“thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos” Pt 3

Trade networks ~carriage of eastern materia medica and ‘spices’

detail Cairo medieval market

Another post giving context to a phrase used by Georg Baresh in his letter to Kircher (1639 not 1637 as given in previous posts).  This gives the framework within which Bacon’s foreign materia medica were being traded in his time from as far as the Spice islands into England.  The next post considers the specifics, and after that the last post in this series will consider a comparative list of substances from a medieval Egyptian physician’s hand-list.  Hopefully, some of all this minutiae will prove useful to someone, one day!

Family networks or guilds managed the bulk of international trade during the medieval centuries.

The system was due partly to convenience and partly to the fact that certain communities in the east – and notably in India – were provided not only with permanent formal permission to reside, but  a monopoly over some particular good so that they might prosper. The Community of St.Thomas, for example, is mentioned variously as having monopoly over pepper sales, and over steel in the southern port. Multilingualism was the norm.

Eastern commercial ‘guilds’ or companies were organised in much the same way as were Mediterranean Jews engaged in the India trade, and later again were the Genoese.  Some members would be occupied in obtaining or raising goods for supply; one or more others  acting as heads for  the chief business-house, usually in the home city;  A third might be sent abroad to act as resident agent in a more distant entrepot, living among fellows  native to, or long resident there; and finally a fourth might be tasked with travelling to purchase or gain options on  products to which access was limited by distance and/or monopoly. Cloves is an obvious example.

Not only in Egypt, but especially there, an entrepot at the half-way point saw a large proportion of the materials imported being processed into finished goods for onward sale. Local and even imported eastern craftsmen produced  imitations of eastern artefacts to be sold westwards – imitations so accomplished as to deserve description as ‘replicas’.  Old Fustat has proven especially rich in a combination of genuine and locally made ‘Chinese’ ceramics, while Egypt’s skill in creating oils, lotions,  perfumes, incense and cosmetics made their manufacture elsewhere all but superfluous during the medieval centuries. As in the fifteenth century, so even today it feels as if:  ‘anything in the world can be found in the fonduks of  Cairo’.

market Egypt medieval bazaar large

* fonduks in the medieval sense no longer exist as warehouses; one is kept as a museum in Tunisia but most have been made into residential buildings.

But thus, when we read in that  fifteenth-century account of a ‘spice-makers’ workshop in the balsam garden, we should take it as referring to a manufactory akin to the birbar and not simply a ‘spice-shop’ in the modern sense.

Cloth and Aromatics

To the eastern trade, culinary spices were of lesser importance than cloth, ceramics and aromata.  Like the more ornate ivory Begram bird containercontainers in the ‘pharma’ section, this trade was characteristic of the eastern markets, Chinese hunger for aromatic woods and substances being closely linked with ideas of both social status and immortality.  Apart from the ships of  China, before the arrival of Portuguese, most trade and passengers were carried in ships piloted by Yemeni mariners and, subsequently, by the Gujarati men.

Only the Karimi in Egypt and in the east or, later, the Genoese and Venetians carried goods across a route entirely in their own ships, using pilots either hired or locally trained.

New Persian, rather than Arabic, replaced Parthian or ‘Sabean’ as the lingua franca on the Great Sea those engaged in trade. In the Mediterranean ‘Frankish’ or a polyglot rooted in French was general. If the Voynich text reflects the range and nature of  matter in its imagery, then these  – even above Arabic or Latin – may be among the languages referenced.

As a rule, I try to avoid mentioning books here;   most readers prefer to link immediately to something online.  But in this case, the text is indispensable:

  • Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350.

We do have hints of a curious script used in medieval Egypt, and in an alchemical context. It may derive from an Islamic script, be meant for hieratic or truly be a form of that ‘Chaldaean’ script said to have been found on walls of the birbar. Again, the illustration from Okasha El-Daly:

Okasha blog

As you’ll see, some of these do resemble an Islamic script. The example below is from Abbasid Baghdad, the coin being turned 180 degrees. Seen in that way some characters are similar to the ‘alchemical’ notation shown above, and some also occur in the  Voynich manuscript.  Joel Stevens recently blogged on some, suggesting that they represent numbers. He takes this sign (illustrated) to refer to the ‘quincunx’ of medieval astrology.quincux

coin Abbasid Baghdad 8thC AD

coin Abbasid Baghdad 8thC AD

While the range and type of matter  implied by the Voynich manuscript’s diverse sections becomes intelligible in the context of trade and travel across the east-west routes, different or more limited purpose might inform the  fifteenth-century scribes’ copying and/or recension which produced our manuscript.

It is reasonably supposed made between 1405-1438, and though some uncertainty remains in regard to the lower  nine quires,  near-contemporaneity for the whole may be inferred by an evident relationship between the earlier botanical section and the later ‘pharma’ section, and again between the astronomical section and Quire 20.

By the seventeenth century when the manuscript appears in Prague,  Baresch believes it only medical and alchemical, a combination which does, reasonably enough, suggest Roger Bacon’s published views (see following). But if Baresch believed the whole was concerned with medicine, which I doubt, he also believed that the plants were not European ones and in that I do think he was correct.

Having first considered the imagery in depth, over a period of some years, before crediting any of Baresch’s story, I came to feel it largely based on some provenance conveyed to him with the book, but I cannot agree that all the plants have primarily a medicinal use. Some appear to me ones used for their woods,  fibres and such items useful in fitting, repairing and maintaining a trader’s caravan or ship. However, Baresch’s account is given much clearer support than Mnishovsky’s by the manuscript’s imagery and is framed in a way more practical and reasonable than many recent hypotheses. In particular, modern notions of witchcraft, secret societies or ‘modern science’  conflict with the dates for our manuscript and for its only certain line of transmission: i.e. from Jakob Hořčický via Baresch to Marci. None of those men had lives, interests or character of a type to feel attracted to such matter and if they had would scarcely seek advice from a notable Jesuit for its translation.

It may well be that some person obtained the present text, or a number of its informing sections, by seeking  information about  (or from) the ‘thesauros‘ of Egyptian medical art (or as we should say, medical science). Nothing about that idea, nor Baresch’s expression of it, merits dismissal out of hand. Baresch never said it was particularly ancient – though indeed some of it appears to be.

If such a person existed, and hoped in that way to discover a remedy for plague within some Egyptian pharmacopoeia, he was almost certainly disappointed. In Islamic nations as in Europe, plague was treated as a recurring natural phenomenon and/or as a trial sent by God against which nothing served but prayer and all medicine was useless.* We do, however, have a later list of substances and receipts from a pharmacist of Aleppo, whose handbook which may prove useful as comparison. Those in a subsequent  post.

* I’m speaking here of reactions to the first waves. For remedies touted subsequently as those gained by aexperience rather than from ancient authorities, see sources mentioned in

  • Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., ‘The Black Death: End of a Paradigm’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 107, No. 3 (June 2002), pp. 703-738.(JSTOR)


Speaking of plague, the only persons who certainly offered effective preventative measures were physician(s) to Pope Nicholas V, who advised him to spend as much time as possible seated between two blazing fires – a very effective method for sterilizing air and objects as we know.  Nicholas’ advisors seem to have gained the idea from traditions of the Celts rather than from Egypt.

Yet another member of the Franciscan order deserves mention in passing, as one among the many of that Order who left written accounts of travels eastward before the end of the fifteenth century. Symon Semeonis left Ireland in company with ‘Hugo the Illuminator’ in 1323, travelling through Crete and Egypt to the Holy Land. He mentions descendants of ‘Cain’ living in black tents in Crete and these are now believed to have been Romany. I mention him chiefly because he travelled with a competent draughtsman and because it was at one stage suggested that part of the inscription on f.116v reads ‘pour le bon Simon S..’ – interesting if the inscription is considered a colophon rather than a nihil obstat or some prayer.

Next – Bacon’s foreign materia medica, listed and in context


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