More on Trebizond

There is much in the manuscript which suggests that the persons for whom it was originally collated had catered to the highest level of luxury-trade. There are  indications in the botanical section that they (the group or clan by whom that section was first used) paid particular attention to major religious feasts – regardless of which religions observed them. The minting of coins was another aspect of what one might term the trade in luxury goods.

I’ll explain the ‘luxury-goods’ aspect of the manuscript in more detail when treating some of the botanical folios, the ‘pharma’ section as a whole and the ‘astrological’ figures.

Trebizon has a natural relation to trade in various luxury goods; first – and after 1204 – with the establishment of the Byzantine’s ‘Empire of the Trebizonds’, and secondly because it sits at the nexus between the eastern and western trade-routes and because it sits in the middle of the richest copper-deposits in the region. Emphasis is given, in the larger part of the map on fol.86v, to a location in the west which I believe is probably Ceuta, as a port to which the gold and ivory from Mali came in earlier times.

The formal ‘Empire…’ is dated to 1204, but this is not the beginning of Greek-speakers’ occupation of that city. The seminal article was by A.A. Vasiliev, ‘The Foundation of the empire of Trebizond (1204-1222)’, Speculum, A Journal of Mediaeval Studies, Vol.XI, No.1, (January 1936), pp 3-37. Coins issued by the dynasty at wildwinds site.

Here is a map showing deposits of copper (darkest), lead and zinc in the north. A larger version can be seen at Iranica online.

The boundary between the black Sea and Caspian is not simply a political boundary; from the Caspian, to east and towards the west was a wall popularly known as the ‘Red Snake’ or the Great wall of Gorgan. A substantial amount of it remains today; it is included in Fra Mauro’s map). The ‘Red snake’ is attributed to the Sasanian Persians (c.6thC AD) and is another item relevant to the map on fol.86v. Photos see e.g. ‘Skyscraper cities’ entries.

Zinc and Atacamite

Anomalies noted by McCrone in their report on the inks and pigments used in ms Beinecke 408 include the presence, in trace amounts, of what were described as atacamite, and zinc. (for the summary report, see pdf on the Beinecke website)

It was suggested that the zinc was present as a result of the scribe’s using a bronze inkwell, inkwells of that type being relative uncommon in Europe but the norm within the lands of Islam.

Atacamite, however, is a copper derivative which occurs only in conditions of extreme aridity. The presence of both zinc and atacamite is therefore unusual in inks and pigments, but has been discovered in medieval icons from Russia (Kiev), and again others from Spain, and wall-paintings in Slovakia and Transylvania. As one paper on the last matter notes:

“[the presence of] Cu and Zn arsenates have confirmed the natural origin of azurite used in gothic paintings in the Sázava Monastery even though the azurite had already been partially transformed into atacamite.” see online ref

Atacamite occurs in quantity, naturally, in inner Asia around Turfan, in Madagascar and to a lesser extent near the volcanoes of the Mediterranean. It has also been found as an element in the inks and pigments of dynastic Egyptian papyri, but in that case is again attributed to the desiccation of copper-based pigments. The question of minerals and pigments deserves a full post to itself, and will have one somewhere down the line.. (map below shows lead-and-zinc deposits).

Since I’ve mentioned imagery in medieval Kiev, I’d like to point out another section of the manuscript where the imagery probably indicates a connection to this region.

From Kiev were recovered a number of sculptures whose cultural origin is disputed but they are certainly older than ms Beinecke 408, and some probably predate the Christianisation of that region.

In them one sees the same habit that is employed in the drawings of the manuscript’s ‘bathy-‘ section: the legs are shown short, with heavy thighs and extremely thin shanks, and the figures are given  enlarged bellies.

Religion: a first hint..

Similar habits do occur elsewhere, and from an earlier time and in some cases to the present day in regions where Persian custom interacted with Hellenistic and Buddhist.

The presence of such figures here, in the  ‘bathy-‘ section may be original (see later posts) or it may be that later in copying works ~which I believe originated in the  Greco-Roman era~  he or they reverted to a regional style in which the same habits were entrenched.

Note ~ 3rd December. I have recently come across some few images which have caused me to revise a couple of earlier opinions. It seems as if the conventions see in the sculptures of Kiev may once have been much more widespread. Similar enlargement of faces and reduction in limbs is found on the

at the other extreme of the road between the Black Sea and Afghanistan – on coins of the 1stC AD, the time to which the Begram relics are dated. The coin shows a comparable meld of Persian, Hellenistic and Egyptian elements (note inclusion

coin Indo-Scythian 1stC AD
coin Indo-Scythian 1stC AD

of the crook-sceptre among its insignia) which occur in ms Beinecke 408.

I have also found the header-picture, which shows the ceiling of the church of Holy Wisdom in Trebizond. It shows the division of the world as a last supper. This idea was enshrined also in the western mass, where the sacred bread is broken into three in conscious imitation of the ‘T-O’ shaped world.

I won’t re-edit the whole post but please keep these later comments in mind.


The way that the  faces in the ‘bathy’ section have been deliberately distorted, however, is more obviously due to  religious and/or cultural aversions perhaps original to the first compilers or makers of the manuscript’s sections, but apparently shared those who copied the bathy-section in the form it is found in Beinecke 408.  Since that aversion to the depiction of ‘real’ creatures evidently infuses most  sections of the manuscript,  I was soon persuaded that the bathy- section’s ‘female figures’  were not intended as portraits, either, but  reproduced non-embodied characters of a type for which the Greeks and Romans had normally provided a human form. In short, they are not persons, but personifications.

The bathy- section does offer, though, a first, and very faint, hint of monotheistic religion.

It would appear that copyists for the bathy-  section, at least, were Christian (or to be extremely cautious): that they at least agreed with the sense of Augustine’s dictum about the stars being ‘not lords, but servants’ ~ a view current in western Christendom of the earlier and the later medieval centuries, and according to which the stars’ endless ‘duty roster’ conveyed a character closer to that of the slave.

That the very first makers of the imagery  so much later copied to provide the manuscript’s ‘bathy-‘ section had held similar views is, I think, very unlikely.

In my opinion, however, there is no clear evidence of astrological practices anywhere in the manuscript’s imagery.

That absence of astrology would certainly agree again with Augustine’s views, and indeed with those expressed by master mariners of the east, including Ibn Majid.

The western world no longer names its seasons or months by reference to the twelve constellations in the sun’s path and it is easy to forget that this was by far their most common, more recognised, and approved use in medieval times ~ even supposing for the moment that the animals and persons are intended to represent those constellations.

Nor is it often considered that, throughout the regions of Islam, reference to the month-stars of the nearly-coincident lunar path was commonplace.

A compendium containing much the same sort of information that is contained in Cresques’ illustrated work hung in every mosque for the reference of the person who called the faithful to prayer five times a day.

Thus, the presence of the twelve constellations in our manuscript (if indeed they are included at all) should not immediately be assumed a reference to astrology.  The manuscript contains nothing remotely like the ‘astrological body’ diagram and as I have pointed out, the botanical section is no book of simples.

Mariners’ stars are not based on those lying along the ecliptic, but on the entire net whose counterpart also informed the grid on the portolan charts.

Further discussion of this issue, and of the  ‘bathy” figures, must wait for their own section, however.

Back to the Black Sea, its environs and tributaries.

While Byzantines and Genoese in Trebizon were making charts of the new type in the fourteenth century, a style based on ‘cosmography’, the  Genoese and the Venetians were also active in trading both human beings and copper, while acting as middlemen for the eastern trade ~  some traders even following the eastern roads to their source:  to India, Java, and even to China.

In the thirteenth century, as in the fourteenth, we hear that those who intended travelling as missionaries to the east first visited Armenia, and some also Ethiopia. John de Montecorvino is the first of the Franciscan ‘peregrinos’ to reach China. His aide, sponsor and friend Peter of Lucalongo is supposed Armenian but may have come instead from Sicily. A later missionary-ambassador, writing 70 years later, tells us that the Alans who served as the Mongols’ bureaucracy ‘adored’ the Sicilian-Norman king, Frederick II and attributes that fact to Montecorvino.
Trebizond and charts ~postscript

Trebizond and its near environs is where the systems of the Portolan-grid, and of the later Mercator grid, co-incide precisely.

~on which see the important article by Duken

Duken, A. J., ‘Reconstruction of the portolan chart of G. Carignano (c. 1310)’, Imago Mundi, Vol 40 (1988), pp. 86-96.


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