Ottonian manuscript

edited from a paper originally published in the notebook-blog ‘Findings’ on Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Additional note: on the idea of the Ursae as shepherds: the ‘Kugel globe’ is considered our earliest extant. It does not include the Scales, and a modern commentary notes that its figures for the Ursae ‘resemble canines’. P.Han in 2008 referred to the Kugel and Mainz globes in his discussion of the manuscript’s  bathy- section, which he considers astrological (as I do not). ~ Nov.15th. 2012

Imagery and script in the Balkans of early medieval times.

Following the collapse of Rome,  and again with the waves of invasion by Sassanian, Arab, Mongol and Turk, substantial disruptions and movements of communities occurred, in waves rather than as a steady progress.
Entire societies, in some cases, were obliged to remove either by semi-voluntary migration or at the dictate of a new ruler, and often that movement brought them west.
Some reached western Christian territories; others favoured settlements in the hinterlands and islands, where conversion to another religion was not always a pre-requisite for survival.As O’Leary wrote, speaking of the time of the Arabs’ conquests, that Ireland,

…experienced an influx of anchorites and monks …. ‘All the learned men on this side of the sea’, claims a note in a Leyden manuscript of this time, ‘took flight for transmarine places like Ireland, bringing about a great increase of learning…to the inhabitants of those regions.’

But not a few of those men were bone-thin ascetics from Roman hinterlands such as Armenia, Syria and the Egyptian desert…. The convention of using red dots to adorn manuscript initials, a convention that soon became a mark of Irish manuscripts [was gained] from books that the fleeing Copts brought with them. The steely zealotry and peculiar practices of such men had already merited the suspicion of orthodox bishops on the European continent, [where even in the sixth century] Gregory ..the Great …took a dim view of the pagan classics … and could read no Greek.”

Others evidently went to the Frankish lands, and some again to the Balkans which would not be converted until the tenth century.

Until then, beliefs and writing systems other than the Greek or Latin were also maintained. We know that this was true of Bohemia in particular, for the first edict issued by the newly-converted Stephen of Hungary,  dated to October 9th 1000ad begins:  (I cite Badiny’s translation)

“Upon the council of Pope Sylvester II we have decided that the antique runic characters and that the pagan method of writing which proceeds from right to left, used in Hungary by the people and clerics/clerks of the Szekler and Kun* provinces, shall henceforth be forbidden and suppressed …. superceded by Latin writing ….all manuscripts, inscriptions and books [in that script or scripts: it is possible that ‘runic’ and the ‘pagan script’ were distinct systems] in the possession of priests shall be burned [and ‘destroyed by fire and sword’] and replaced by Latin books [or: books in Latin script].. .’

which tells us this was not a Christian literary tradition: one did not take a sword to Christian works, whatever language or script they were written in.

It also suggests that there was a not-inconsiderable written corpus in that script, or at very least some standard text widely used in the Szekler and Kun provinces by the [or ‘a’] pastoral class.
* On the likely beliefs of the Szekler and Kun before their conversion, see Hippolytus’ Refutation… Bk V where he reports the Thracians’ beliefs, and tells us that the term ‘gnostic’ was adopted by the ‘serpent-people’ the Naasenes.

The same region is later associated with the Cumans and their language, as I mentioned in an earlier post.

But there is another interesting aspect to Stephen’s edict.  It takes a very odd form for an anathema. There is no preliminary abjuration of the content of these books, and the edict is so phrased and if one were to act upon it purely by the letter, there would be no prohibition against content at all.

It is only the book as an object, and the script as a form, and possession of a book or books in that script – and only their being held by members of the Christian clergy which is prohibited.

In other words, one might translate such a book into Latin characters,  make it into a new book, or simply remove the older kind of book from the priest’s possession for all to be well.

Taken absolutely literally, the edict does not even demand translation into Latin: saying only that the book must be transcribed into ‘Latin letters’ and that once that was done, one had to dispose of the older copy with all the prescribed ceremony. What was being eradicated, in effect, was nothing but a form of script. This is a fairly conservative approach – but why?

I should think that in this case it is because the matter in the books of the pastoral class were not recognised as the basis of an alternative religious philosophy. For this we have an existing model: when the Greco-Egyptians of Harran were challenged to prove themselves people of the book, or risk execution or forced conversion to one of the monotheistic religions, they had claimed as their scriptures works of astronomy, literature and geometry and Pythagoras the agatha daimon as among their deities.

This “Sylvester II” is Gerbert d’Aurillac, a man of great intellectual curiosity, who devoured books in quite another sense. I myself cannot imagine his agreeing to let any book be destroyed before he (at least) had read it, and if he found nothing objectionable in the matter, it might explain the form taken by that edict, promulgated at his initiative, and very possibly in the form he recommended.

Since Gerbert’s more open attitude was certainly not shared by all his contemporaries: Gerbert had earlier come close to prosecution for heresy ~ so the edict may have been so formulated from a fear that as  members of the church establishment entered and settled in the newly converted country, they might destroy any books that they could not read.

But aside from such speculation, it is clear that the frontispiece made during Gebert’s lifetime, and in the Frankish court, is influenced by material other than the Aratea, and (for reasons explained below) very likely by matter gained from the old regions of Illyria and Thrace.

The central part of the figure shows the disposition of the universe.

As noted earlier,  the standard astronomical text at this time in western Europe was Cicero’s translation of Aratus ~ yet some of this imagery  shows evidence of influence from other sources and reflects a text which appears to me to be Manilius’ Astronomicon, the book which Gerbert twice mentions having ‘found’ (bound with a copy of Boethius’ mathematics) in the library of Bobbio.

Bobbio itself lies on an important northern route between France and the Black Sea, one which passes through the valleys of the north, bypassing the region of Rome. For that reason, it had been first established as a monastery by the Irish Columbanus, and to it Gerbert had been appointed from France before his election as Pope.

At this time, the monastery was noted for its library, and that northern route which appears among the Roman post-roads, was being regularly travelled by a group of whom we know little except their name and routes. They are called Radhanites in the works of two Muslim geographers, and both say that the circuit which they travelled extended as far as China. This at a time before the Muslim geographers had any other knowledge of those routes.

[In this regard, I might mention in passing that a reconstruction of the Roman fortress in Jerusalem, known as the Antonine fortress, bears a resemblance to that pictured in the Tarim basin  –  which insight I owe to Dana Scott who brought the Antoine fortress (as reconstructed) to the attention of researchers].

The same geographers describe the Radhanites as Jews, but the constant requirement that in lands conquered by Islam, people adhere to a religion known to their Prophet or die, meant that such classification is not always reliable at this time, and may explain why no similar group is mentioned in any other source, neither Byzantine nor Latin (unless they be the Athinganoi of the Byzantines). Earlier Jewish sources accepted them only as having been messengers between centres of the Jewish diaspora; modern Jewish sources simply accept the description given by the two Muslim geographers.

Irish monks, too, are also reported taking that route, on an east-bound journey whose destination is never clear. As they travelled from one monastery to another, they not only worked as copyists, but sometimes brought their master-text with them.

Any of these, or indeed travellers from the north, may have brought the copy of Manilius, whose text differs from Aratus’ in its arguing – with reason and philosophy – that the world is a sphere, suspended unsupported in the heavens.

To see how the Astronomicon informs the Ottonian frontispiece, one has to imagine the frontispiece just as it was painted: before the Latin labels were added.

In Frankish scriptoria the custom was to set the imagery first, leaving the inscriber of text  who had higher status and better learning to check the drawing and then add inscriptions to it as necessary, correcting any errors by reference to the written text. A similar procedure appears to have been in effect when the series of month-emblems were drawn and painted.

Manilius’ views apparently reflect knowledge which was once widespread; in common with views that Ibn Washhiya records in his Nabataean Agriculture, Manilius regards the sphere as the ideal form, writing:

The principle of the earth’s suspension should cause you no surprise. The firmament itself hangs thus and does not rest on any base… the Sun above moves unsupported… … therefore the earth, too, in obedience to celestial laws, hangs suspended. Thus it is that earth has been allotted a hollow space in mid-air, equidistant from every quarter of heaven’s depths, not spread into flat plains, but fashioned into a sphere. This is the shape of Nature: so even the universe, itself in circular movement, gives round shapes to the stars:- round, we see, is the orb of the sun, and round is the orb of the moon… this is the shape that continues forever and most resembles the gods: nowhere is there a beginning or end, but it is like unto itself all over its surface, identical at every point. So too the earth is rounded and reflects the shape of the heavens… That is why it is impossible to behold all the constellations in every part of the world. … because some regions are on earth’s lower flanks, and lands bulge between northern and southern lands, thus robbing the latter of the northern part of heaven, by blocking their view of it. The earth makes you, O Moon, a witness to its roundness: [for] when at night your star is plunged into utter darkness and suffers eclipse, not all nations are bewildered at the same time…
Astronomica I: 202-224.

The frontispiece perfectly and carefully presents those words: a round earth is placed between northern and southern polar circuits; the woman of the southern Pole (a figure attested from the third millennium bc to the sixteenth century ce) being correctly located.

The northern circle is, equally conventionally, shown occupied by a male figure, and from the centre, the King of the earthly world is shown as the master of temporal measures. Serpentine boundary-cords allude to the surveyor and measurer, one of them deliberately severed to indicate the distinction between earthly and heavenly wisdom.


Coins made thirteen hundred years earlier, around the coasts of Ionia and Lydia show the same theme. That illustrated below is from the 2ndC BC and comes from Tralleis of Lydia, a noted centre of medical studies. It shows the serpent on the left pinned, as one did before catching or killing a serpent.

It is clear that this Hellenistic imagery entered the western Christian scriptorium, and that there were available more texts about astronomical matters than the Aratea.

Hence the inclusion in this frontispiece of figures wearing ‘Thracian’ caps, and the presence within the imagery of a different conception of the world and its suspension in the heavens. If one for the moment ignores the later-added inscriptions (as we’ve already had to do in considering the roundels of the months, then it becomes clear that the underlying imagery has been re-interpreted by the inscriptions.

The two serpentine bands here represent the horizons, or limits, of the  sea and of the sky, the two crossed (or conjoined)  by the Milky Way,  a shimmering but ephemeral band.

The coins of Tralleis show the left, or sinister  boundary cut, this same effect achieved on the Frontispiece by  the red splash of pigment, but now applied to the opposite figure. One might see this opposition as deliberate rejection of the earlier notions, or simply as ignorance of them, but it is clear that the figure is still considered one of sufficient spiritual potency to merit the sign.

Then, to that perfectly articulated cosmological figure, the educated Latin tags are added, subverting the figure and at the same time changing its primary point of orientation from North to East.

A northern orientation was unusual for that time in western Christendom, while the east served, in effect, as the Christian qiblah.  For men who work by day in the northern hemisphere, north is not a natural point by which to mark the passage of the day or year; it  is east which marks the bright of each day, and east which marks the rising of the year. As yet the Eden-Paradise was still imagined somewhere beyond Jerusalem, and eastward.  The path of the sun was being redefined to personify Christ rather than Apollo or Medusa and it passed across towards the south.

But in this process of translation,  the obscure woman of the south (a figure older than the classical Aphrodite) becomes the ‘obscure’ west. Her form dpes offers an acceptable equivalent for classical Night (Nux), but makes a nonsense of the two stars’  to each side of her face,  this pair with that brilliant third having marked the place of the southern celestial Pole, just as it marks the South on fol.86v in ms Beinecke 408.

The monks plainly had some concern about this serpent, but perhaps in their re-orienting the image there was no such intent: a matter of disjunction than disapproval or error: the image reflecting one cultural habit, and the inscriptions another.


Additional matters:

*The Ursae as Shepherds and as Bears ~ a matter of translation?

In comparing Manilius’ text with the frontispiece, though, we find yet another curious feature. Evidently the painter of the frontispiece took Manilius’ ‘Ursae’ to mean something other than ‘Bears’, for where Manilius and Aratus both refer to the northern polar constellations, and Manilius specifically speaks of their southern counterparts as an exact reflection of them, both writers refer to the Bears, and not to shepherds as we see in the frontispiece.

Our most likely explanation is an error of understanding, and resulting mis-translation, one I believe most likely to have come from an Hungarian source, and due to an old term for shepherd, reported by Badiny: örizö.

This is how the painter seems to have understood the passage cited above. Manilius’ Latin actually calls them ‘arctos’, but in clerical Latin ‘Ursa’ was more usual, and would be the term used to explain it.  So where Manilius’ Latin runs:

Adversas frontibus arctos uno distingui medias claudique dracone credimus exemplo, quia men fugentia visus hunc orbem caeli vertentis sidera cursu tam signo simili fultum quam vertice fingit.’ (Astronomica I: 451-454),

which Goold translates less surprisingly as “ … we assume by analogy that Ursae with faces averted from each other are separated…’ etc.

But the painter seems to have understood:

We assume by analogy that … Shepherds – avoiding sight of each other **- are separated and encircled by a single draco, since the mind imagines that this southern circle of heaven, turning in its rotation those constellations which shun the gaze, is supported by similar signs just as it is by a similar Pole.

(Astronomica I.447-455)

** Or: avoiding sight. This may be true to the original, since Thrace is also a centre for the ‘brothers’ imagery noted earlier. The monks, however, understood ‘aversion’ to imply distaste, since averted gaze is commonly a sign of shunning.

Having ‘shepherds’ for ‘Ursae’ makes sense if one supposes a much older Hungarian vocabulary, in which  örizö [= shepherd] retained something of the sense found in the Sumerian term which Badiny posits for its etymology: ‘shepherd of the dead/stars’.

(This is one of many lexical item  Badiny cites for his argument about the Sumerian origins of the old Hungarian language. Without wishing to engage in that argument, I’d note that there is a migration route attested between Mesopotamia and this region, and also that his views have found increasing support in recent years).

There are also precendents in classical Roman imagery for the use of Thracian figures as supporter-figures and ornament, but the position and close adherence between the words of Manilius’ text on the one hand, and the stance, opposition and posture of these doubled pairs is given point if we suppose that at this time, örizö  did mean ‘shepherd’ and that the astronomical ‘brothers’ were identified with both the visible northern constellations and an assumed mirror-image in the southern skies.

Evidence of such mirroring has been noticed in connection with the emblem in the north-west roundel, and when reporting the views of the ‘uneducated masses’ (i.e. the pre-Islamic population) about Baghdad, al-Biruni speaks of their holding the same idea.

It does not seem too much then to suppose that the idea had once been even more widespread during Manilius’ own time, and even that Firmicus Maternus is less directly indebted to Manilus than heir to a once-widespread intellectual culture.

* Scripts

If imagery in the Frankish manuscript does preserve a pre-Christian vocabulary and habit of thought, it is possible then that those  ‘antique runes’ and the ‘script written right to left’ which are prohibited by the edict (see above) were ones that had been more sophisticated than the  “rovas” runes of the more common sort of  shepherd.

There is a great deal that we are yet to learn about the history of Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania; constant revisions to our understanding are required by ongoing archaeological work there.

In regard to scripts, for example, one might mention an Etruscan book on gold leaves, recovered from Struma river in Bulgaria, known in ancient times as the Strymon river of Thrace, mentioned in the preface to the 2ndC [pseudo Hyginus] as among the great rivers of the world:

“From Oceanus and Tethys [were born] the Oceanides . . . Of the same descent Rivers: Strymon, Nile, Euphrates, Tanais, Indus, Cephisus, Ismenus, Axenus, Achelous, Simoeis, Inachus, Alpheus, Thermodon, Scamandrus, Tigris, Maeandrus, Orontes.”

Postscript Nov.12th.2012

For a cultural art-history of related figures, see:

Marian Wenzel, Balkans 15thC Dioscuri revival, ‘The Dioscuri in the Balkans’, Slavic Review , Vol. 26, No. 3 (Sep., 1967), pp. 363-381.

As so often, much of the sub-text is unrecognised but the comparative examples are excellent and even the symbolism of the mirror will, I hope, be clearer to readers than it appears to be now among those who wear them in funerary rites.


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