Tackling the text

[expanded, illustrations added, corrections made – 12 June]

If there’s anyone here who has followed my work over the longer term, you’ll probably understand why I’m now positing, by the thirteenth century, an association of the manuscript’s matter to people who were either (or both) of the Yemen and with close  contacts to the region around the Ma’rib dam (as it was) near Saba and Raidan in Yemen.

Arabian Jews and/or Canaanites had been established there from an early period – some say before the 1stC destruction of the temple.

In that region were found the heap of texts inscribed in Sabaic miniscule; here too the type of headwear upon the Asiatic face in f. 78v-i, though not only found there.

Within the Yemen was a centre where ceramics in Asian style were made, imitating the trade ceramics of south east Asia.  Remains of the industry have been noted often by travellers and by archaeologists. Similar centres existed in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and early in Fustat (old Cairo) during the medieval centuries.

I haven’t yet treated here the issue of trade in ceramics, and how  centres for imports and for replication of Asian trade ceramics altered over time, from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries.  Evidence comes late that in the Yemen most of the potters and silversmiths were Jews, and while circumstantial it may be true.

To describe Yemeni communities by religious affiliation is less simple or efficient than some modern accounts make it seem.

Depending largely on the religion and personal disposition of current rulers, a single community might be obliged to convert, or emigrate, or might be martyred for their faith. Within a few centuries (around the 6th-8th C AD), the region was converted to Judaism, Christianity and then to the Muslim faith, with minority faiths being more, or less, accepted depending on current rulers’ policies.

Emigration, forced conversion and diaspora are constant themes in Yemeni history. Spain and North Africa offer very close comparison, especially given their long and close cultural ties.

In the centre of f.86v the image is, I think, of  Ma’rib, an ancient dam which had made the land of incense so fertile until loss, decay, or destruction in the early centuries AD brought on the first great waves of diaspora and apparently sent the Sab.bans as far afield as Java, the east African coast and ultimately as far as Spain (as the history of the Azd tribe demonstrates).

By the time of Maimonides, Yemeni Jews were writing letters to Spain and  north Africa and even to Maimonides himself, he having been forced with many others to emigrate from the western Mediterranean. He was a physician who settled finally in  Cairo’s older quarter, but gave while still providing his opinions on matters of religious law. Maimonides (also found as ‘Nahmenides’*)  was very widely admired by theologians from the three major Abrahamic religions.

  • I should have added “erroneously”. Latin texts are constantly vague about Jewish and Arabic personal names and not rarely confuse two or even more individuals. In this case, confusion between Maimonides (known as the Rambam) and Nahmenides (the Ramban) was evidently partly due to the two Spanish Rabbis’ being contemporaries; Maimonides (1138–1204  ) and Nahmenides (1194 -1270).  ‘Ramban’ is an acronym from Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman [Girondi, Bonastruc ça (de) Porta].  – note 28/08/2015

With regard to folio 9v, its micrography and  ‘hand’ – Maimonides wrote a commentary called ‘the strong hand’ but it is purely religio-legal and ran to fourteen volumes. Not the sort of thing to ornament with imagery like that in the Vms.

In Arabic (and cognate in Hebrew) the word for Yemen is related to that for Benjamin and means  “of the right hand”, as the Latin has dexter.   Right could also refer to the direction South, if one’s primary point of orientation was the  sunrise (as it is in f.96v. f.86v*

*Thanks, Steve.

Other Yemeni communities settled in Syria, where both Jewish and Christian scribes are believed to have been active in book-making, largely in copying and translating texts on commission. Among the works of interest to us here are the manuscripts which were commissioned by Franks in Palestine and which include those known as ‘Crusaders’ manuscripts.

I include an illustration from one such, probably made in Aleppo, as example of why I believe that the matter in the manuscript moved, with its original owners, from the circuit of the eastern seas into Syria by the twelfth-thirteenth century. The initial includes interlace – never used in the Voynich imagery; it also uses a motif characteristic of Asian ceramics – the ‘fan’ pattern in blue and white signifying the ocean. Here is a pointed cap and the blood-thirsty tongue which are common motifs, but the habit of drawing cross- or unfocussed eyes is much rarer and all three are found in the Voynich manuscript. Finally, the form taken by the ‘white vine’ (if I may call it that) is earlier in style than the fully-fledged and Insular style given it during the Renaissance. (see for example the initial in ‘De Protectione Magiorum…’   in Municipal Library Intronati, Shelfmark: ms. H.VI.31[4]). That volume is a collection of various texts  dated from the 13th to the 16thC.

A version of the same pre-Renaissance ‘white vine’ may inform the puzzle initial opening Brit.Lib. MSHarley 632 f. 1

Serpent initialms Initial puzzle detail











Texts – some thirteenth century texts relevant to the Yemen, and to the purpose implied by the Vms imagery might include:

‘Flower of Yemen’,  a treatise of some kind, allegedly in rhyme, attributed to the Yemeni Ibn al-Ḥawas. Often mentioned, but I can discover nothing of what it contained, or whether any copy exists today.

Its title might suit the viola on f.9v – the folio and flower provided with its micrography appears.

Another possibility might be Ibn al-Mugawir’s work, said to be  “a lively mixture of practical travel directions, business matters and magic”.   The author reports magical ideas and practices in the Yemen of his time, but does not do more.

An article by Smith treats the magical aspects of his work:

G. Rex Smith, ‘Magic, Jinn and the Supernatural in Medieval Yemen: examples from Ibn al-Mugawir’s 7th/13th century guide’, Qaderni di Studi Arabi, Vol.13, Divination magie pouvoirs au Yemen (1995), pp. 7-18. (JSTOR)



2 thoughts on “Tackling the text

  1. Being a ~Switch Hitter~ L/R all my life & now looking for a LEFT mIrRoR..
    DeCoding/DEcoder (you can have the odd Pictures). and f96v is beyond my pg count

    what hebrew / arabic is “named” L E F T handed?.. i think i seEEs you r path ?

    steve (R/dexter = L/???? thx) ekwall 🙂


  2. Steve, I did look into whether Yemenite Jews were believed from the tribe of Benjamin, but none of my sources say so. Seems an obvious connection to make, but not historical apparently.


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