The ‘Beastly’ Lombardy Herbal & Balneis Puteolanis

[I wanted to connect the matter discussed here to images in Crusader art and to fol.67v in Beinecke MS 408, which altogether made the post impossibly long. Today, finally, (1/10/2016) I’ve  got around to splitting it into two parts.]

Balneis Puteolanis

Images in copies of De Balneis Puteolanis demonstrate, to greater or lesser degree, the process by which the Latin world initially adopted, and then adapted external forms and attitudes to accord with its own.

That the origin of those images is non-Latin is very clear. Water is pictured green, where the Latin custom in language, as in art, is to define all water  blue by default. Distinguishing between fresh and salt water by reference to blue, and green, respectively is a custom of the eastern Mediterranean – and beyond – attested in dynastic Egyptian works as in fourteenth-century Persian poetry.

That representation of waters by drawing smooth, continuous, and even curves is characteristic of the medieval Latin works has has been already noted in discussing Iberian Jewish works of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, including those made for the court of France by Abraham Cresques.

To this same period (late 14thC), and to the same southern region, we owe a considerable number of works that were first brought from the east, and  again that Paris copy of the Balneis  – MS Paris Bib. Nat. lat. 8161 (P),  from which Clark argues that the Milan copy was gained.

  • Clark, Raymond J., ‘Peter of Eboli, “De Balneis Puteolanis”: Manuscripts from the Aragonese Scriptorium in Naples’, Traditio , Vol. 45, (1989-1990), pp. 380-389. (p,382).

It should be said that Clark’s essay is concerned solely with codicology and includes no detailed discussion of the imagery. Clark certainly did not suggest any link to MS Beinecke 408, no more than any other formal article that has been cited by a wiki item entitled,  ‘De Balneis Puteolanis’.  In my opinion there is no authority whatever, nor even an adequate justification, for that wiki article’s gratuitous suggestion that any substantial connection exists between them.  For this reason, and though I realise few are likely to place much faith in a wiki article, I’ll go into some detail about the nature of what similarities might be invoked.

That sea water was ‘green’  is an eastern trope, and one allowing the further and easy poetic equation to be made to the heavens’ seas through which stars appear to sail. This equation will be a matter of importance  overall to my analysis of the ‘nymph’ folios, but is not explored in what follows.

The trope of the green sea (and sky) is as old as dynastic Egypt, but from the fourteenth century and the environment of a Greek-influenced Persia, one example will do for now.  A Ghazal by  Hafez:

The green sea of heaven, the hull of the new moon, are both swamped by the generosity of our Hájí Qavám

In copies  of the Balneis the art is again in Persianised style (e.g. MS 1474 Biblioteca Angelica de Rome) and it is that style which is first affected and which then reverts in greater or lesser degree, in different copies, to forms more typically Latin.

Bal Put msWhile a non-Latin origin in general is very clear here, some details would appear much closer than others to the exemplars which I must posit.  In those details we even see a hint of just where the matter had been formulated: I would suggest the region of Northern Syria, once again, and more exactly art produced during the Crusader period.

So in the image shown below (left) for example, the upper right contains caves having ‘mushroom caps’.  Their most unusual form refers, I would suggest, to those unique, inhabited ‘chimneys’ of Cappadocia to which I had reason to refer in  an earlier post.

Balneis Angelico chimneysf.86v north roundel Balnei Angelica Cappadocia

These  ‘chimneys’ are not, of course, the only sign that imagery used in copies of the Balneis’  – though not the Latin text   – had been first enunciated in the eastern an not the western Mediterranean.

It is even possible to suggest an environment for the original, since those chimneys are set in the distance, while the baths are by salt sea,

I would suggest Antioch as a likely location.   The city was renowned from classical times, and sometimes criticised by Christian clerics,  for its exceptional number of public baths. Culturally we may describe the relevant image as reflecting a Persian-Hellenistic environment proper to the communities of northern Syria, where Greek and Persian forms often melded.

Near those chimneys, in the same image, there stands a tree pictured in a style not unfamiliar from early English, as from Armenian works.  That motif came independently into Latin art:-  on which, see  my earlier comment on f.11v of the Voynich manuscript and the tomb of Adelbert.

A very recent wiki article has been posted about the 12thC Gniezno doors. These had earlier been believed brought from the tomb of Adelbert in Prague, as I said in that earlier article.

Note: it is with regret that I must repeat to readers that matter published here should not be shared more widely. A ‘uptake’ of my reference to Adelbert’s ‘tree’ in relation to the Vms has reminded me of the need for this measure. The person concerned repeats the information as if it were an established fact, or fruit of their own research, rather than taken from my own without acknowledgement.  I am sorry about such breaches of good faith. More importantly, I do not wish ever again to be in a situation where I must demonstrate the distinction between my own research and the imitative publications of any other person.

Antioch and Crusader Art.

From 1098 AD, Antioch  was occupied by the Normans (including those of southern Italy). It survived until 1268 AD.  The Balneis’ figures have the long-shanked bodies,hollow chests, visible ribs and so on, as we see in early English manuscripts (e.g. Cotton Junius 11), This fusion of typically English or Norman custom with habits just as distinctively eastern is a hallmark of Latin art in the Crusader period. Though each does appear to have reached the west by carriage across the Mediterranean during the Crusader period, bodies of this form do not appear in the Voynich manuscript.  The difference is vital, and telling.

Junius 11 Eve and herbal

There are numerous examples of what is sometimes called ‘Crusader art’ but the evidence is clear that the works were not often produced in the east by Latins but by local scribes working to order by members of the occupation forces who wished to obtain copies or translations of texts first encountered there.

Imagery in such products often show a distinctive  fusion of Jewish, Syrian and Latin practice.

Aside: An item of Crusader art and Folio 67v-i

In this context, and by reference to northern Syria, I want to mention another item of Crusader art, a manuscript now in the Riccardiana which includes a very interesting initial.  See below, upper left.

Here is that same ‘white vine’ which was noted in the Spanish Haggadahs, though now being identified with the ‘draconis’ plant.  It is present with the sort of interlace beloved by Coptic, Arabic, Norman and Muslim manuscripts but which never appears in the Voynich manuscript.

The initial emphasises its blue-and-white – with the vine a common signal of Karaite or Egyptian work rather than of the Christian or of the Rabbinic Jew.

Most interestingly, this initial includes a ‘fan’ motif,  a signifier for the sea, and most unexpected here because it is a custom of Asian art.  I would suggest it gained by the example of Asian trade ceramics, and most likely from those replicated or imported directly into Fustat,  into the Red Sea ports, the Yemen and the Persian Gulf after the 10thC AD.

What this tells us altogether (as details in Voynich manuscript do, and as even in the Lombardy will) is that lines of  transmission between Syria an/or Egypt might bring customs and goods from much further east.  Absence of porcelain and Asian ceramics from earlier medieval Europe do not indicate that all roads ended at the entrepot, but that what travelled further westwards was more portable.  And we know that ‘spices’ were among them.

In contrast to these indications in the Riccardiana manuscript – and in the Voynich manuscript – the imagery in the Balneis would appear to reflect only influences from the Levant, influenced of course by the prevalent Persian presence.

The same region does contribute one very interesting motif, apparently redundant, to the Voynich manuscript.

On folio 67v-i, within a small marker which I’ve identified as the tail of Scorpius, there is a head occupying the position of the asterism’s golden star. (About this, see .. you guessed it.. my earlier post, The passage begins about three-quarters down, under heading ‘Al Shaula’).

I admit that I had been puzzled until recently about why the ‘divine scribe’ figure should wear a foolscap, and had not resolved the point to my satisfaction until very recently.  But I think it refers to precisely the same region, and to precisely the period apparently critical to the evolution of imagery within Ms Beinecke 408 (c. 1stC-2nd C AD). Both the ‘foolscap’ and the scorpion of the land were paired with the bright star of the ‘sea-scorpion’ in imagery of Commagene, a Hellenistic kingdom in the same broad region to which these other works allude.

fol 67v and Commagene 1stC AD

upper register (left) an item of Crusader art; (right) detail from f.67v – star in the Scorpion’s tail. Lower register: (left) scorpion and bright star as emblems of Commagene (1stC AD); (right) Antiochus Theos (86BC-38BC) as ruler of the Hellenistic kingdom of Commagene, later part of Armenia.

Although it is conventional to take the image on the observe as reference to Capricorn –  as it may indeed be intended – the form given the ‘horns’ and body seem rather to suggest the Mediterranean’s spiny lobster, found throughout the Mediterranean and Adriatic.

But, back to the Balneis…


and following part 2  ~ a little more about faces and awnings in the ‘nymph’ folios.


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