Viola group (f.9v) hidden letters & lenses

[2000 words]

I believe that it was Philip Neal who first suggested that certain obscured letters in the botanical section might refer to colour. As you’d expect, it is Nick Pelling who (after crediting Neal) troubled to explore the question in more detail. Once more – and with regret because it means yet another annoying ping-back for him – here is the reference from ciphermysteries.

Two  posts:   Feb.27th., 2010 and November 10th., 2010.


The default view of the manuscript should be, I think, that it constitutes information collated to some consistent and coherent purpose, despite the varying styles in its different sections.

To that purpose, then, every element should speak: I would not see much point in arguing that the botanical section includes American plants and simultaneously arguing – by reference to the astrological section – that it must be an ancient  Etruscan text. (I hold neither of those opinions).

Similarly, any argument about the script or enciphering should surely include some posited explanation for why the imagery should contain a sun depicted wall-eyed and bearded, according to a convention known to belong to pre-Hellenistic Syria. But if even to argue a Syrian origin,  still requires a reasonable explanation for the style employed in f.86v and that figure I describe as the ‘angel of the rose’ who appears twice (in my opinion): once on f.86v and again within the month-roundels.

I began work by tracking the most anomalous images in the manuscript (it seems like half a lifetime ago), and then the less obviously ill-suited to medieval western Europe and so on.

Gradually the list of small, single indicators grew, and began to form a fairly consistent pattern of distribution: over time as well as over distance.

Parallel to this was a pattern which emerged in the sources from which similar imagery came: ivory work and textiles being two of the most frequent. Manuscript art fell a long way down the list.

In addition, the subject-matter of the botanical folios, and of the map, directed me towards the east and its most lucrative trades: in order – textiles, spices/incense and ceramics.

Connection to Mediterranean geographers does not occur, as far as I can see, before about the twelfth century, and connection to the new style of ‘portolan’ chart not until the pogroms which spread in Spain and drove from it masters such as Abraham Cresques, who fled first to Majorca and then (possibly) thereafter to Minorca. At the same time, the work done in Trebizond, and the wide-ranging activities of the Genoese (and subsequently of the Venetians) must be taken into account.

But all in all, having raised the possibility that the written text may also have some direct connection to the textiles trade and related industries, I feel obliged to at least mention the ‘hidden letters’ in the botanical folios and to explore, however poorly,  the possibility that those letters refer to some related matter.

The form of a weft-faced weave included in folio 1v, and its apparent allusion to what were known as ‘clavi’ in Roman and Byzantine times is one obvious suggestion of textiles.  The term ‘clavicula’ meant a key, and the  ‘Mappae Clavicula‘ (c.600AD) is one of the first accounts of practical technical skills that we have in western medieval Europe. Its dye recipes are chiefly for colouring skins and horn etc., which were rarer than the inherited techniques of cloth-dyeing.

But however tenuous, these indications are supplemented by the content of those folios which refer more directly to plants known and used for textiles, their dyeing or painting and other fabric arts.

So to suggest the whole work should include reference to the set of skills serving a trade that included textiles was less any  imaginative leap, than a statement of the impression given throughout many sections of the manuscript and many specific folios. How it might connect with the written text I cannot say – apart from observing that the possibility is there.

Folio 9v, in the botanical section is a useful example – not of plants relating to the textiles trade directly though use as a pattern remains possible – but rather as example of the construction method for these folios, and one folio for which we have not only some ‘hidden letters’ but also a vague if general agreement that their subject is one or other (or several) of the Viola genus.

I’m not sure who first offered the identification.  I expect it was probably Dana Scott*, but if  anyone has better information, do please comment. Since the identity of the plant/s and species will influence interpretation of their likely uses (and thus the reference of the hidden letters), I’ll start with its analysis.  * Memory failed for a moment-  Fr. Theodore Petersen has precedence here.

fol 9v cropped autobalanced blog

The first thing to note is that the defining leaf has not come from Viola tricolor,  nor from the broad-petalled multicoloured pansies – which did not exist before the nineteenth century, and then thanks to the efforts of Mary Elizabeth Bennett.

Feathery-looking new leaves are natural for V. arvensis and for a subspecies of  V. tricolor: V. tricolor. subsp. maritima  [Schweigg. ex K. G. Hagen]. Unresolved name: Viola ammotropha [E.H.L.Krause].

As far as I can discover, -maritima is a naturally occurring sub-species, not a cultivar.


At the top  there is a pale flower with evenly coloured petals that are  distributed fairly evenly about the centre. Its colour and petals’ disposition resemble no European species: not V. arvenis, nor V. tricolor, nor even V.tricolor subsp. maritima. I’ll come back to it.

Below it, and to the viewer’s right, two flowers do show the typically spaced botanical art viola arvenis and tricolorarrangement of petals and the  diverse colouring of European species, the higher of these two very like V. tricolor – including its descending ‘tongue’ and splash of yellow.

The white and yellow V. lutea however appears to be omitted.

vola tricolor Macedonia
V.tricolor, in Macedonia

On the left hand side,  f.9v  shows flowers whose  petals are consistently rounder, broader and more close-set, though still the narrow leaf is the default form for the group.

In considering the section as a whole, I have found nothing to contradict John Tiltman’s observation that the drawings are (partly or generally) composite figures, and everything appears to support the idea.

More – the botanical imagery as I’ve shown in the earlier examples consistently correlates a western ‘base’ type (defined by the leaf) with plants native to the eastern world according to mutual uses.

The same, I’d suggest, is the case in f.9v: the right-hand side shows flowers for which a western equivalent is known. But those on the left conform much better to eastern Viola species.

Bridging the two, in geographic terms, was the fen violet, Viola persicifolia, whose petals are more rounded, and less separated and appear as white, as pale bluish or yellowish-white. Their markings are noticeable as the linked picture shows. So without denying that it might be indicated by the topmost flower, this well-known northern type is not unmistakably present.

On the other hand,   V. betonicifolia, whose colouring ranges from near white to deep purple seems a very likely subject for the uppermost flower. It occurs from Pakistan to India and into southern and south-eastern Asia to as far as Australia. And as the linked picture shows, its pointed petals are more evenly arranged; they lack that the distinctly ‘butterfly-like’ appearance so typical of the European species.

In my opinion, the flower below it, to the left, is almost certainly Viola philippica -(illustrated below).

Highly variable in color, V. philippica  has broad, evenly-disposed petals and a type of root more closely similar to what is shown in f.9v than the European species’ creeping rhizomes. Petals of V. philippica are also appropriately  soft, rounded and evenly disposed.

The issue is important because this is the flower on which those ‘hidden letters’ are written.

viola philippica Chinese viola
Viola philippica

V. philippica was certainly used  to colour silk in the far east. According to Ye, it gave a yellowish brown colour.

Ye, ‘The Ozone fading of traditional Chinese plant dyes’,  JAIC (online), Volume 39, Number 2, Article 5. ( citing Liu 1988).  V. philippica is named  Zi ding cao ( Pin Yin romanisation).

I don’t want to get too technical about violas; but I should mention that the number of flowers needed for an effective dye is fewer than you might think: a blogger here mentions that 60 gr cotton fabric were successfully dyed black blue [corrected in text 27/03/2017] using an alum mordant and only eight flowers of a black viola.

So why should this matter?

Well, first, it adds to an understanding of the  manuscript’s matter, stylistics and purpose overall.

In different regions, and according to the species, uses might differ. (If f.9v showed heart-shaped leaves, for example, we should suppose it referred to  Viola odorata,  whose chief uses were in perfumery).

And, of course, it offers some better reason as to why this particular flower among the Viola group might be inscribed with hidden letters.

Hidden letters:

Pelling shows that flower,  magnified and stripped of its blue colour HERE.

But if the inscriptions refer to colours, the cannot be in German where they appear to read ‘r.o.t’ i.e. red.

Conversely, if they are in German, they are not likely to be an instruction to the painter. But on that point see the relevant posts at ciphermysteries and comments associated with them.

What Pelling’s enlargement does not show is a fairly long line of smaller glyphs. In attempting to make these clear, I was less successful, and had to enlarge the picture beyond a comfortable size. So I suggest you refer directly to the Beinecke library site.

The line I mean is in the oblong border below.

fol 9v detail letters blue blog

quartz lens

These glyphs are so tiny that, inevitably, the question of lenses must arise.

(Although they should not be presumed. See following post ‘Tiny writing…’.)

I have no difficulty accepting that a lens might have been used;  a quartz lens was found in Mesopotamia; lenses of similar type were a regular adjunct to India’s religious work, use in the constant work of priests in transcribing Buddhist, Hindu or Tamil palm-leaf books.  I have read, but cannot now access, an account by one modern engraver of palm-leaves who explained the traditional technique for the age-old style of the scribe’s quartz lens. It was a process which took weeks and he is one of the last practitioners.

Perhaps I use ‘Indian’ too loosely. The example of a palm-leaf book shown below is either from Nepal or Bhutan. Five even lines of text are shown here, within a height of about 2 centimeters (the height for one of these paired leaves is 3 (three) centimeters.

Other professions such as the jeweller’s or cartographer’s might used methods for magnification, and in western manuscripts something like spectacles are shown from the thirteenth century (or so), and usually on figures identified as Jewish.

ms palmleaf Nepal 3 x 37 cm

In some cases, those last  may not be magnifying spectacles, but a cover for the eyes of the blind. I can see no other reason for a medieval German manuscript’s attributing spectacles to Moses.

Another indication of source, if I am reading fol.9v correctly, is the assignment of the eastern species to the left hand side of themoses spectacles blog picture.  Folio.86v places east to the viewer’s left and so (perhaps co-incidentally) does the Beth Alpha mosaic.

A Syrian connection would certainly be appropriate.  Syrians are constantly credited with expertise in silk- dyeing and weaving in the earlier medieval centuries.

What their religion was at that time is scarcely worth investigation, given the length of time during which the source-texts appear to have been maintained. Similarly, description by nationality is almost irrelevant. A person whose community had worshipped classical deities in the 2nd C may have been converted to Christianity in third century, only to be then converted to the Muslim faith in the 7thC. Wherever the first and second wave of Muslim conquest reached, the population was almost inevitably obliged to declare, and prove themselves one of the Abrahamic religions, or convert to Islam. The only third alternative was death, and in some cases (as the records of the North African conquest record), only two of the three options applied.

In addition, that same community may have been obliged by one or more in the succession of rulers to have re-located not once but several times and not least because noted for a specific skill. Just as (it is said) the only people spared in Damascus by Tamerlane were the city’s famous silk-weavers who were taken in a body to Samarkand, in modern Uzbekistan.

I don’t know if the hidden letters refer to colours, but if they do it may be to dye-colours as easily as to  pigments for parchment. In that case, the specific shade will depend partly on the mordant, so it is possible that annotations might refer to these, in the way such texts still do.

I have not found any suggestion that the Violas give colours apart from blues (save the Chinese), and its use seems quite rare in that context. However, here is a typical format for dyes:

Oak bark:

with Chrome mordant –  wool – gold – good colourfastness – dye method 1

with Chrome mordant – wo0l – yellow tan – colourfast fair – dye method 2

alum-tannin-alum mordant – cotton – colourfast good – dye method 2

Tin was another mordant, but alum was normally used for silk.

so perhaps the posited ‘r.o.t’ means not ‘red’ but condenses lengthier technical information.

What the much longer line of tiny glyphs might mean, I have no means to know.


2 Replies to “Viola group (f.9v) hidden letters & lenses”

  1. Diane 🙂
    Your research and Depth of the ~FaBrIC~ is accelerating / and noted.
    might I ask, while reading here (your site) that you _TURN OFF_ the little falling ~snow flakes~ ADDED dots. ?

    you may erase this /delete etc {msg] above/&/below, i concure IT (VMs) is visual, and is ALL there.. extra visual (SnOw) is interrupted for ~newbies~

    HaPpY 2013 there yourself !!
    take care

    p.s. YOUR site (before your DELETE THIS – is OK by me) gives me 2 icons of choice?
    one is 4×4 and now I seES 3×3 ——— > I stand by the 3×3’s [The CENTER is Yours].


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