliver his soul from his hand.” Psalm 89:48 from the Targum – the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew bible.
That John Tiltman appears to have conducted a pretty thorough survey of the western herbal manuscripts and related literature and then spoken, in highly diplomatic phrasing, of the null result should have been taken as significant by all Voynich researchers thereafter. But that is another important piece of evidence either ignored or for which some ad.hoc. ‘excuse’ has been offered by traditionalists intent on the hunt for evidence to lend the old ‘Latin herbal’ idea more colour.
It is simply for the sake of balance, then, that I’ll touch on this question of physic in terms of links between southern Europe and Egypt during the Plague years of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries.
About forty years after we think the Voynich quires were inscribed, an Italian Jewish traveller, Obadiah da Bertinoro, wrote of his journey to Egypt. He speaks of the crocodile’s scales as ‘spots’ but for us the most interesting part of his account are details he gives about a fellow passenger on the ship carrying them from Italy towards Egypt in 1481.
Da Bertinoro describes R. Meshullam ben R.Menahem of Volterra as a merchant whose brother R. Nathan, a physician, was then the most distinguished man in Rhodes’ Jewish community.
An early fifteenth-century manuscript by a Venetian of Rhodes who is known simply as ‘Michael of Rhodes” can be seen and its contents discussed in pages at the website of the Museo Galileo, Museum and Institute for the History of Science. [HERE] Michael was first introduced to Voynich studies several years ago in posts to Voynichimagery treating analysis of the Voynich map in the context of maritime matters, mathematics, fifteenth-century iconography and cartography.
Rabbi Meshullam also gave an account of that journey. It too has survived. We learn that in Egypt he encountered the Nagid, the most important official in Cairo, and found that the man was one who had come to his father’s house in Florence more than twenty years before. The Nagid, in true Muslim* style, was generous in his turn, had sought out the son of one who had earlier offered him hospitality in Italy, and we are told that among the many honours and benefits be showered on R. Meshullam was one that was very valuable indeed, not least for the Rabbi’s brother. It was
“a list [or catalogue, or inventory] of all the goods which come into Egypt twice a year, which the gentiles take to Christian countries. There are 3,000 different kinds of goods, mostly spices and medicines.”
*I ought to have said ‘Islamic’ because while Cairo’s culture was informed by Muslim attitudes to the stranger, R. Meshullam is vague about whether the Nagid was a Jew (and if so whether Rabbanite or Karaite), or whether by then Muslim. He might even have been a Mamluk. The position of ‘Nagid’ suggests particular responsibility for the Jewish communities. – note added Dec.5th., 2022.
This is no basis for arguing direct connection between R.Meshullam and the Voynich manuscript’s contents. It does illustrate the lines of connection between southern Europe and Egypt during the fifteenth century, and further that such a list, or catalogue, or inventory was part of the city’s administration at that time, and at that time most of what was being bought by Christian traders (chiefly Genoese and Venetian) were ‘mostly spices and medicines’.
The fact that the Nagid presented R. Meshullam with that list, and the Nagid was chief overseer of tax collection is interesting for two reasons: first because it suggests the list/inventory/catalogue was part of Cairo’s administration and not one produced solely by and for those who bought, sold or used the goods.
Taxation is the most obvious reason for the Nagid’s having such a list, or inventory, or catalogue and it would be wrong to imagine that by presenting the list the Nagid was simply trying to obtain another buyer for those goods. We know from other merchants handbooks and records (such as the Zibaldone da Canal), that merchants simply traded direct with other merchants, the authorities’ involvement being linked to taxation and to criminal matters.
That ‘list’ was a gift of value because while, say, a tourist can travel through any foreign market and see what plants are on offer – living, dried or otherwise – he has no words from the local language with to name them and no idea of their virtues without some additional guide. In what languages, or how many languages those 3,000 and more ‘exotic’ items were named in the list given to R. Meshullam; whether the list/inventory/catalogue was illustrated.. and much else one would love to know, the Rabbi simply does not say.
Taxation is certainly the constant theme of the authorities and of the foreign travellers and traders, who never fail to speak of it.
By analogy with known practices elsewhere on the ‘spice routes’ we may raise the possibility that in Cairo too, the text-book for taxation for such goods took as its template some well-known herbal, all goods including those being taxed on entry and on exit.
The Chinese is the best-known example of using a herbal – in this case works of the ‘Bencao’ genre – as a basis for taxation, but this is not the place to revisit my investigation of the ‘tax-list’ possibility and objects described by archaeologists as ‘tax buckets’. I include one among the images shown in those posts and I daresay that somewhere in the filing cabinet of some Voynich ‘completist’ there may exist printed off copies of the whole series of posts. (And no I didn’t conclude that all the artefacts in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section were tax-buckets).
Within medieval Latin Europe some pharmacies, we know, did display those herbals and others texts they were expected or obliged to have and use.
In fifteenth-century Cairo, instead, foreigners purchased goods from and some actually maintained the type of warehouse complex called by Arabs and by some Euroeans ‘funduks’. Genoa, Venice and ‘the Franks’ had, according to R. Meshullam, five such fonduks in Cairo: two each for the first two city states and one for all ‘the Franks’. Overall, one has to agree with Georg Baresch that “it is easily conceivable that..
..some man of quality went to oriental parts in quest of true medicine (he would have grasped that popular medicine here in Europe is of little value). He would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art, brought them back with him and buried them in this book in the same script. This is all the more plausible because the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in Germany.
Letter of Georg Baresch to Athanasius Kircher, 1639 AD (transcription, transliteration and translation by Philip Neal).
He also says, and others who wrote to Kircher attempted to support him in this, that Baresch’s interest was not in money but in medicine, as:
“the most beneficial branch of learning for the human race apart from the salvation of souls”.
There’s no suggestion of medicine or of money about the Voynich calendar’s month-emblems and I think it reasonable to conclude that its November emblem speaks more to the soul’s peril as to the body and that in this case the constellation or sign is of secondary interest.
which . if you’ve read this series from the beginning … is pretty much where we began.
next post: Money Matters: Remedies, wealth and secrecy.