Avignon notes

I hope the previous post didn’t give an impression that I suppose the Voynich script  Phagspa, or its language Mongolian. When perfectly well qualified linguists, assisted by a world of enthusiasts and/or fast computers, cannot decide whether the text is a form of Persian, Greek, Jurchen, Norse etc., I neither need, nor dare,  offer any opinion at all.

My point was only that the latest images in the manuscript include (if I read them right) a clear reference to Avignon and another to the Tartar/Mongol dominance during the time of the Avignon Papacy. (c.1305-1377).

By 1302 the Avignon tower had been given a first storey, the second being added later, in about 1350.  This reduced the visual impact of the original tower, which had risen high above the nearest structures – the result thus very like what we see in folio 86v. My north-south axis is better described as indicating a “northwards” direction; though nicely proportional, the map is not strictly to scale.

minimap marked

By the early fifteenth century, the original tower’s conical roof had also been joined with others, so that in fact we have a better impression of the original when we look at more recent photographs, since the additional and subsidiary structures are now mostly reduced or demolished.

detail of Avignon tower early 15thC

detail of a miniature Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris, MS 23279, folio 81 (detail). School of the Boucicaut master

That said, it is also true that map-makers tended to adopt an initial image and then use it as a generic or iconic form, for long after a structure had that form, or indeed in some cases, long after it had ceased to exist.  Nonetheless, in this case I think we may take the information as fairly recent and specific, so I’ll proceed.

minimap marked

detail of folio 86v (Beinecke foliation).  The tower is proposed as marker of Avignon.

To the same late stratum in the Voynich imagery, I would assign the following diagram whose style (unusually for this manuscript) is compatible with European custom.

folio 85v1Whether it was original to this manuscript, or whether placed much later in this position we cannot say, but it may be an addition made as late as our fifteenth century version, for the diagram adjacent to it belongs to a different world in terms of stylistics, and despite the ‘hooded face’ used here as in European works.

folio 85v2I might note in passing, though, that the centre circle’s using a division of eleven is unusual, and might imply connection to the calculations of Computus, and more exactly to the eleven days’ difference between the lunar and solar year.  So, the linked (wiki) article ‘Computus’ writes:

“the start of lunar months falls 11 days earlier in the solar calendar each year. These days in excess of the solar year over the lunar year are called epacts (Greek: epakta hèmerai)…” (etc.)


And finally, as another reason for focussing on so limited a period and region, there are the two red symbols on folio 1r, one of which  (at least) appears to me  first created with a brush, and only later copied with pen and ink.  Reading the other as  ‘Aquil. tartarorum’, the implication is then that some part of it at least, and most likely the botanical sections had been carried across the northern ‘Tartar’ road.

red letters folio 1r

Now, as well as being able to be read as reference to that road, we can also see the left hand emblem as rebus for ‘Montecorvino’ or indeed as allusion to the Franciscan Vicariate Tartaria Aquilonaris,  whose date of first establishment I do not know, but which is certainly listed in a survey of 1350 AD.[1]

[1] information from the web-page by Maarten van der Heijden and Bert Roest.

By the middle of the fourteenth century, though, plague now raged along the northern road. It had come first from  Caffa, as Europe knew well – and Caffa is one of the centres included in that Vicariate of ‘Tartaria Aquilonaris’, others including  Sarai (Sara) and Tana –  of which last Pegolotti had written only  a few years earlier in his advice to traders that:

.. at Tana you should furnish yourself with a dragoman [translator/guide]. And you must not try to save money in the matter of dragomen by taking a bad one instead of a good one. ..  And besides the dragoman it will be well to take at least two good men servants, who are acquainted with the Cumanian [-Tartar] tongue. And if the merchant likes to take a woman with him from Tana, he can do so; if he does not like to take one there is no obligation, only if he does take one he will be kept much more comfortably…. Howbeit, if he do take one, it will be well that she be acquainted with the Cumanian tongue as well as the men. ( c.1335-43.  quoted from Silk Road Seattle translation)


By 1350, it was a road scarcely to be ventured and that Franciscan survey of 1350 may have been more in the way of a head-count, made just two years after the Plague had reached Avignon.  For missionaries as for merchants, the route had flourished during the previous seventy years or so.

In 1278, a letter Nicholas III to the papal legate in Hungary refers to the absence of ‘many’ Franciscans among the Tartars, and expresses the Pope’s intention to establish a bishopric  “in confinibus Tartarorum”.  [2]

[2] for readers’ convenience primary sources are cited, where possible, via a secondary work available online through the open library project. In this case via R.C. Beazley,  The Dawn of Modern Geography, vol.3.  (p.162 n.3).

Decades earlier, in 1245, Lorenzo of Portugal  was appointed papal representative to the Mongols though he may not have made the journey, for he is named again in 1247 as papal legate in Asia minor. (Beazley, op.cit., Vol.2, p.277).

In 1291, Acre was lost to the west, leaving Laiazzo the only eastern port into which a western trader might go without sanctions.  The prominence given that ‘castle’ which I identify as Laiazzo’s port* takes us to the time of Nicholas IV’s incumbency (1288-1292) only shortly before the remove to Avignon.*

*first mentioned at Voynichimagery on 27th June 2013; more details given in posts of December 6th and of December 26th 2014.

Beazley thus supposes that John of Montecorvino, sent as Nicholas’ emissary to the east,  reached Tabriz  “.. from Trebizond or from Lajazzo” and I admit that another highly likely identification for that  ‘Parai deza‘  on folio 86v is Tabriz.  There,  in ‘Thaurisio’, Montecorvino had been joined by Peter of Lucalonggo, they then travelling together towards the far east, “probably by way of Hormuz… “.

So far, one might argue, our manuscript consists of, or includes, material sent from the east by a person such as Montecorvino, but it is unlikely in the extreme that he would have sent it directly, himself, for in a letter which was sent from Peking in 1305   – the year the Papacy was established in Avignon –  John laments that he has had no contact with his religious brethren or superiors for the past twelve years, and he is plainly disturbed that two years earlier (i.e. in 1303, before the remove to Avignon) a “certain Lombard . . . surgeon … spread abroad in these parts the most incredible blasphemies about the court of Rome and our order and the state of things in the West”,  Montecorvino then urging that he be provided with more reliable information, and that “I pray the brethren whom this letter may reach to do all they can to bring its contents to the knowledge of our lord the pope and the cardinals, and the agents of the order at the court of Rome.” [my italics].

Since the map on folio 86v appears to me to include what is effectively a direction from Laiazzo or Tabriz directly (or via Egypt) to Avignon, so it is highly unlikely that Montecorvino himself sent the matter of our manuscript, despite the many points the map has in common with the conceptions of Chinese cosmology.

Other Franciscans had been sent out, and before the Plague’s arrival, though some went even during the first onslaught.  Those who travelled by Papal commission include Peregrine of Castello; Andrew of Perugia; and Jordan Catala of Severac a Dominican whose Franciscan companions were executed and who is sometimes credited with writing the Livre de l’Estat du Grant Caan – though Beazley writing in c.1905 attributed it to ‘John de Cora, appointed by John XII as archbishop of Sultaniyeh’ in 1330.

It is in that work we learn about the death of John of Montecorvino, the author referring to it as a recent event.  (Beazley, op.cit., Vol. 3,  p.207).

One might speculate on whether that Lombard surgeon mightn’t be Baresch’s  ‘virum bonum‘, but history does not relate.

Odoric of Pordenone is another whose travels as papal emissary are recorded. He may have visited Tibet.  His story was written in about 1340 –  by himself according to some, but by Henry of Glatz according to others, who hold that Henry interviewed Odoric’s former companions at Avignon, and later in Prague transcribed his notes.

In 1338, after Montecorvino’s death, an embassy from the Great Khan in Peking came west, to request from the current incumbent, Benedict, another religious representative.  They brought not only the emperor’s letter but others from princes among the Alans, a tribe on whom the Khans greatly relied for administration of their empire. The letters had taken almost two years in transit,[3] and that of the Khan is said specifically to have been borne “into Francia, beyond the seven seas, where the sun had his setting”  – carried by one Andrew the Frank and fifteen companions. (op.cit., Vol.3, p.182-3).

[3]  the Letter of the Grand Khan is addressed from Peking  and dated July 1336.

Being reproached also by the Alans, the pope sent from Avignon the Franciscan friar, John de Marignolli, of whom my readers are no doubt aware.

By the Spring of 1340, he and his colleagues were moving towards Amalig (Amaligh) from whence we have that coin I included in my earlier discussion of folio 85v.

Marignolli’s ‘guide book’ –  if he had one – may have included something from Odoric’s reminiscences, or those of others of whom we now have no record.(Beazley, op.cit., Vol.3, p.292).

Among other briefs and letters given Marignolli to deliver was one addressed to Elias of Hungary, a fellow Franciscan who “appears to have gained a certain influence with the heir of the Kipchak state”[4] according to Beazley.  Two years later, Elias himself came to the Papal court as Tinibeg’s ambassador. (ibid. p.185 n.)

[4]  i.e. “The Golden Horde”. On the language and scripts of ‘Middle Kipchak’ see Arpad Berta, ‘Middle Kipchak’ Ch.8 in Lars Johanson, Éva Csató (eds.), The Turkic Languages, Routledge Language Family Descriptions [series], London: Routlege, 1998. pp.158-165.

Not everyone in Europe thought so well of the Franciscans.

As early as 1321 those in Assisi were obliged to defend the glorious paintings which now adorned the church of St Francis. They explained the paintings were a gift from the pope, homage to the saint’s holiness and respect for his bones interred there.

The Anglo-Irish bishop of Armagh, Richard Fitzralph was an especially persistent and vituperative opponent of the mendicant orders. His verbal portrait of Marignolli represents the friar as ‘a poor old wheezing hound…’ who ‘vaunted himself at Caesar’s court as the Apostle of the East’.[5]

That verbal image, and its equation of the Mongol emperor with Caesar is so very vivid that one is tempted to see something of the same character in that ‘Mongolian’ figure from folio 85, and certainly the use of the motif from the imperial tamgar would accord with the well known Gospel passage:   “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Mk 12:17; Mt 22:21). Possible, certainly, but quite unprovable at present.

[5] writing in c.1905,  Beazley places that letter “among the records of the Metropolitan chapter library of Prague”. (op.cit., Vol. 3 p.290 n.1).

Preacher fleur partizan

Fitzralph  mounted and maintained in numerous visits and residencies at Avignon, a legal suit against the mendicant orders.  One of his written works, “De Pauperie Salvatoris” is believed to have had significant influence on John Wyclif and thus on the wider Hussite movement of Bohemia. [6]

[6] Michael J. Haren, ‘Bishop Gynwell of Lincoln, Two Avignonese Statutes and Archbishop Fitzralph of Armagh’s suit at the Roman Curia against the Friars’, Archivum Historiae Pontificiae, Vol. 31 (1993), pp. 275-292. (JSTOR)

It is also from Fitzralph that we learn the date of the Plague’s arrival in Avignon, two years after it entered most other areas of Europe.

Spread of Plague from Caffa - after Wheelis (2002)

Spread of Plague from Caffa – after Wheelis (2002)


More about the Avignon years  – later.


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