a last note on the Green Ocean

In the next post I’ll be referring to the Sawley map, a work of the late twelfth century, made about thirty years before Roger Bacon’s birth and which (again) has all the ocean and Mediterranean coloured green.  I cannot explain this use of green by reference to any Latin text, though if you can, please leave a comment.

Unless the ‘reason’ is simply a gradual change in the original pigment from blue to green, the absence of textual justification is not only puzzling but demands explanation, given the degree to which medieval imagery was closely dependent on, and faithful to, it written sources.

It implies that Isidore, for example, is quite rejected. He says explicitly:

xv. The Ocean (De oceano)

Greek and Latin speakers so name the ‘Ocean’ (oceanus) because it goes around the globe (orbis) in the manner of a circle (circulus), [or from its speed, because it runs quickly (ocius)]. Again, because it gleams with a deep blue color like the sky: oceanus as if the word were kuaneos (“blue”).

We hear later of the Irish Sea or western sea as “Oceanus Vergivius” – what we should call the southern Atlantic. But this hardly justifies making the whole ocean that colour.

Again, the Index to Burril’s Law Dictionary (Volume 1), has an entry for Oceanus Vergivius, but once more the term does not refer to the Mediterranean.

Talbert and Unger have pointed out that “in the legendary Narratio de S. Sophia” green bands on the floor of Hagia Sophia have were ascribed to Justinian “the four strips he called the Four Rivers that flow out of paradise.”

So it might, possibly, refer to an early Greek source, though in the case mentioned the bands are not referring to the Mediterranean nor even the encircling Ocean as such.

Perhaps some scholar expert in the monastic traditions can say where [i.e. from which text or texts] Matthew Paris has his green ocean, but I cannot.

That it may have come from some external tradition, such as the physicians’, is a most intriguing thought, but at present without proof.

On which topic, incidentally, I am sure that others have already mentioned another fifteenth century manuscript, a physicians’:  B.L. Harley MS 2332, (1411-1412) in which there is a green ocean and other details in common with the Voynich manuscript such as red dots on cheeks, a person holding out a ring etc.

There is also, of course, the work of Gregorio Dati (1360 – 1425), but he hardly began the custom  and his green is not Matthew’s.

Altogether, this custom seems to be at odds with every expression of both native and educated Latin, and I should would be very glad if any reader can offer a fair explanation and/or textual justification for it.

Perhaps the pigment itself is the explanation – perhaps an original azurite reverting to malachite. (in every case?!)

Perhaps a term used for the green itself – (e.g.)  association with the ‘eternal’ in the name for natural green verdigris: verde eterno.

All only faint possibilities; really, I cannot explain the green oceans in these early manuscripts’ maps.


Postscript: On ‘leek green’ pigment; I neglected to mention that Baker (pdf) suggests that the term ‘prason’ might have been meant for green earth (terra verte) in general.

op.cit., p.4


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