Getting to the Point ~ Pt4

[minor correction AD – 13/07/2015]

If we had nothing left but the first folio of ms Beinecke 408,  most of its story could still be told.

Near the bottom of Folio 1rTepenec’s name  appears under violet light, giving a secure historical link for this folio to  the world of seventeenth century Prague, from which its journey to the present can be followed fairly well. (Tepenec is properly
Jakub Horčický z Tepence)

Though we can’t be certain that the present manuscript includes neither more, nor less, than Kircher received in 1665, we may suppose, at least,that he received   ‘Herbal A’, because  bleed-through of colour from the reverse is a product of time, and thus permits an assumption that the plant now on f.1r f. 1v is original to the fifteenth-century matter  in Tepenec’s possession by the seventeenth.

fol 1r (detail)

fol 1r (detail)

Folio 1r includes two additional items in dark red.

That shown left appears on the folio’s upper right and I read it as a permission-sign.

In my opinion, it takes this form by reference to a pairing known to peoples across most of the world, especially to mariners, and from China to Gibraltar: the dog and dragon.

Though I’m tempted to indulge in a long discursus about this pair and the various networks of myth and cultural import which had grown around them in the east and in the west, I’ll be merciful and say that the pairing is not one known exclusively in China, but attested even in the Mediterranean world from before its classical era.

There it survived the centuries, passing through a stage that sees the ‘Phoenix’ appear instead.  The pair can be seen in medieval art in such diverse imagery as a works-and-days calendar mosaic from Sicily, the astrolabe to which I referred in an earlier post, and later in Brouscon’s charts.

In this case, however, it is referenced less directly, and in an abbreviated and eastern style  (cf. ‘Artocarpus’). Its form shows that the original inscription from which this descends by one or more copyings  had been made with a brush –  I daresay one dipped in vermillion.

Thus it serves as a  ‘pass’ mark  proper to regions which lay, during the twelfth-thirteenth century under Chinese influence or direct control, and its complementary pair is a reference here  to the circuit of the world which went overland through the north, and by sea across the south ( from east of the Caspian).

If you read accounts by  western ambassadors who travelled east at that time, you see that those who entered by land were sent home by sea, and vice versa.  A custom of Chinese rulers at that time, apparently.

Similarly for the other:

fol 1r blog

Its colour may also suggest imitation of vermillion, but its lines are more suggestive of the quill, and perhaps even an engraved seal.

It consists of two signs, each of which appears in the older Mediterranean and to as late as the Byzantine era. I take it as referring primarily to northern road, as rebus for its description as  ‘Aquilonarium tartarorum’ though if one wished to read it as a name, it would serve for  Monte-corvino.  ( remain open to better information)

To persons whose home was across the northern route, it might have been read differently again, to indicate the dispossessed and the refugee.

So if we had nothing left save one leaf from this manuscript, we could tell:

: it had copied an earlier work, so carefully as to merit description as a facsimile, : that it had travelled from an eastern region towards the west where,  no matter what care was taken in the copying, the quill had still to replace the brush, and another paint any vermillion on the original.

More we could tell that in the earlier (12thC) work, its carrier, or some matter of importance was considered such as to merit the full ‘passport’ though evidently not simply a matter of official diplomacy.

The reverse shows a botanical image which I identified as the ‘Clove’ group. Rather than explaining it again here, I refer to my earlier post.   Cloves grew only in the Moluccas, from which we may reasonably infer (once more) that the work’s frame of reference is meant to be universal – at least in terms of the world east of the Mediterranean, and thus treating the southern route as well as the northern.

fol 1v for blog

We might also suppose that the carrier or its owner/s worked in a profession that required a close knowledge of plants and ability to recognise them in the field.

This is the  plainest and most important distinction between ms Beinecke 408 and western herbals made between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. Not only does this manuscript include plants whose form was unknown to mainland Europe (some not till the late seventeenth century) but – also unlike those few western herbals whose imagery displays points of likeness – these botanical images are sufficiently clear and accurate that, once accustomed to the conventions of their style and construction, they can be used as a field-guide.

So: this part of the manuscript –  possibly in Europe – copies in the early fifteenth century a work which had earlier come bearing the sign of Chinese permission to travel both by land and sea.  If you consider the great proportion of the present manuscript is occupied with images of plants and plant-parts, it does not seem so probable that the manuscript was an ambassador’s, but more likely had a lower status – perhaps as physicians or as a trader interested chiefly in  vegetable products whose use is likely to have included knowledge of medicinal uses, though more are indicated.  These botanical folios are markedly different in disposition, stlylistics and content from the ‘bathy- ‘ folios and I rather doubt the latter had always been included with ‘Herbal A’ and the closely related ‘pharma’  section (so called).

As for the date and origin of the nearest exemplar, I must refer to different folio, and again show it by comparison to that twelfth-century manuscript shown in an earlier post. This was the one produced in the twelfth century by a Christian of Arabia, but within a city of upper Mesopotamia that is called ‘Silvan’ by the Turks but which had earlier (6thC AD) been known as Martyropolis, and which is believed to have possibly been the original capital built by Tigran(e) the Great (95-55) B.C. ~ of whom more later in relation to the bathy- folios.

fol 53v

fol 53v


Balsam roots XII ms Ray

As I hope you can see, the version in ms Beinecke 408 (f.53v) is a little less fluent, a little more ‘hard work’ for the person making the picture.  An absolutely painstaking effort to reproduce the original but, so it seems to me, not an original style to which they were native. Nonetheless, unmistakeably related and with an Indo-Persian approach to showing overlap and interwoven strands – here as roots.  Absence of any realistic human forms save two throughout the manuscript does not suggest the Muslim attitude to imagery, but a pre-Islamic custom of which I’ll speak later.

The twelfth century was the time of China’s Song dynasty, and witnessed the first movements in the Mongols’ rise. In Sicily, the Normans ruled and al-Idrisi was compiling his new geography which together with a parallel astronomy formed the basis of what would be a new style of education, an  ‘Amusement for he who would travel the world’. This is the time when Jurchen (to which Stolfi likens the patterns of Voynichese) was a lingua franca across the northern road, along with the western tongue, Cuman.

For people living in upper Mesopotamia, Syria and Asia Minor, times were difficult and would become more so as first the Turks and subsequently Tartars and Mongols and plague repeatedly decimated the region.

In Tigran, or some say in Edessa, earlier changes in Persian policy towards the Christian population had seen the most important relics of earlier Christianity gathered.  Partly because of Turkish hostility, and partly because of outrages committed by European invasion during the Crusades, these relics together with monasteries and their libraries became a focus for attack.

Among those relics were the bones of St.Thomas, already brought from their original resting place in southern India to Edessa in the third century, they were carried late in the thirteenth from Edessa, via Chios to Ortona in Sicily, arriving in 1258, the year Manfred was born and  Conradin claimed the crown which we was so soon to lose.

[additional note Feb 3rd., 2015. This is one version of the story; another says that the bones taken from Chios were not Thomas’ and/or were stolen by Accaiuoili – see later post ‘Chronological strata revisited 2a’]

In my opinion, it was very likely at the same time and through the same route that there came  first to the then-Norman kingdom of Sicily one or more sections of the compendium that would be copied in the fifteenth century to become  ms Beinecke 408.

Thirty years later (1285), another embassy from the east was sent by the Arghun, and a further one which Wallis Budge made famous by translating its narrative.  The second began with two monks seeking permission of the Chinese emperor to travel on a pilgrimage to shrines and relics in the Holy Land; it ended with one having been elevated to the Patriarchy in Persia and both sent, in company with the Genoese and a large retinue, to the west.

Apart from very likely having met the king of England in France, and managed adroitly to escape with their lives from an attempted doctrinal dispute in Rome, it is important to note that the Genoese were their guides by land and sea, and that it was in Genoa the large company spent the winter.

I expect that the manuscript which we have is a compilation of matter about the world east of Europe, just as Baresch says in that ‘hypothetical’ tone.

I should say that n my opinion the fifteenth-century matter may have been copied shortly after 1404/5.

Timur had handed over to the white sheep Turcomans  the city of Amida, an original and much revered centre of early Christianity and the nestorian Patriarch’s northern seat. Amida is also known as  Diyar Bakr.  My proposing this end of the C-14 range is partly by consideration of that vignette on f.116v;  my linking it to an earlier (12th-13thC) exemplar is due not least to the fact that shortly after translation of Thomas’ relics to Ortona, there begin to appear in southern Italy a small number of herbals showing similarities – fairly superficial – to imagery in ms Beinecke 408. The earliest known begins from the time of Manfred, but contains far fewer eastern plants than our manuscript does.

Neither these monk-ambassadors, nor  Thomas’ bones arrived alone.  Nor should it be supposed that only saints’ relics came west out of regions under threat.  Those cities of the Nestorians, throughout Mesopotamia as elsewhere had been famous for their classical learning and for other, less open-hearted attitudes.

One indication that our compilation comes not from religious texts, nor from the usual Syriac sources is the style and content of imagery, changing as it does through the various sections but almost without exception displaying evidence of certain tabus and all lacking overt evidence of Christian custom, not even the custom of preparing parchment by ruling or pricking in advance.

For any European scribe to ‘forget’ such conventions, instilled as deeply as his ability to read and write, and while producing so meticulous a copy as we have, is simply inconceivable.

The mystery of the manuscript’s backstory is not completely resolved, but at least the way is open for its European story.

In addition: folio 1v alone would  let us know that this compendium (at least its ‘Herbal A’) derives very directly from early Hellenistic sources.

I’ll be very brief.

Use of such close-set parallel curves as are employed in the detail at the foot of f.2v to indicate fleece-like or warp-faced fabric  is a seen very commonly in works of the Achaemenid and early Hellenistic period.

In this case it is also intended, I think, to evoke Latin usage, as I explained in treating this folio.

Greco-Roman Alexandria is then and  obvious possibility for the original source of the figure on  f.1v, and there is no reason to feel particularly surprised that works of that time should survive in Syria, Mesopotamia or indeed in India (inscribed papyrus was found at Muziris).

What I do find remarkable is that the thirteenth-century precedent to the fifteenth-century copy must have come almost directly from a primary source no later than the early centuries AD:  comparative examples in ms Beinecke 408 suggest the 1st or 2nd.

But to simplify things to a sound-bite: I think the story of ms Beinecke 408 is essentially one coinciding with  the routes by which cloves and Pepper were traded; that it is no accident that our oldest evidence of trade in cloves’ occurs in Syria and as early as the eighteenth century BC AD.  Nor that the Church of St.Thomas in India had been granted sole agency over the pepper trade in that region by the thirteenth century… nor that in Italy, the great port lying just up the coast from Ortona where Thomas’ bones were taken had been the hub of eastern trade to Italy since before the rise of Rome, while it was a colony of the Greeks.

motif unihead beast alabastron 1stquarter 6thC bcefol1v mnemonic adj


While others before me had noted a similarity between the red motifs (margins of f.1r) and Chinese characters, I can speak only of my own impressions and opinion which were formed independently though having read of Stolfi’s views.

Among those others, I found today a page online which is from P.Han.  I had not read his we-page (as he was kind enough not to mind) because to enter the site one had to sign a legal agreement about copyright.

About copyright I certainly do agree that protection is needed, but I felt unable to enter a legal contract at the time and have read nothing of his work as a result.

Here is a link to the page I happened on today; it is evidently open to the public.

Afterword (May 21st):

map showing the Adriatic coast and heel of Sicily.

maps Italy Adriatic ports


One thought on “Getting to the Point ~ Pt4

  1. Postscript:comments made in this post should not be taken as an argument against Panofsky’s original opinion (as reported by Anne Nill). It is perfectly possible that non-Jews made the present fifteenth-century ‘facsimile’ copy. It is also possible that the community or clan which had preserved and transmitted the contained matter had not always been Jews. After all, some of its imagery refers to the early Hellenistic period – almost two thousand years before our present manuscript was made. Nonetheless, it is foolish to pretend that the imagery in MS Beinecke 408 descends from any Latin European tradition; it includes conventions, styles and motifs never acclimatized in that environment and yet which occur in Jewish works (first in the eastern Mediterranean, and then in the west) centuries earlier than MS Beinecke 408 was made.


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