In the vicinity..

[‘In the Vicinity’ Pt 2 published Dec.8th]

This  ‘pharma’ section’s layout is not like that of medieval herbals; its depiction of ‘leaf-and-root’ isn’t either. Counterparts for the simplest containers are not found in the western world after the early centuries AD, and even this fourth century example might be consciously anachronistic, intended to evoke apostolic times (1st C AD).

Otherwise, these  late (16th/17th C)  German distilling ovens noticed by Ellie Velinska may be the nearest in purpose to some pictured in the pharma section.

By contrast, when you turn to the eastern end of the ‘spice route’  the number of close comparisons for the pharma section’s imagery is overwhelming, from the ‘Benaco’ (‘herb and root’) genre of botanical drawing to artefacts made with appropriate design, colour and details.

In some cases, evidence that fifteenth-century Europe consciously adopted eastern techniques, ideas and imagery is indisputable; in other cases the argument is more problematic or the artefacts more obviously mediated by other peoples.

I’ll begin with the most questionable example among those I want to discuss, since it depends on the impression gained by ‘auto correcting’ a digitised image obtained online from the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. It may not reflect the impression one has at first-hand, but if it does, it is telling of both place, environment and chronology – a combination whose likelihood of being faked or fudged is negligible.

Before  its recent revival, three-colour (Sancai) glaze  was associated with China’s Tang dynasty  (618-907 AD), but was employed elsewhere  between the twelfth-fifteenth centuries, chiefly in southeast Asia.

Just below the  ‘tiger-claw’ or ‘knife-blade’ legs given the vessel in the “indigo” row  on folio 102r is this detail:-

tricolour compostie retro

Looks very like a Sancai glaze to me. Yellow, brown and green were the most common, though  Sancai sometimes included  deep red and blues.

The process typically resulted in vertical streaks within  the vessel – illustrated here from a Tang cup.

techne cermic tricolor jug102 lower

We might explain what’s pictured in the manuscript as similar to a cylindrical cup set in some form of heating- or warming- apparatus, a development from the sort of wine-warmers of which a Han example is shown below, its own inverse ‘tripod’ lid is still in place.

Nesting  a simple cylindrical vessel in others more complex, all set on a footed base is not inappropriate either – the principle illustrated here.

cont wine wrmer Hn

Wine warmers are still made. Here’s a 19thC example of the simplest type. Our most notable examples of ‘knife-blade legs’ are also on wine warmers, so this circumstantial evidence suggests that such imagery in the ‘pharma’ section represents indeed,  as many have supposed, a ‘cooking’ apparatus . I must admit though, I’ve never seen a sancai glazed wine-warmer and Tang pieces are rarely cylindrical. So if I’m interpreting the image correctly, it’s not Tang period, but may be from another region affected by Asian customs.

By the fourteenth century, ceramics of Asian type were not uncommon in the eastern Mediterranean  and by the mid-fifteenth  northern Italians were trying to produce  (as well as they could) tricolour glaze in the most common sancai colours of green, brown and yellow.

One very interesting example shows card-players.  Very cheap versions in Byzantine lands occur earlier, between the 10th-12thC, with the theme of the ‘twice-born’ Syrian-Greek character most popular. The item on the left probably from Antioch 1200 AD, that on the right from the previous century, provenance unknown. Interesting chiefly for the use of sgraffito.

snci sgrfito

Syria made sancai ceramics by the thirteenth century and examples from Cyprus are dated to the fourteenth, so we might suppose in this case a drift westwards rather than direct importation or contact.

Nonetheless, intermediary ‘Arab’ influence should not be presumed as commonly as it is. Contact with various other nations and peoples is characteristic of the Tang and one  might reasonably compare the  figure’s costume in the rubbing below with that on folio 16v of MS Pal.586 f.16v.  Similarly, others shown below and from the same era are closely comparable to those from earlier Thailand, before the ninth-century massacres in Guangzhou.

reinholders costume

silk road traveller

I’m certainly not the first person to propose a link between the Voynich manuscript’s content and the ways east.

I left the Voynich calendar section at the entry to the high road and fully a decade ago, Georg Stolfi suggested that Voynichese was Jurchen.

A more imaginative tale of the silk road was offered in 2008 by Keith Ranville, but to be honest I didn’t even follow the link to that page offered in Nick Pelling’s review.

In fifteenth-century Thailand, sancai remained popular.  China’s interest in ceramics export suddenly diminished during the thirteenth century and from the last quarter of the fourteenth century to the last quarter of the sixteenth,  the Thai kingdom of Sukothai, (Sukhothai)  created  a number of sites where glazed and decorated wares  were produced in quantity  specifically for export by sea. Their style  partly copied the Chinese trade-ceramics, but added distinctive elements of its own.

As you’d expect, South-East Asia was the principal market, but examples are found as far as New Hormuz and Fustat (Old Cairo). [ late, 16thC Sukhothi syle.]

Expert assessment of finds from Fustat and the Red Sea ports suggests that Egypt imported artisans as well  as goods,  a regular practice during the ancient and medieval centuries, when trade secrets were the secrets of a specific caste, family or community. This matter is important, since if there were people from southeast Asia resident in Egypt it is possible that a person need have gone no further than Egypt to obtain knowledge about medicine in the Ayurvedic or Bencao traditions.

The image reproduced (below, left) comes from Okasha El-Daly’s book on the history of Egyptology before the nineteenth century, and the illustration there seems to offer some  support for the opinion that Asian ceramics discovered at Fustat (1oth C) or at later sites, did include with originals and mere imitations, some which are described as ‘replicas’. The picture includes a ‘demon head’ of typically south-east Asian form, with prominent teeth, broad nose, bulging eyes and ornament for eyebrows. As I’ve pointed out,  imagery in the Kitab al-Bulhan where again we see some ‘Voynich-like’ writing is not a book of imaginary demons, but shows a hostile representation of eastern and predominantly Buddhist figures. These were ‘demons’ only to the Muslim or the Latin Christian.

Comparative examples which I offer (right)  are from Bali, and (below) from Java. Java was one of the greatest trading ports along the southern maritime route through the medieval centuries, and probably where John de Marignolli reports being healed of a near-incurable illness “with a few simple herbs”.

Just to confuse things: the costume on the figure by the furnace or kiln is rather like that shown in a western manuscipt as an officiant in Genghis Khan’s coronation, and from the Tang-dynasty period, figures of sancai-glazes Bactrian camels  whose saddle-bags are formed with demon-faces of non-Chinese Asian type!(below, left).  The difficulty in deciding whether one should look  to the higher, or the lower roads is that they were not conceived as separate but as complementary ~ at least for people from the west.  People entering China by one route as emissaries of the west were regularly returned by the se route, and the Rahanites are sais specifically to have travelled through both. I see little sign of the overland route beyond the Tarim in f.86v, but the botanical section begins (in my opinion) in the vicinity of the Moluccas, the next few folios describing other plants native to the regions immediately west of them.

Okasha blogdemon guardian Bali Medusa type smallmask Java cf Egyptian alchemy

sancai saddle demon


Nestorians and Amenians

It has been argued that Nestorians or Armenians of Nusantara played an important role in developing the eastern ceramics trade into the west during the later medieval centuries. While I see no examples of “yin-yang”  symbol in the Voynich imagery, and feel doubtful that it is right to suppose Nestorians invariably Armenian, Thomas Spande holds that, overall, that Vms shows numerous signs of Armenian manuscript tradition. (see e.g. his comments to ciphermysteries).

That there were Nestorians in both medieval Egypt and southeast Asia can’t be doubted, but whether all were Armenian or whether all had equal knowledge of classical literature (the Nestorians’ great gift to early Baghdad) is uncertain, and the highly complex question of identifying which communities in central Asia were heirs to Hellenistic legacy is  definitely no less arcane than controversial. I can only say that I find no evidence of Christian custom in religion or in book-arts in this manuscript.

To end, here’s a taste of old Javanese script.

In the next post, I’ll look at the simpler sort of red containers again – now in the southeast Asian context.script Old Javanese Sukabumi inscription

Asian ceramics in Fustat and Red Sea ports:

I’ve cited other sources in earlier posts, so add just this now.

  • Lucy Blue, John Cooper Ross Thomas, Julian Whitewright, ‘Connected Hinterlands’, Proceedings of Red Sea Project IV, held at the University of Southampton September 2008, Society for Arabian Studies Monographs No. 8. (series editors, D. Kennet & St J. Simpson).


Censers and burners from the maritime ‘spice road’. Over the centuries, and from China to Morocco. All show oriental roots save that on the right, from Oman. These pictures from “The Incense Burner Virtual Museum”. Many more.

censers nd burners


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