What’s wrong with Claudius Ptolemy?

Claudius Ptolemy

[2,000 words – and corrections]

Claudius Ptolemy lived in Egypt.  His Geography was translated into Latin about the time the Voynich manuscript was made. There are images from Coptic Egypt dated to the 1stC AD which show stunted proportions (such as the figure of  Michael cited in a previous post ).. and so on.

So why not keep everything (except Claudius Ptolemy himself) within a the Roman world: and perhaps beginning from the Christian imperial era (3rdC AD), and focussed on western Christendom or Byzantium, so that the only non-modern languages that would have to be considered would be the familiar classical Greek and Latin, and perhaps Coptic?

The answer is not only the nature of other sections in the manuscript, the way the cuttings are shown in such detail in f.75r, or even the sort of detail about structures and customs from regions further to the east into which Romans appear never to have ventured.

What requires mention of the earlier centuries and their habits of thought and art is the pictorial ‘language’ informing the manuscript’s imagery – as a whole and in numerous separate motifs – not only motifs which are present, but those which are absent.

It’s a little like a photo-fit: when superimposed on the later classical works on those of Christian Constantinople or western Christendom, the narrative does not  ‘read’ coherently throughout, but step back a few centuries and it finds comparisons and explanation. Examples have been noted on coins of Kentoripai as  Sidon; and then there is the use of what I’ve called the ‘Theophrastan point’ as a regular element in the botanical section . and so on.

But I did spend a very long time wondering  if I could begin the description of the imagery in the 1stC AD, to avoid discussing in the blog any pre-Christian or non-European matter, given that for many of the wider public the idea of contact between medieval Europe and countries such as  Egypt, India or China is believed unlikely.

But other parts of the world were real, and people travelled back and forth ~

En route between Spain and India in the thirteenth century, Benjamin of Tudela [Toledo] describes the multicultural atmosphere in  Montpellier [which he calls Har Gaash]. The presence of such groups within Europe seems to have fallen beneath the notice of contemporary Christian scholars and indeed of  many modern ones.

“men.. from all quarters, from Edom, Ishmael, the land of Algarve (Portugal), Lombardy, the dominion of Rome the great, from all the land of Egypt, Palestine, Greece, France, Asia* and England. People of all nations are found there doing business through the medium of the Genoese and Pisans. In the city there are scholars of great eminence.”

* By ‘Asia’, is usually supposed only Asia Minor, but the point is by no means certain. Benjamin was heading for India (as part of contemporary ‘Asia’ and Jewish trading networks had spread as far as China before the expulsions. Ceuta was for a time an important centre for Jewish culture and silk-weaving. By ‘Ishmael’ he means the region between Mesopotamia and Egypt, exclusive of the Levant.

So Europe was clearly not beyond reasonable reach of those others Benjamin mentions, nor unable to transfer goods limited to  spices, or some few herbals and mathematical texts.

In a constant, or nearly constant stream too there came diamonds and rubies, ivory, medicines, silk and spices  from the furthest reaches of the eastern roads, which might have brought written works at any time.

Even Europeans were travelling eastwards in person: Genoese and Venetians lived in Alexandria, as in the Holy Land and some Genoese lived in China and in Persia before the middle of the fifteenth century.

Politics, war and disease  constantly saw one or another route closed to the west, but alternate ones were found and there is no reason to pretend  any invisible curtain, drawn at the line of the Bosphorus,  prevented people coming from the east, or from Egypt, into Prague or into France except as they chose to avoid a chilly and uninviting culture in western Christendom – less before than after the western schism.

In the same way, it is wrong to think preposterous the early association of the manuscript with England, nor with the person of Roger Bacon, a Franciscan.

In the seventeenth century, the traveller who brought the manuscript to Prague ~ could  have come from England as from China, Baghdad or  Egypt. Rudolf received and sent emissaries to Persia and one such emissary was an Englishman.

Books were a constant gift for lords and emperors, the rarer the text the better.

archit swallowtails Caffa
swallowtails in Caffa

As regards  Roger Bacon: he might well have had some connection to the work, though I should never suppose it was other than a copy of matter still earlier.

By 1350AD,  when a Pisan compiled the list of Franciscan houses in his time, they extended … well, see this list,  which includes houses in China, one in Afghanistan at   Armalik and a Vicariate in Caffa: ‘ Tartaria Aquilonarius’.

Between its  many houses, a religious order assigned its men  as needed, with national boundaries or borders almost irrelevant in the process since Latin was their common language, as it was the common language of western culture and diplomacy. A German, Italian or French hand could be set to copying wherever the person was.

The ‘hand’ in which the fifteenth-century manuscript is thought to be written is scarcely relevant in this context, since medieval networks were reticular: communication and goods passing through links of dynastic alliance, commercial expansion,  cultural diaspora or religious plantation.

I ought, cautiously, plead  disinterest in how the manuscript arrived in seventeenth century Prague, on the grounds that my concern is only with imagery and probable content of the original source material, not  the history of the fifteenth-century object.

But for the record,  I will say that I incline to a view that the matter – wherever gained – was probably first introduced to mainland Europe and (as I think) into England from  twelfth-century Sicily, most likely as a result of  Idrisi’ s labours there.

Among the  reasons for this inclination, I might cite evidence in f.86v of a particular interest in Ceuta, where Idrisi had been born; a chain of allusions which appear in common in imagery from fourteenth century France and England and other regions linked to Norman Sicily.

e.g.   a common approach between the Sicilian ‘works and days’ calendar  mentioned in an earlier post and that more completely enunciated in Pierpont Morgan Library MS 700, an English work whose provenance reads: “written and illuminated for Hawisia de Bois (Avicia de Boys) around 1330 in East Anglia, or possibly in the Cistercian Abbey of Bittlesden, Buckinghamshire”).

Ref: Olga Koseleff Gordon, ‘Two Unusual Calendar Cycles of the Fourteenth Century’, The Art Bulletin,  Vol. 45, No. 3 (Sep., 1963), pp. 245-253

In these is a mutual link, I believe, to older motifs found on coinage from the pre-Roman era in Sicily and other islands in the western Mediterranean ~ and all in the month roundels.

Idrisi’ ‘Amusement… ‘ was evidently an educational paradigm.

A more certain connection between Bacon and Sicily, though one equally indirect, is Michael Scot’s  introduction of Aristotle’s works into England – reported by Roger Bacon –  after Scot’s time in the Norman-Sicilian court.

I do not believe, however, that Aristotle’s works had been recently ‘translated from the Arabic’ as is often said.

In the tenth century when Ibn Hawqual lambasted the Sicilians, Berbers and other North Africans there for ‘worship of Aristotle’, the island had just passed to Muslim hands, but study of Aristotle was already an institution in the island, which was until then part of the Greek speaking world.

Ibn Hawqual refers to the cathedral’s use as a house of learning, where teachers sat   ‘in the niche, as if it were holy writ’. He had Aristotle’s  mummified body taken down from where it had hung suspended as a kind of  binnacle light for the  previous thirteen centuries. The Norman conquest of Sicily occurred early in the eleventh century: languages having a religious or quasi-religious status are not so easily lost, and indeed Greek was still spoken by much of the eleventh century population.

(The same practice of suspension is recorded elsewhere)

So it seems less likely that the Latin text came via Arabic than a Sicilian dialect, a ‘Berber’ language described as ‘Saracenic’ in the usual habit of that time, or indeed from classical Greek:  Ficino sought a pastoral appointment in southern Italy specifically in order to learn the ‘ancient Greek’ dialect still spoken there in his own time.

So why not Ptolemy?

It is possible to make the argument, and support it  by reference to the later ‘Roman’ empire: certain containers  in the pharma- section resemble ones of the 3rdC AD, and so  coincide (in Constantinople under the  Azdi emperor, Philip ‘the Arab’). Some of the same coins show  Aequitas and her scales. Other items include the  curious bull on his coins (Alces Alces) and I’ve already noted baskets patterned in Byzantine manuscripts have points in common with those on the ‘barrels’.

I could have attributed the cosmological attitudes to Ptolemy’s works, passed on to Byzantium, and then very neatly to fifteenth-century western Christendom.


… the delta isn’t drawn as a parasol in Roman and Byzantine manuscripts, and the welkin-band isn’t present in the same way. Even with allowances made for stylistic differences, the approach in this imagery is not consistently compatible with the Roman, Byzantine or western Christian eras.

In Roman as in Christian, Byzantine or Muslim works (with some exceptions in the case of Coptic manuscripts) there are constant customs: –  but in this manuscript were no emperors, no clavi, no ornate garments, no pearls (on which the Byzantines were very keen), no religious introduction, no kings, no martial figures, no mounted figures. Most importantly, the imagery shows no sign of any nation’s self-importance. Nor is there more generally a praise implied for men: none are seen surveying land, women or battlefields; there are no images of war save possibly one small detail; there are no winged figures except the hatted ‘Nike’ in the month-roundels – and it painted with a profile neither Roman nor Byzantine. There are no imperial insignia, no disciples, no real persons, scarcely any geometric forms: above all for the Byzantine and Armenian style,  no interlace, no paired but not-quite-matching weather vanes …  and no fountain with two birds.

I could not ‘fudge’ the dating to that extent. The time of Claudius Ptolemy is just too late for initial composition of the manuscript’s  source-works, and what is more, the Byzantines clearly knew the distinction. Eudoxa’s jewel is, I think, a conscious effort to replicate the style of the ‘aegis’ and imagery of the pre-Roman era. In a fourteenth century figure, Selecucis is given a ‘Persian’ cap – the origin of that on the standing archer, I believe. Variations on it are used to indicate ‘magi’ in numerous works made in western Europe. (In Islam it is represented by the taylasan).

aniconic painting in Jerusalem credited to Armenian workmanship
Won’t do; stylistically very close, but (almost inevitably) the western vessel has swollen belly and handles.
Eudoxa's aegis: Kings and things.
not quite…. Eudoxa’s ‘aegis’ or laurel jewel. Consciously imitates classical works, but is influenced by dichotomies of  Christian type.










Visual language:

In short: I couldn’t pretend that the manuscript’s sources were first composed in Claudius Ptolemy’s time: the imagery simply doesn’t ‘read’ in those other graphic vocabularies, even if it reads in some cases as having Greek origins.

To use a metaphor: trying to read the imagery in ms Beinecke 408 by reference to  the graphic vocabulary of the Roman empire or medieval Europe  is like trying to read an Italian text while determinedly holding an opinion that it is written in English.

Bits and pieces can seem quite familiar, but the whole doesn’t quite communicate.

Logically then, the first step is to identify the imagery’ s natural language.. and then you’re sailing.

bowl Nimrud 8thC BC (detail)
bowl Nimrud 8thC BC (detail)

In the image above,

  • the design is appropriate ( compare with f.57v)
  • stylistics are fairly appropriate (though they do include lozenges)
  • fine details are acceptable precedents  (e.g. compare hat on upper left)
  • influences in this artefact are parallel to those evident in the manuscript (a presence of Egyptian among them)
  • other artefacts from the same time and region which also find their parallel in the manuscript, including bearded sun.


~ By the way, this example from Nimrud was not difficult to find. Having identified the three chief influences n the foundation-stratum of the imagery as Persian, Hellenistic and Egypto-Libyan ~  the last further explained in a following post ~ I turned to where we know artefacts display a similar syncretism at the time (and earlier) when Achaemenid rule in Egypt gave way to Macedonian.


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