The aim of this introductory post is to demonstrate consonance between the later elements in the manuscript’s imagery and events from 1285 to the 1330s. Details shown from Beinecke MS 408 have had detailed discussion in earlier posts.
The ‘Clear vision’ series ended at 1290 AD, with the abrupt termination of Genoese involvement in a projected naval attack via Aden against Mamluk Egypt. The plan had been initiated, and Latins’ involvement sought, by the Mongol ruler of Baghdad, the ilkhan Arghun, and had seen a thousand or more Genoese  enter Mesopotamia the previous year. Certain details of the Voynich botanical folios show close similarity to a style recorded in upper Mesopotamia during the previous, twelfth, century.
As merchants and as mariners, navigators and crossbowmen, the Genoese were renowned even in the near east, and had been from the time of the first Crusade.
GENOA’s enthusiastic response to Arghun’s invitation is explained partly by the impact of Mar Sawma’s embassy of 1287-8  but more (as one might expect) by Genoa’s own interests. For those Genoese, war against Cairo as a ‘Crusade’ was attractive, but the prospect of unhindered access to the Indian Ocean and, through Tabriz, to the road called ‘the spine of Eurasian trade’ counted heavily, as did a love for their city, as was soon made clear.
The pepper trade from southern India had been the foundation of Genoa’s prosperity and together with trade in other eastern goods was still its economic lifeblood. In 1285 it had several active markets in termini of the ‘silk- and ‘spice’-‘ routes: in Egypt, Cairo and/or Alexandria; in the Levant, Acre and Levantine Tripoli (the most Genoese of all the Crusader towns) and finally the port of Laiazzo in the south-east corner of Asia Minor. Latins called it ‘Ayas’.
Genoa lost its vital ‘terminus’ markets suddenly, one after another, in the space of six disastrous years: 1285 – 1291, leaving them only one: a small unprotected settlement in the Black Sea, at a site they called ‘Caffa’. In 1285 it saw so little transit trade from the east that the profits barely supported its few resident traders.
Caffa would remain without defensive walls until the fourteenth century, but when built they were topped by ‘imperial’ merlons which signified – beyond Europe – a Latin enclave of civil and/or military foundation, theoretically entitled to western diplomatic and military protection – not necessarily the protection of the current Holy Roman emperor.
The Genoese had been expelled from Acre in 1285 at the instigation of Venice and its allies. Friction with Egypt and an attempt by Genoa to blockade Egypt by sea is presumed to have prevented access to Alexandria and Cairo. Thus, Arghun’s patronage was potentially a way to regain direct access to the eastern sea trade and also to Tabriz on the ‘silk highway’, it being the Mongol capital in Persia and a city whose wealth and markets astonished contemporary writers, both Islamic and Latin.
Levantine Tripoli fell to the Mamluks in 1289, while those thousand Genoese ship-builders, marines and navigators were yet at work in Mesopotamia. A contemporary Latin image shows ships carrying the Genoese flag active in the battle.
Perhaps it was this event, however, which prompted the consuls of Genoa to reverse their policy towards Cairo and to Baghdad virtually overnight. Representatives of the city went to Cairo to beg the Mamluk Sultan for peace, and they went under the aegis of the Volga Khans who were, themselves, at odds with Arghun.
The conditions imposed stipulated that no Genoese interfere further with the activities of the Sultan – including military activity in Syria. That Genoa agreed shows the measure of its desperation and one can imagine what a furore ensued in Mosul and Baghdad when news of that pact, and orders to desist, were delivered to them. If, as we are told, all thousand of them died to the last man in a Guelf-Ghibelline dispute, it is not difficult to understand. The Pope still supported crusade against Egypt, but the Republic demanded otherwise.
The Republic proved the stronger. Almost immediately, the Mamluk Sultan attacked Acre (1291). Genoese took no part in its defence, neither bringing relief to the besieged nor assisting their defence. Genoa also refused to ratify an agreement negotiated earlier with Henry II of England, by which he should have had use of Cyprus as staging post for actions in the Levant. The same treaty may even explain why, three decades later, no help was provided the Christian king of Cilician Armenia when the Mamluks again invaded that country and this time not only took, but kept Laizzo.
In a sense, Laiazzo then counted by then as a ‘Frankish’ port, for the king (Leo IV) had married the daughter of Eleanor of Anjou and Frederick III of Sicily  So strongly pro-Latin were Leo’s policies that he had proposed another union: between the Armenian and Latin churches, but none of it availed him, neither bonds of blood, nor marriage, nor religion and he died in prison at the hands of his barons while still waiting on that Latin help which never came. Ayas was now closed to western traders for once and all. 
 sources differ, but most number them between 900 and 1200.
 I can find no mention of Rabban Mar Sawma in connection with Beinecke MS 408 before my own comment to Nick Pelling’s blog. Since then I’ve had reason to mention it several times, usually referring too to Wallis Budge’s translation from the Syriac. The first mention at voynichimagery is dated September 2012, in a post entitled ‘Trade Routes and Scripts’ which proved so popular I have made it a separate Page (see side-bar for list of Pages).
 on debate over whether Venetians or Genoese fortified Caffa, Ciocîltan cites archaeology and earlier studies in support of his view that Caffa’s fortifications (in place by 1347 and which survived to the nineteenth century) “were strikingly similar to those of Pera, completed no longer ago than [not later than] 1303.”
‘Pera’ is Galata, from the ancient Greek Peran en Sykais. It was granted to the Genoese in 1267 by Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus. The exact boundaries were stipulated in 1303 and the Genoese were specifically prohibited from fortifying the quarter, but they not only did so; they appropriated more land as they wished and modified the walls to suit.
See Virgil Ciocîltan, The Mongols and the Black Sea Trade in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, Brill (2012).
To represent the opposite view, Josanu may stand for all, “.. during the first decades of the 14th century, … the Republic of Saint Mark initiated an extensive project for strengthening the colonies in the Black Sea area. The first walls were built around Caffa, which was followed, one by one, by the rest of the communities, so that in 1347 they were capable of defying the fury of Janybek Khan.” Vitalie Josanu, ‘A Monument of Romanian Medieval Civilization by the Great Sea*: Cetatea Alba – Moncastro’ (Ph.D. dissertation, National University of Bucharest (2013) p.11.
*By the present author, the term ‘ great sea’ is used for all the ocean to the east of the Persian Gulf and Red Sea and as far as China, which usage was evidently common during the medieval period, and is so employed by a fifteenth-century mariner named Ibn Majid.
 “Frederick III… ” An incident in the reign of Frederick III of Sicily shows Occitan might be used at that time in delicate diplomatic situations, where we might now expect cipher.
The incident is often mentioned, but here as quoted in a wiki article ‘Frederick III of Sicily’ from Martín de Riquer, Los trovadores: historia literaria y textos. 3 vol. Barcelona: Planeta, 1975:
“When Frederick heard that James was preparing to go to war with him, he sent a messenger, Mountainer Pérez de Sosa, to Catalonia in an effort to stir up the barons and cities against James in 1298. Mountainer carried with him an Occitan poem, Ges per guerra no.m chal aver consir, intended as a communication with his supporters in Catalonia. .. This poetic transaction is usually dated to January–March, Spring, or August 1296, but Gerónimo Zurita in the seventeenth century specifically dated the embassy of Mountainer to 1298.”
Leo IV’s marriage to Constance was his second, contracted on December 29th., 1331. Unfortunately, in trying by this and other means to assure the Latins of his allegiance and to secure his kingdom, Leo alienated his own barons and roused general antipathy so great it affected Latins residing in his kingdom. Leo came to his unhappy end imprisoned, and still hoping for Latin support which never came.
 Ayas was taken and re-taken so often – by Mongol, Seljuk and Mamluk – that to determine whether it was, or wasn’t available to Latins in a given year (and if so, which Latins) is a matter for specialists more deeply versed in the fragmentary source material. I have relied chiefly on Virgil Ciocîltan’s masterly study.