About maps and folio 86v

please note that the folio is referred to here by the original foliation published on Yale University’s bibliotecapleyades site.  However, the same diagram is now referred to on the Beinecke Library site as  “folio 85v and 86r” Image scan 1006231.

note added 24/02.2016


I do not ask, when approaching an image in the manuscript, how I can make it fit any particular theory. I ask what I can understand of it, and what I need to learn to understand it better.   But that’s philosophy.

More practically, when approaching folio 86v, I asked whether there were any parts of it legible in “ordinary” visual language: for me, as a westerner, that means anything drawn literally.  What I noticed first were the architectural objects: the castle, towers and so forth.  They looked “realistic”. But their scale suggested that the folio was some sort of plan, or map, of some area or another.  Who knew how large an area, or where it might be – if anywhere on earth.

The presence of two sun motifs echoing the style of presentation on folio 67v-1, reassured me that I was dealing with the same attitudes and cast of mind as we see there, in the astro-meteorological section: again I saw the sun pictured with its face rising vertically, but setting with its face sideways, ‘lying down’.  That gave me the directions of east and west.

So far, so good.

The area was evidently large enough to require orientation signs to be added to it.  The weight of probability – and the scale of those various buildings – suggested that I was looking at a map, not a ground-plan.

This is when I thought  someone might have formally analysed this folio properly, and that I might save my time if there were another body of research which I might simply cite.  There wasn’t.

Just a couple of tentative suggestions that one part of it or another might be a ‘path’ or something of that sort.  So I began at the beginning, with a bit of a sigh.  Hard to believe that no-one in a century had been able to recognise that folio 86v was a map, and evidently one covering a fairly large area.

So then to find the antecedents for the ‘square’ form, and for the particular motifs, and stylistics such as that intense interest in ornamental pattern, and so eventually place the map in its proper historical and cultural context.

This took a bit of  research, even granted that I’ve been trained to do this sort of thing, and have practiced for … well, quite a while.

I looked now first for what I could not explain – there was a very peculiar feature in the ‘west’ motif: it showed the sun not only sinking into the west, but apparently into what looked like  rippling sands under water, or a birth canal.  That wasn’t so odd – but I saw that it was pictured about to be reborn from  a flower!

NOT part of the mental landscape of Latin Europe – that was obvious.  In any case, Europe didn’t do maps in this style, and never ornamented them with such intensely detailed patterning, or include strange figures like that in the north-west roundel.

So where did this idea come from?

(That’s the thing about professionals – we always look hardest and longest at the things hardest to explain and which take the longest time to explain properly.)

So, with one thing and another, time passed and the pile of research notes grew… it emerged that folio 86v was a map, but one covering much more ground than I’d expected.  It was a map of the original users’ whole world, and the precedents for some of its imagery – like the sun being reborn from the flower – were surprisingly old.

But that was an acceptable result, because I’d already found various items in other parts of the manuscript which returned the same results after concerted investigation.

Some parts reflect that  brief period when Egypt had its independence between two periods of Persian rule. Just before Alexander. Others don’t.

It was not much of a problem, because documentary sources from the earliest days of Islam refer to easterners having already charts and maps on which they relied absolutely, and Piri Re’is says later that he had several maps made in the days of Alexander.  Western scholars, who sometimes think they can decide historical events’ occurrence by what seems plausible, had suggested that the admiral didn’t know as much as they, and that those maps were actually Roman, from the days of Claudius Ptolemy.  I don’t agree. I see no reason why Re’is wouldn’t know the difference, and Ptolemy was re-creating matter that had been lost with the destruction of so many libraries by the Romans – including those of the greatest navigators and travellers in Egypt and North Africa.  Maps existed before Ptolemy.

But if the sun-reborn-from-flower was an Egyptian motif, it meant that the medieval sort of architectural structures on folio 86v had been added later.  I compared them with various ancient and medieval sources, and discovered that they suited an addition in about the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, and probably closer to the end of that period.

Which told me – as do so many other aspects of this manuscript, including its binding – that we can forget about it all being composed at once by any  fifteenth century “author”. It’s a compendium, a collection of extracts, otherwise called a “florilegium”.  (You should have heard the fuss and fury, the objections and caustic comments about lack of common sense when I told the mailing list my conclusions on that point.. back in 2010, I think.  The idea was thought preposterous at that time.  I understand it is now not even likely to raise an eyebrow… that’s good.)

So now, having correctly oriented the map – because I recognised the three-dot motif as one long-traditional in the Mediterranean, used as the sign for under-the-horizon, otherwise known as ‘South’, so with east and west sorted, it wasn’t particularly difficult.

I gathered a few comparative examples to put up on the blog, just to show how widely known and used the same symbol was by and during the Hellenistic period. (Hellenistic means the time following Alexander, but before the Roman conquests. Some people use the term a little loosely).

Next,  I began close study of the imagery occupying the map’s north and the west, because I expected somewhere to find a reference to mainland Europe.  I thought maybe Sicily, or Rome or something of that sort.

Curiously, there was only one structure which lay in Europe, and that was to the south.  I could place it in relation to the rest of the map, but couldn’t identify it at first.  Two or three years on, I now identify it as the  tower of Philip le Bel, in Avignon.

So there’s the chronological bracket: basis in the Hellenistic period; last layer in the fourteenth century, probably to 1377 or thereabouts. That suited other details in the manuscript, and even in the same folio, as I’ve explained in various posts here.  The end-point connects with the work of the new sort of chart-makers in Genoa and Mallorca, who in turn connect with Spain and France… but I won’t go too far into that historical detail here.

The whole  manuscript presents as a handbook for members of a peripatetic profession, as I first let the Voynich community know in about 2009 or so.  More recently I have to agree with Wilfrid Voynich that its format (as we now have it) does look like the handbook of a Franciscan – except theirs normally use parchment, not vellum.

So from this, confirmation of other observations which indicate that our present version is not the only recension/collation made of these parts. Nick Pelling and others already knew the last part, and had gone to some trouble to try and re-create the original order of the quires.

At the time, I hadn’t read anything about Wilfrid Voynich’s ideas, but I soon learned when I went hunting the articles, that he had typed the manuscript as  thirteenth century Franciscan -and that’s why he supposed it Roger Bacon’s.  (I suppose an earlier version might have been, but I doubt we’ll ever know).

So even before the radiocarbon dating results came back (1403-1438)  I felt pretty certain that it’s internal matter (regardless of the current copy) was made well before the end of the fifteenth century.

When the results came out, as I recall, only Pelling and I were left standing. Everyone else had theories which required “central Europe, late fifteenth, early sixteenth century”. Some had wandered into the seventeenth century, if I recall.

There was a long hush when those results were published.  I preened, I admit.  I won’t suggest Pelling guilty of such vanity.  🙂

I was a little puzzled by some features, still,  in folio 86v but comparison with works produced under the Barmakids and Harun ar Raschid convinces me that a good deal of some sections though not all,* had been acquired from the legacy of early  Barmakid ‘rule’ and of the Caliphs who lived about that time. Thanks to them, the relics of the ancient world were preserved, in many cases.  Harun lived in the time of Charlemagne – which meshed again, very nicely, with the few incidences in Spain and France of Sagittarius’ being depicted as a standing archer.  ..

* to know which, you’ll have to buy a copy of my book when it comes out, or read the section on G/glebooks

There’s a great deal more which I’ve never posted, and because the above will be such old news to the more long-suffering followers of this blog, I’ll add one of the tid-bits which haven’t been shared before.  So that you can check that I’m not making up the reference, I’ll cite it from a source online.

In the first half of the tenth century, a shipmaster from the Khuzestan region on the Persian Gulf wrote a collection of tales called The Book of the Wonders of India.  The author’s preface declared:

God — blessed is his name and glorious his praise — created his marvels in ten parts, and assigned nine of them to the eastern pillar of the earth, and one each to the other three pillars, west, north, and south.  Then to China and India he assigned eight parts, and the one remaining to the Orient.

The author seems to assume a square earth; describes God’s marvels as having ten parts, but itemizes them as twelve parts..

Quoted as given on the website, ‘Purple Motes’.  (While you’re there, compare the example of tenth-century art from Baghdad with the style of some copies of the ‘Balneis Puteolanis‘.

~ and if you’re interested in the vision of the earth as square, the same blog has another post about it, “earth’s a square, heaven a circle“.

In summary – to try forcing folio 86v to an ill-fitting western Latin model does no justice to the complexity of this manuscript, and certainly cannot explain many of this folio’s features, even some of the most obvious e.g.:

  • the square shape
  • image of the sun sinking to be reborn from a flower
  • extraordinary detail for the shorelines
  • Inclusion of the fish-tailed figure with hat.

Some things can’t be just guessed, or determined by what a person thinks plausible. They really need genuine research.

Good luck.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s