The depiction of C.Sergius Orata in a fifteenth-century French manuscript provides him with seemingly inappropriate ‘oriental.Asiatic’ dress. In the previous post, I argued that this was no arbitrary decision on the painter’s part and, further, that while the immediate cause was a misreading of Pliny, it owed something too to a broader impression among Romans of that era (1stC BC – 2ndC AD) that an ‘oriental’ character affected certain men in Campania engaged in large-scale fish-breeding – and all the more when it involved building large pools or a re-working the landscape in a way evocative of Byzantion, renowned for its abundance.
Byzantion’s coins reflect its reputation with an emblem of ‘two – or more – fishes’.
Fish ≈ Star: ‘Oriental’ character in Byzantion.
The drawing (left) is dated to 1422 which, as most readers will know, is near enough to the mid-point of the radiocarbon range (1404-1438 AD) obtained by the University of Arizona from samples of vellum taken from the Voynich manuscript.*
In that linked article about the radiocarbon dating, a caption describes the date range (1404-1438) as “the beginning of the Renaissance”- an unfortunate addition to the scientific matter. “The Renaissance” is not a chronological epoch with a set date as beginning and end, and to employ it in connection with the Voynich manuscript’s date-range was ill-advised. Whether or not the scientists (or article-writer) knew it, to use that term for those years is to imply the content and imagery in the Voynich manuscript was first formed in Flanders, France or Italy. Though such ideas are part of certain speculative theories, they are not a matter of fact. Even by the end of that range – 1438 – the term ‘Renaissance’ is to be applied with care, and on a case by case basis, if describing objects. images or script. What one writer might call a work of the ‘early French Renaissance’ – such as the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry – another writer (perhaps better informed) would describe as ‘late International Gothic’. The image at right, for example, is described as a ‘product of the Spanish Renaissance’ but still carries more of the medieval Spanish than what is generally envisaged as ‘Renaissance’ style. It was painted between 1482-1502.
Pace Pelling and others – the mages in the Voynich manuscript are not expressions of ‘Renaissance’ style – not in attitude to depiction, nor admiration for the human form, nor drive towards literalism, nor use of perspective, nor techniques of drawing. No matter when he lived, the first enunciator was unaffected by the ideas and practices of the European ‘renaissance’.
The drawing shows Pera (north/top) and Constantinople (south/below) as they appeared in 1422 when the Florentine Franciscan, Cristoforo Buondelmonti, visited the region, the account of his travels entitled Liber Insularum Archipelagi (“A Book on the Islands of the Archipelago”),.
Thomas Thomov, ‘New Information about Cristoforo Buondelmonti’s Drawings of Constantinople’, Byzantion Vol. 66, No.2 (1996) pp..431-453.
IN the days when Orata, Strabo and Pliny lived, Byzantion used a second emblem on its coins as alternative – effectively as synonym – for its ‘two fishes’, and this other certainly implied at that time a connection to ‘oriental’ ways. It was formed as a Syrian star on a crescent. As you see from the insets (left, above), the motif continued to be used and to carry significance for the city long after its Christianisation. But – as we’ll see again in speaking of fishpools in Syria – a practice may survive changes of rule and of religion.
As distinct from the Mesopotamian custom of depicting a star with eight rays, or the invariable practice of the Egyptians in having a star of five points, the most usual custom in Syria was to have a star of six points. This customary regional distinction was never part of Latin thought, but may appear in Latin works when a text or an object is closely copied from some older and non-indigenous work – whether at one or more remove. In any case, the six-pointed star on these coins for pre-Christian Byzantion was consciously ‘Syrian’.
In the 12thC AD illustration shown in the header, the message was that the person being crowned was secondary ruler of ‘all below the moon’ – in other words, of matters mundane, though simultaneously elevated to serve as the ‘shield’ of those below him and to become an intermediary between humanity and deity. For other proposals see:
Christopher Walter, ‘Raising on a shield in Byzantine iconography’, Revue des études byzantines Vol,33 (1975), pp. 133-176.
IN earlier times, the crescent shape could evoke any number of well established associations – the physical moon, of course, and various deities such as Isis, Selene or the Roman Luna. But it would have suggested, too, the horns of a bull, and that ’round ship’ which served throughout the classical Greek and Roman periods as the quintessential cargo-vessel for people or for goods.
To depict the ’round ship’ then became a convention of Mediterranean art, and in this way its form survived in both Byzantine and Latin works to as late as the fourteenth century. To envisage the night skies as the shield of the world, or as a sea on which the moon and stars sailed were other natural metaphors, none exclusive of any other. In Egypt, the ‘star-ship’ was envisaged instead as a shallow-draught reed-boat.*
*The ’round ship’ was developed by the Syro-Palestinian seamen over the period from 1500BC-1200BC, the design proving so practical it remained in use for at least two millennia more than three and a half thousand years.
Artemis with Aphrodite at Pera.
Of the two coins shown (above, right), the earlier maintains Hellenistic style, and pairs the ‘star-on-crescent’ with a deity. In this case we may identify that figure with one or both of those worshipped at Pera until at least the second century AD. If you missed the previous post, that precinct lay at Bolos, on the eastern side of Pera.* and though dedicated to Artemis Phosphoros, it was where ‘mild Aphrodite’ was honoured too. The cult was active during Claudius Ptolemy‘s lifetime.
* Bolos “on the east part of Galatea (Pera)” according to Richard J.A.Talbert (ed.), Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World: Map-by-map Directory, Volume 1 Map 53. Key p.801.
Stella Chrysochoou, in her paper ‘Ptolemy’s Geography in Byzantium’ (academia.edu} comments on the fact in Byzantium from the ninth century to the twelfth “there was a tendency to comment on the writings of Strabo and Ptolemy jointly, treating them as complementary to each other other.”
Just in passing, here, I’ll mention that when the earlier of those ‘star in crescent’ coins was made, Ephesus in Asia minor was still showing on its coins the type of ornate baskets known as ‘cistophorus’ or ‘cista’. The type was first disseminated from Pergamon, and issued between c.170 BC until 140 BC – which overlaps with (e.g.) the composition of Polybius‘ The Histories. When the Voynich manuscript was made, Polybius’ work was known to only a few among the literati of Florence – but among them was Leonardo Bruni. For more on that last matter see e.g.
Gary Ianziti, ‘Between Livy and Polybius: Leonardo Bruni on the First Punic War’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 51/52 (2006/2007), pp. 173-197.
“The cistophorus (Ancient Greek: κιστοφόρος, kistophoros) was a coin of ancient Pergamum. It was introduced sometime in the years 175–160 BC at that city to provide the Attalid kingdom with a substitute for Seleucid coins and the tetradrachms of Philetairos.”
Scholars in classical and ancient studies may not need the next two posts.
For the convenience of Voynicheros I’ll be treating as briefly as possible the equation of Artemis Phosphoros with aspects of the Syrian goddess, before turning to mentions of Artemis with kanephorai and then tracking in outline the shifting sense and significance of kan[e]on and kaniskos – those objects into which were placed a variety of things for the continuing protection of a city. The outline will cover (lightly) the centuries from the pre-Roman period to the fourteenth century. Thereafter, we turn to re-consider the implications of the so-far unparalleled combination of star (aster), ‘string’, patterned container and anthropoform figures in the Voynich month-diagrams, found chiefly in its ‘March’ diagram.
The following should have been listed in the previous post:
Thomas James Russell, Dionysius (of Byzantium), Byzantium and the Bosporus: A Historical Study, from the Seventh Century BC Until the Foundation of Constantinople (OUP; 2017). The two ‘Hierons’ see p. 41
on the eastern and greater ‘Hieron’ see Alfonso Moreno, ‘Hieron: The Ancient Sanctuary at the Mouth of the Black Sea’, Hisperia, 77 (2008) pp. 655-709.
Header: detail from f.179 in Brit.Lib. MS Harley 4375/3, a translation of Valerius Maximus‘ Facta et Dicta Memorabilia (Memorable Doings and Sayings..); (inset) detail from a mosaic made in the region of Carthage 1st-2ndC AD, (a century or two after Sergius Orata lived). British Museum.
MINUS THE INSET, the image shown in the header illustrates one sentence from Book 9 of Valerius Maximus’ Facta et Dicta, viz:
C. Sergius Orata pensilia balinea primus facere instituit. quae inpensa a levibus initiis coepta ad suspensa caldae aquae tantum non aequora penetravit.(9.1.1)
As first published in English, from the translation by Samuel Speed. that paragraph and the next together read:
There are more recent translations, but Speed’s was the first to be published in English, and appeared four years after Athanasius Kircher’s death.
Excerpts from Valerius Maximus occur as early as the tenth century in the Latin west, and it is possible that the fifteenth-century conception of Orata’s ‘hanging baths’ pre-dates Nicolas de Gonesse‘s translation of Book 9. I’ve not looked at the earlier manuscripts. Any wanting to doing so might begin with:
Dorothy M. Schullian, ‘A Revised List of Manuscripts of Valerius Maximus’, Miscellanea Augusto Campana. Medioevo e Umanesimo 45 (1981), 695-728 (p. 708).
WHAT HAS THIS TO DO WITH THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT? (c.1770 wds)
In brief – nothing. At least nothing directly, but it has become the norm that imagery in this manuscript is compared with items from Latin European works which are prettier, easier to understand and much more luxurious than the Voynich manuscript itself, so I thought this would be an easy way to introduce the month-diagrams’ ‘ladies’ without causing sudden shock and the sort of unthinking remarks which shocked persons tend to make.
More to the point, it lets me establish three points from the outset:
that the image from the Harley manuscript cannot be argued any explanation for the month-diagrams, as I expect some might be eager to do, seeing it fitting neatly with certain other Voynich theories about ladies, baths, magic, plumbing and ‘central Europe’. But it won’t do, and explaining the fact may prevent researchers’ wasting their own time or adding to that confusion with which the study is already so beset.
that the fifteenth-century translators and illustrator should not be underestimated. Valerius speaks of Orata as a fish farmer, Pliny of Orata’s growing oysters. Despite the fifteenth-century translator and painter having put human figures in these baskets, it makes perfect sense in the “Orataean” context that they should have made them baskets, and not the stave-built barrel we see when medieval people are shown taking a modest bath. The painter has shown containers able to drain very readily rather than anything able to hold water for long enough to take a bath in the Latin style (Greek baths differed). I think Fagan has the right of it, and is largely in harmony with the thinking of those medieval translators and painter, for he says that Orata’s invention (pensilia balinea) had nothing to do with humans’ bathing. We do better to envisage Orata’s ‘suspended baths’ as a variant form of lift-net fishing [see image, below, left] and/or as being related to that practice, still-usual, by which shellfish are maintained alive after harvesting, immersed in fresh sea-water until fully grown and so purged of any contaminates before being cooked or sent to market. I suppose it is even possible the basket-full might have been dropped directly into heated water but in in any case, a light, rapidly-draining container – of netting or of woven sea-grass – would be entirely practical. The image below (right) proves it was. And where Valerius speaks chiefly of Orata’s fish-farming, Pliny dilates on his unfortunate interest in shellfish.
(The Harley painting is too early and insufficiently northern to be about ducking witches.)
That the landscaping efforts by Orata and his fellows in Campania must be seen in the context of the reputation which, at that time, adhered to the harbour of Byzantion and the Horn, just as it had for millennia before and to as late as the fifteenth century. The astonishing abundance of those waters was viewed as a wonder in the ancient and classical world and the same classical authors in whom fifteenth-century Latin Europe was so interested dilate on the subject. I quote from a couple of those sources later in this post. In a way scarcely conceivable now when our food supply is constant and arrives indifferent to seasons and without our labour, Byzantion’s bountiful supply of food from the sea was regarded with awe, the city’s commercial production of salted and pickled fish provided a large part of the city’s wealth, even in medieval times. Salt-dried and -pickled fish, but particularly the dried had been the mainstay of Roman armies and remained the principal food for those travelling by sea. A fish sauce called garum is believed the invention of Phoenicians or of Greeks, and although a late imperial Roman tax on salt saw garum production sink rapidly in those times, a century after the Voynich manuscript was made, Pierre Belon found “scarcely a shop without it” in Constantinople (formerly Byzantion and later Istanbul). Belon adds that it was all made in Pera (“Pere”) (p.78)
It made perfectly good sense, and good economic sense for Orata and his fellows to attempt to re-create that environment in the Bay of Naples.
Pierre Belon, Les observations de plusieurs singularitez et choses memorables trouvées en Grèce, Asie, Judée, Egypte, Arabie et autres pays étrangèrs (Paris, 1553). Published first in French and English, the Latin edition appeared in 1589. The reference is on p.8 of the 1553 edition. Belon visited Istanbul in c.1547-8.
a quick basic overview of trade, goods and taxes in medieval Constantinople is in Mark Cartwright’s article for the Ancient History Encyclopaedia. here.
I’m not suggesting that the tiered ladies of the Voynich month-diagrams are sea-food in disguise… but puzzling over the Harley image and its odd features led me to enquire further and, one thing leading to another as it tends to do, I was brought, eventually, to the point where I could conclude that the Voynich month diagrams had originally ‘spoken Greek’ and to identify the set of terms, and ideas, most relevant to the way the ‘bodies in barrels’ are depicted in folio 70v-i.
I exempt from this description of ‘Greek-speaking’ the diagrams’ central emblems. Not because it is impossible they also originated in a Greek-speaking environment but because they appear to be late additions to the material (after c.1330 but before 1438) by which time – as I was also able to conclude from other studies and enquiries of this manuscript – the greater proportion of material now in the Voynich manuscript had entered the Latins’ domain. This makes it more likely – if not certain- that the central emblems were taken from a source in some language familiar in those regions at the time; perhaps a Latin work, or one written in a western European vernacular, in Occitan, French, Anglo-Norman, Hebrew or a dialect of it.. or even Aramaic etcetera. More likely; not certainly but in 2011, I expressed the opinion that the central emblems may have been copied from a work then in Fleury but dating to c.10thC AD. (This was before mention of France became acceptable to the ‘central European’ theory-holders, for which change we must thank Ellie Velinska’s longstanding fascination with the Duc de Berry more than any body of objective evidence.)
What is certain is that when ‘matches’ are claimed for the month- diagrams by writers adducing some detail from a Latin manuscript, all but the sequence of central emblems is omitted from their efforts, and even when treating those, the more optimistic sort of Voynichero swans past indifferent, or oblivious, to points at which the proposed ‘match’ fails – historically, iconographically or technically. Here, once again, I must mention Koen Gheuens‘ work as exceptional because he has paid attention to (e.g.) the fact that the Voynich ‘scales’ are of a type quite unlike those pictured in the medieval Latin manuscripts or adduced by other Voynicheros.
The critical detail is a second and thinner crossbar threaded through the wider. It is very clear in the Voynich emblem, and although the example cited by Gheuens is not unambiguous – that is, one might argue that its knob and hook were fixed into the end of a solid bar rather than being the termini of a thinner rod threaded through the larger – nonetheless it is a creditable potential match and he deserves credit for accepting rather than waving away that problem of very different construction. The diagram you see below the scales in that pocket calendar records the hours of darkness and of daylight for the month of September. I’ll come back to to the curiously nomadic history of such calendars later in the series, but the fact is they hop about – between England and the Scandinavian countries at first, and then make their way inland after some time.
To my knowledge no-one has ever found a comparison for any of the Voynich month- diagrams. No-one had done so before Panofsky, and he could find none closer than those in the Libros… No closer comparison seems to have been found since. Nor have I offered one.
What I’ve done is draw conclusions about first enunciation and, thereby, intended significance. And this because, just as you can’t read a book by just looking at it you can’t read the ‘thousand words’ by just looking at a picture.
I think it quite possible, after doing that work, that the ‘labels’ for figures in the Voynich month diagrams may be place-names. And while it may be a natural assumption that, were this the case, the system invoked would be the generalised type of chorographic astrology, it should not be forgotten that between a star’s position on the celestial globe and that of a specific place on the terrestrial globe, correspondence can be literal, and very literal, practical types have known so from before Babylon’s first brick was laid. Every ancient literature in the world presumes the stars were made for nomads, farmers, herders and mariners. Not one supposed them made for astrologers.
Several of my readers have commented on the curious fact that, after I introduce some new item or conclusion such as that the labels might be place-names, the same proposal appears without mention of the source not long afterwards in one or another ‘Voynich’ venue, where it tends to be lightly tossed about as some random ‘idea’ which had just occurred to the participant regardless of the fact that several others know quite well where this ‘idea’ came from.
I’m afraid that a decade’s unremitting efforts on the part of one or two theorists has had its effect; to admit that you are among the hundred or so people who read each post, and one of the ninety or so who don’t mis-use the material has become a bit risky if you appreciate being among the peaceable. It is now ok to help yourself, but in public arenas ‘not done’ to do be honest and open about it. If you do, it is a dead cert. that someone will soon appear on the lists and try to show you the error of your ways.
But, as I say, to help yourself is perfectly acceptable – to those omnipresent few theory-touts, and to me. Where we differ is that I consider my research and its original observations and conclusions should be re-used with mention of my name, and they don’t. One understands their situation; it just messes things up if you’re getting everyone on board with your theory, to admit that half the new ‘ideas’ you use to inspire the crew have been lifted from work you don’t quite understand, other than it seems to undermine the theory. Getting fellow believers to work it up in new form. one consistent with your theory and so re-assign credits to fellow-believers surely does keeps everything nice, neat, homogeneous and attractive to visitors. But it cannot be called honest, or helpful to those more interested in the fifteenth-century manuscript than in stories woven about it.
Which is another of the reasons why, now that I’ve decided to put a little more online in treating these diagrams, I won’t providing just an illustrated precis and a short reading list as I did in posts to Voynichimagery. This time, I’m setting out, step by step, the process by which I finally gained the conclusions I did (though I’ll ‘telescope’ a little). I expect most will find it fairly hard-going – because it was – and I shouldn’t be surprised to lose a few theorists in the maze. 🙂
So – to the fifteenth-century depiction of C. Sergius Orata and ‘bodies in baskets’.
“Bodies in Baskets” – Part A
C. Sergius Orata
Modern scholarship has tended to look more to Pliny’s account of Orata but for our purpose, Valerius’ is the more valuable. Pliny wrote later, and was a military gent and a friend of the Emperor Vespasian, highly conservative in the Roman fashion and inclined to think Orata ‘orientally’ sensual and venal: “not quite one of us”. This bias is vented by speaking of little but Orata’s cultivating oysters (a little too close to the murex, perhaps?), and scarcely mentioning Orata’s fish-farming, on which Valerius concentrated. Nor does Valerius suggest a commercial motive as Pliny would do later.
Despite his name, Orata might indeed not have been quite ‘Roman’. At the time when he was most active in Campania (the region of Capua and the Bay of Naples) it was still chiefly Greek and Samite. Even a century later Strabo names Naples among the few remaining bastions of civilisation in the peninsula, the rest having succumbed in one way or another to – as Strabo puts it – the barbarian Romans.
Strabo, Geographia VI, 253 = VI.1.2)
The painter dresses Orata by combining conventions for an ‘oriental’ with faintly Byzantine overtones, but I do not think it due to his consulting any eastern ‘Byzantine’ – nor relying on artistic imagination.
On Byzantine ‘Greeks’ in medieval western Europe, a good brief overview:
It seems to me that, the painter being provided with Pliny’s comments in addition to those of Valerius, misconstrued Pliny’s second-to-last sentence, having failed to notice that Orata was no longer the subject. After a long passage about Orata, Pliny at the end shifts suddenly and swiftly from Orata, by way of Licinus, Philip and Hortensius, to Lucullus – another fish-fancier of Naples, though omitting that name in his second-to-last sentence, which translates as:
At which, Pompey the Great called him “Roman Xerxes” in his long robe.
Orata’s upper dress appears as if of shot silk,* and the ‘long robe’ is given by the painter to other eastern figures, including ‘Sardanapalus‘. Thus the ‘Persian’ of Naples, Lucullus, becomes the ‘oriental’ and not-quite-Roman, Orata. Yet the elegance with which the painter conveys by these means Orata’s social rank, ‘oriental’ tendency to luxury, and even a suggestion of the effete (the inclusion of a luxurious version of the Roman feminalia) is supremely elegant. The reader expecting a literal and historically-correct ‘portrait’ will be disappointed, but those who are aware of the degree to which medieval imagery is less illustration of a text than its reiteration will see how easily the image committed to memory might then be ‘re-read’ – its several devices allowing cultured, impromptu remarks on the subjects of fish, baths, and Sergius Orata according to Valentius and to Pliny.
*as samite? By the late medieval period, samite had come to be “applied to any rich, heavy silk material which had a satin-like gloss”.
The sentences where Pliny shifts from discussing Orata also explain his concentrating on Orata’s oysters: Pliny knew of Roman nobles who weren’t to be supposed ‘oriental’ or effete, and they (sadly misled) had also raised fish.
In those same days, but somewhat before Orata, Licinius Murena devised pools and stewes to keep and feed other types of fish, and his example being followed by certain noblemen , they did likewise – namely Philip and Hortensius. Lucullus cut through a mountain near Naples for this purpose – that is, to bring an arm of the sea into his fish-pools, the cost of doing more than the house he had built. At which, Pompey the Great called him ” Roman Xerxes” in his long robe….
-which shows that Pompey knew his Herodotus. And that Pliny was thinking of the Bosporus in connection with this behaviour.
It is true that by conventions of Byzantine art, red boots were a mark of any eminent personage, including kings of whom nothing more was known than references in the Biblical narratives.
Red boots – Medes, Persians, Romans and Byzantines
A good, brief up-to-date account of Byzantine Greeks in early fifteenth-century Italy:
On the significance and history of red boots, which subject specialists in Roman history still debate with surprising warmth:
***Maria G. Parani, Reconstructing the Reality of Images: Byzantine Material Culture and Religious Iconography 11th-15th Centuries (Brill: 2003)***
Specifically for the controversy over red calceusmulleus, see Ryan’s notes:
Francis X. Ryan, Rank and Participation in the Republican Senate (1998) pp.55-6 and notes.
Irfan Shahîd, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, Volume 2, Part 2 (1995) passim esp. pp. 161-168.
The boots given Orata may, or may not, be ‘Byzantine’ but his hat was never worn in Constantinople – or if ever, not after the 3rdC AD. It is another of those ‘speaking devices’, a conventional bit of visual shorthand, of a type widely used in medieval imagery.
Headwear of such a sort appears with variations in medieval art as token for the ‘easterner’ and, in this form, chiefly as sign of the eastern Egyptian or Jew. The version shown (left) has its crown-like brim less strongly indented than Orata’s is, but this mounted figure is meant for a younger Moses, as prince of Egypt and overseer of Jews’ labour. (Note that the roughly parallel lines used for the horses’ manes is not the technique we call ‘parallel hatching’).
discarding bad habits:Wrecking-rocks of literalism and the whirlpool of pareidolia.(900 wds)
In terms of iconography there is a major difference between the Voynich ‘ladies in barrels’ and the detail from that fifteenth century manuscript picturing Orata and the ‘bodies in baskets’.
A modern, western reader who has no Latin may well consider Orata’s hat and costume odd and the elevated tubs odder still, but it would not require group effort, for more than a century, to make sense of the image overall. It is immediately plain to us that we are to interpret those figures of men and women literally; that the tubs are to be read as bath-tubs, and whatever bewilderment might be felt about the purpose of that image, the image itself is comprehensible. We do not speculate about whether, perhaps, Orata is sitting in a tent watching clouds pass and imagining them baskets. We are not so bewildered by our inability to read its intended meaning that we resort to asserting it the work of a sex-crazed, foolish, immature, or deliberately deceitful person attempting wantonly to conceal from us the information to which we have no key within our existing range of knowledge and experience.
That so many, on realising their inability to read imagery in the Voynich manuscript, have resorted to such means to avoid admitting nothing comes to mind which lets them make sense of a drawing or a diagram, and leads them to invent off-the-cuff excuses and rationalisations (even to the point of delusion in asserting that what is so plainly not an ordinary expression of medieval western culture IS an ordinary expression of Latin culture) simply expresses the normal range of human reactions when presented with something entirely unlike anything in the individual’s existing experience and mental repertoire. That Panofsky could not only recognise his own lack of comparisons but openly say so, is a remarkable thing; for a human being in general but for an eminent specialist in the field of medieval Latin art even more so. He was not prevented from seeing accurately by any fear of losing face. That’s very rare.
As humans it is an innate and universal habit when confronted with a new thing, word or person to immediately hunt our range of knowledge for some comparison for it: this is how we learn language, identify faces in crowds and so on. It is how we learn a second language – by finding parallels from the one already known. It is how we change a stranger’s status to that of friend: we liken their face, character or habits to ones familiar to us. But when our existing repertoire returns a ‘null result’ to that instant and instinctive search, natural responses veer between panic, dislike, suspicion, self-deception or a feeling experienced as boredom-distaste, to (by far the rarest) an intelligent curiosity: a desire to widen our own repertoire to a point where the hitherto unparalleled phenomenon is contextualised and in that way becomes among things ‘familiar’ to us. Consider how people react to a piece of abstract expressionism and you’ll get the idea.
Or perhaps a better illustration is the way European scientists reacted on receiving the first specimen of an Australian platypus. There was no one creature known to European science with which the creature could be compared, no genera or species to provide its context. So the scientists (naturally) compared it, as best they could, with what they did feel comfortable with: they saw the bill as a ‘duck’s bill’, the tail as ‘like a beaver’, the feet as ‘like an otter’… and concluded the specimen a fake, made by stitching together bits of a duck, a beaver and an otter. Naturally. Just so, those only comfortable with some aspect of European history and culture form their ‘Voynich theories’ within those same parameters, and then hunt only within their comfort zone (sometimes as limited as one medium and one small locality) for items which they might ‘match’ to some detail in the manuscript.
The aim in such cases is not to elucidate the original, but to claim it ‘not really unfamiliar’; stylistics are ignored; context; no effort made to explain (for example) a whole theme or even a whole diagram, detail by detail or to test theories or alleged matches against what is known about history or art or codicology or palaeography or … anything else. Classic example: the [so-called apothecary jar] container from the Vms supposedly ‘compared’ with the printed image of a German Christian ritual vessel. This is pareidolia. And over-literalism, too. It serves just one purpose, to offer a subliminal advertisement for a ‘Latin-German Christian’ theory. Which is not to say that whoever devised the ‘pairing’ did not believe it themselves. Comfort-zone.
Once the European scientists’ own horizons widened, once they set about to learn more, their personal, innate, instinctive, panic-responses ceased. They no longer needed to insist the thing was ‘really’ familiar, because they had worked to become familiar with the context in which it belonged in fact. Since this understanding cured the ‘null’ reaction, the natural and essentially defensive responses were no longer needed. They could see the thing as it was without stress and without the equally instinctive urge to express hostility to the provider of that first disturbing specimen. They stopped attacking his motives and character. Such attacks, like inane ‘scoffing’ are common means to express hostility of such a kind, though one must admit that not a few Voynich narratives are amusing.
The way to pass safely between the Scylla of plodding literalism and the Charybdis of pareidolia is, simply, to know more. Ask questions. Do the hard yards. Cross-examine yourself at every step. Make yourself your best-informed and sternest critic. Doesn’t matter if others think your ideas plausible. As Feynman says:
“It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess is. It doesn’t make a difference how smart you are …[It doesn’t matter how many are willing to believe, either.] If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”
What is not explained about the image of Orata, by the words of Valerius nor of Pliny is why Orata’s “pensilia balinea” are here given the form of a basket woven from straw, or from sea-grass or something of that sort. The detail shown (below, left) tells us that in medieval Latin Europe baskets of this type were known, but whether ever made so large as that in the Harley manuscript image we may never know; such objects rarely survive the centuries.
Terms for baskets in Latin and Old English are on a page at Wyrtg’s site.
Most modern commentaries cross-reference Valerius’ pensilia balinea with Vitruvius‘ description of Roman baths, and take it that Orata’s invention was not “suspended baths”of the sort envisaged by the Harley image, but those piers (suspensura), sometimes of stacked blocks called suspensera, by which the floor of a Roman baths was ‘suspended’.
While I cannot follow Fagan in some of his enthusiasms, I think he has the right of it, and is in harmony with the fifteenth-century translator and illustrator, to the extent he says:
I believe that Orata’s … invention was used in connection with fish-raising rather than with human bathing. Orata was widely known as a fish-farmer, and may even have derived his cognomen from the practice. Tellingly, all the sources mentioning Orata [and] his pensiles balineae together strongly imply a connection between the device and Orata’s fish-farming business; in fact, Orata and his pensiles balineae are never explicitly linked to baths for human use. Furthermore, Pliny’s notice appears in the general context of a section on men who invented fishponds….(p.59)
Garrett G. Fagan, Sergius Orata: Inventor of the Hypocaust?, Phoenix, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Spring, 1996), pp. 56-66.
On Roman plumbing and suspensura see e.g.
Robert James Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, Volume 4.
Vitruvius, di Architectura, Bk 5 10.2)
Readers may also enjoy:
Janet DeLaine, ‘Some Observations on the Transition from Greek to Roman Baths in Hellenistic Italy’, Mediterranean Archaeology, Vol. 2 (1989), pp.111-125.
John Wilkes (ed.), Encyclopaedia Londinensis, Volume 7 (1810) is – of all places – the best for detailed description of traditional fishing methods. on Tunny fishing see p. 415
To the foregoing, I should like to add the suggestion that Valerius seems to have understood more clearly that Pliny ever did the implications of those efforts made by Lucullus and Orata; that around the Bay of Naples, infused as it was still with Greek heritage and culture, those fish-breeders had as their model the landscape about Byzantion of Thrace (as it then was), whose natural abundance of fish is constantly discussed and marvelled over, described in extraordinary detail by several classical and late classical authors, including Strabo. The other centre of the fish-trade – apart from Campania – was Gades in Iberia, an old Phoenician stronghold. The coins of those cities, from centuries before Orata lived, to as late as the 3rdC AD, show the city’s character throughout the greater Mediterranean world by that means. I might have taken a broader range of examples, but concentrate here on the period from the days of Orata (early 1stC BC) to that of Strabo (64/63 BC – c. 24 AD), Pliny ( AD 23–79) and Dionysius of Byzantion (2ndC AD).
Strabo may be said to dilate on the theme of Byzantion’s abundance from the sea, but fish and gods are the whole tenor of Dionysius’ Anaplous of the Bosporus. Classed as a ‘geography’ it reads more like a manual and sailing guide for the god-fearing fisherman, and since it will be important to understand how the region’s character was perceived in the general imagination, when Lucullus and Orata lived, as when Valerius, Pliny and Strabo wrote, I’ll quote a little from those two authors: first from Dionysius and then from Strabo:
from Dionysius of Byzantion
§ 5 With the current breaking sharply near here, the largest part pushes on toward Propontis, but the gentle part conducive to fishing is received in the so-called Horn. This is the gulf beneath Bosporion headland, quite deep, more so than an anchorage, for it stretches for 60 stades, and safe as any harbor, with mountains and hills encircling it to block the winds, and further in with rivers that bring down deep, soft silt, at the mouth under the headland on which lies the City .[proving that Byzantion was a walled city before Constantine translated the capital of the Roman empire thence and renamed Byzantion ‘Constantinople’).
§ 6 The city has sea all around it except for the isthmus connecting it to the mainland….. That sea is deep close inshore, and with strong currents driven by the Pontic sea and the narrowness of the passage and the impact and refluxes that strike the city in a mass. It divides around the Bosporion headland, part of it flowing into the deep, fish-laden gulf and ends in slight, shallow landings. It is called Horn from the similarity of the shape. It surpasses a gulf in depth, as I said, and a harbour in convenience. For big mountains surround it protecting it from the violence of the winds ….
§ 36 … Bolos, with a rich winter fishery, on which is a precinct of Artemis Phosphoros (lightbearer) and Aphrodite Praeia (mild), to whom the the Byzantines* customarily sacrifice. For she is believed to store up the favorability of the wind, calming and suppressing the excessive disturbance they cause.
* ‘Byzantines’ here means people under the rule of Thracian Byzantion.
§ 37 The next place, Ostreodes (oystery), is named from the occurrence. For an underwater reef is formed at sea, whitened by the multitude of oysters, and the bottom is visible, especially in calm weather. The place grows back what is consumed, so the use is so to say profligate, and oyster beds rival the fishery in value.
§92 After Chelai is the place called Hieron, which was built by Phrixus, son of Nephele and Athamas, when he sailed to Colchis, a place indeed owned by the Byzantines, but a common haven to all who sail. ….
and this next item, more than oysters, could be why C. Sergius received the cognomen ‘Orata’:
§ 93. In the sanctuary is a bronze statue of ancient work, a young man stretching out his hands in front of him.
Many explanations are given for why this statue is composed this way; some say it is a sign of the boldness of sailors, deterring reckless navigation into danger and showing the happiness and reverence of those who return safely. For neither is without its terror. Others say that a boy wandering on shore returned shortly after his ship had left the port, and, overcome by despair for his safety, stretched his hands up to heaven, but that the god heard the prayers of the boy and returned the ship to port. Others say that on the occasion of a great calmness of the sea, while every wind was still and a ship was long delayed, its sailors were struggling under the scarcity of the port’s supplies. Whereupon a vision appeared to the captain, ordering the captain to sacrifice his own son, since by no other means could the voyage and the winds resume. But at the moment when the captain, being compelled by necessity, was ready to sacrifice the boy, it is said that the boy stretched out his hands, and that the god, moved by pity at the senseless punishment of the boy or by the boy’s youth, took up the boy and sent a favourable wind. Let each judge as he likes whether these or the contrary are credible.
from the translation by Brady Kiesling from the Greek/Latin edition of Carolus Wechser, Anaplous Bosporou. Dionysii Byzantii De Bospori navigatione quae supersunt (1874). The English translation is online [TOPOS]. Wechser’s Greek/Latin edition digitised at Archive.org.
And so one sees the inference in Pliny’s treatment of Lucullus’ changing the landscape near Naples creating as it were a new ‘Hellespont’ that cost more than his palace, and created another ‘golden horn’ as sheltered arm of the sea. Similarly, by knowing Strabo’s text, the parallel is clear for Valerius’ description of Otata’s engineered landscape: “He separated shoals of diverse sorts of fish within the large circuits of vast Moles..[and] burdened the hitherto unpopulated banks of Lake Lucrinus with stately high structures, so he might keep his shell-fish fresh..” A Byzantium in miniature.
Now the distance from the headland that makes the strait only five stadia wide to the harbour which is called “Under the Fig-tree” (medieval Pera, now Galata) is thirty-five stadia; …. The Horn, which is close to the wall of the Byzantines, is a gulf that … is split into numerous gulfs — branches, as it were.The pelamydes [‘tunny’] rush into these gulfs and are easily caught — because of their numbers, the force of the current that drives them together, and the narrowness of the gulfs; in fact, because of the narrowness of the area, they are even caught by hand. Now these fish are hatched in the marshes of Lake Maeotis, …and move along the Asian shore as far as Trapezus and Pharnacia. It is here that the catching of the fish first takes place, though the catch is not considerable.. .But when they reach Sinope, they are mature enough for catching and salting.Yet when once they touch the Cyaneae and pass by these, the creatures take such fright at a certain white rock which projects from the Chalcedonian shore that they forthwith turn to the opposite shore. There they are caught by the current, and since at the same time the region is so formed by nature as to turn the current of the sea there to Byzantium and the Horn at Byzantium, they naturally are driven together thither and thus afford the Byzantines and the Roman people considerable revenue.
Strabo, Geography, Book VII, Chapter 6.
At this point in the log is a note that questions of continuity between the Roman and the medieval trade have already been treated..
Robert I Curtis, Garum and Salsamenta: Production and Commerce in Materia Medica (Brill: 1991)
If any reader shares my fascination for technicalities, they might also enjoy:
James Arnold Higginbotham, Artificial Fishponds in Roman Italy (University of North Carolina Press: 1997) though I should add that it hasn’t any relevance to study of Beinecke Ms 408.
That the texts of Strabo, and of Dionysius of Byzantion were still known and copied in Constantinople during the early fourteenth century is proven by the deservedly famous Vatopedi manuscript, a complation of texts from major and minor classical authors describing the sea-routes of the Black Sea, Red Sea and to as far as England. It is difficult to think other than the compilation was made for contemporary needs, and these may have included the needs of foreigners resident in the enclaves of Pera and within Constantinople, wanting to know those routes. Diller’s study of the Vatopedi remains a standard reference.
Aubrey Diller, ‘The Vatopedi Manuscript of Ptolemy and Strabo’, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 58, No. 2 (1937), pp. 174-184.
Codex Vaticanus 2061. – includes text from Strabo, Geographia on leaves 235, 237, 240, 243, 244, 246-249, 251-253, 310-315. 20.5 by 20.3. Taken to the Vatican library in the 17thC from the monastery of St. Mary of Patirium, a suburb of Rossano in Calabria.
Postscript: The two masters of theology who translated Valerius’ Facta et Dicta held degrees at the highest level offered at that time in western Europe. It can be presumed, then, that they were well aware of post-classical and Christian associations for bathing. For the medieval Christian these would certainty include association with baptism and with marriage. For a brief explanation see Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae VI.xix.41; IX.vii.8.