Starting from scratch #7d – “Seeking the Voynich hand” continued 3

.. and more on Dr.   (Leon/Leo Grech) including connection to Egypt and Hellenistic astronomy  ...

Mosconi’s biography offers an example of how a person having learned one or more hands, along with their languages, might have travelled between the Greek, Arabic and Jewish spheres, and collected a wide range of learning, and even of manuscripts before the fifteenth century. The “who” of the Voynich manuscript’s history cannot really be known unless by some happy accident it is included in the still-unreadable written text. Perhaps I should have called this set of posts “Chasing the Voynich hand”. ?

As example, then:

MOSCONI’s brief biography, below, comes from the Jewish Encyclopaedia (1906) and more recent articles published in JVL (online). Old hands will see just why I consider him such an interesting figure – and others may be enlightened as we go, I hope. 🙂

The first point is that Mosconi’s Greek script may also have been a ‘provincial’ hand, and given his close connections to Spain and the Balearics, and Majorca in particular, it is not inconceivable that his style of writing Hebrew might have become the southern Sephardic, and in that way his work later copied.  Anyone with the time and ability to consult the two catalogues mentioned in the following passage, please do let me know what you find, especially any note of works in his own hand!

from the Encyclopaedia:

… born at Ocrida 1328.  [Owing to wars in his native country] Mosconi left … about 1360. He traveled in all the three continents of the Old World. He was in Chios and Cyprus, in Négropont (where he became the pupil of Shemariah b. Elijah al-Iḳriṭi [i.e ‘the Cretan’], in Laodicea, and later in Egypt (where he studied under Obadiah Miẓri, to whom he owed “the greatest part of his learning”). He was afterward in Morocco, in Italy, and in France. .. [He was]  well versed in philosophical works, both Hebrew and Arabic…

Mosconi insisted on the necessity of studying grammar; and he blamed the commentators who neglected it. In his commentary he quotes the other works of Ibn Ezra, those of Samuel ben Hophni, Saadia’s Arabic translation of the Pentateuch, Maimonides’ commentary on the “Aphorisms” of Hippocrates, Averroes, and the other Arabian philosophers. …. Mosconi began to write … treatises [but] all these … left unfinished on account of the persecutions which he underwent.

From JVL:

The most remarkable of known medieval Jewish book collectors was the world traveler and physician Judah Leon Mosconi of Majorca. His library included Hebrew and Arabic books in many branches of learning. Two catalogues have been preserved, one of them drawn up for the auction after his death in 1377. The king of Aragon ultimately canceled the sale and seized the library for himself. [article JVL: ‘Jewish Bibliophiles’]

At the end of the 1340s, the Jewish physician and scholar Judah Mosconi (Leo Grech) [had] left Greece to settle in Majorca. From then until the close of the century, a school of Jewish astronomers and cartographers developed on the island. Among them were Abraham Cresques (d. 1387), who was made a magister mapa mundorum et buxolarum, and his son Judah. [article JVL ‘Majorca’]

in addition, Norman Roth mentions that Mosconi’s library has been “extensively discussed by scholars since the nineteenth century”, though I haven’t seen anything substantial online to which I might refer you. Roth gives his name as Judah (Leon) Mosconi, and in view of the political situation in Mosconi’s day, refers to Ohrid as “in Turkey”.  His account contains more detail:

Born in Okrida, Turkey in 1328, after much travel he settled in Majorca where he became physician to the king of Majorca and was also on the city payroll of Inca [in Majorca], where he lived. In 1365 he moved to Tlemcen in North Africa and died in 1377. Many of the books in his vast library, which remained behind  with his wife in Majorca, were sold to other Jewish physicians. However, Pedro IV wrote to the governor of Majorca that there were many books among them that he had not seen and therefore he ordered that all the books be sent to him.

Norman Roth, Daily Life of the Jews in the Middle Ages, p.143.

Among the books in Mosconi’s library  – again according to Roth – was a copy of the (lost) corrections to Ptolemy by Hipparchus (fl. c.180BC), a work ” which was to have a lasting influence on later Jewish and Christian scientists”. Another copy or perhaps even the same one was known to Abraham bar Hiyya (1070 – 1136 or 1145) a Jewish mathematical light from Catalonia. Abraham noted that in his day Muslims in Egypt still made their calculations by reference to those corrections.

(I think it perfectly possible that some such connection could adequately explain the Hellenistic and older Egyptian elements in some folios from MS Beinecke 408 – D.)

Roth again mentions Dr. Mosconi in connection with printing houses.  This in relation to the popularity of the ‘Maccabees’ section from Josephus’ History of the Jews. Among the printed editions, the expanded (“enlarged”) versions,

include more literary material and traces of later Hebrew [and] are based on the editorial work of Judah b.Leon Mosconi .., who constructed his text from five different manuscripts. The first enlarged edition was published in Constantinople in 1510 by Tam b. David Ibn Yahya. Similar but not identical to this edition is that of Venice (1544), accompanied by a Latin translation and valuable commentary..”.

Norman Roth, Medieval Jewish Civilization: an encyclopaedia. p.380 (The printed text here has a typographical error, viz. ‘Misconi’ for Mosconi.)

while MAGALI GOMES NOGUIERA notes that  ‘Yehuda Mosconi’ (orLeo Grech’ as he was known to the Christians), was physician to Pedro IV and was involved in an inventory of great importance for his own study “of Spanish MS 30, and the Cresques family of chartmakers in Majorca”.[1]

I think Mosconi a person and history worth further investigation at some time, if not within this series, and especially so given what I describe as the ‘Baresch hypothesis’.

Now – I do realise that regular readers may be tired of seeing the passage from Barsch’s letter of 1639 addressed to Kircher, but I have returned to it so often because it has so often happened that this detail or that – whether in the imagery, or in related history, or in expert comment on the manuscript – has brought it again to mind.

After nearly seven years’ detailed investigation of this manuscript and related matters, I am now perfectly convinced that  Baresch had been told something of its origins by a previous owner, and that his informant really knew the story associated with it.   In his letter, Baresch speaks of the manuscript as one  ‘uselessly taking up space’ but it was still a manuscript over which he pored constantly for almost forty years, and which he believed contained medical information.  So I will ask the indulgence of older readers, for the sake of the newer, and cite the paragraph yet again.

In fact it is easily conceivable that some man of quality went to oriental parts in quest of true medicine (he would have grasped that popular medicine here in Europe is of little value). He would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art, brought them back with him and buried them in this book in the same script. This is all the more plausible because the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in Germany.

Letter from Georg Baresch to Athanasius Kircher, 27th. April 1639. (Neal’s transcription and translation.)

I had not heard of Dr. Mosconi until a couple of days ago, but long ago recognised connection between our manuscript and Majorca, and the period when Cresques’ compendium was made.

I have already considered a possibility that there might have been some confusion created by the fact that the term for eastern Jews sounds very like the Hebrew word for ‘Egypt’, but in this case we find that not only had Dr. Mosconi studied in Egypt, but that his teacher was, or was named a Miẓri.

Next, I think, we should consider more deeply the sort of scripts used in Egypt –  including Coptic, Karaite and Mizrahi, but here we are confronted with a relative lack of evidence, and the fact that most evidence of the Jewish communities comes chiefly from the Cairo geniza. It is important to note, however, with regard to the Oriental Jews that “before the establishment of the state of Israel, Mizrahi Jews did not identify themselves as a separate ethnic subgroup. Instead, Mizrahi Jews generally characterized themselves as Sephardi.” Beit-Arié’s cultural and palaeolographic definition of “Oriental” Jewish manuscripts includes Egypt, and all east of Syria, but omits the Yemen.

On historical and iconograph links between Egypt and the Voynich manuscript, I have written more posts than is convenient to link or list here.  Searching for the term ‘Egypt’ or for any variant by which Oriental Jews were known should turn up several posts, including a series in which I explored the phase which Baresch used of those ‘treasures’: ‘thesauros artis medicae aegyptiacos’.

Since Barsch clearly supposed our manuscript’s content derived from ancient Egyptian medicine (rightly or not), and even WILLIAM FRIEDMAN’s group (as d’Imperio says) consulted Egyptologists, I’ll include – just by the way – an example of Egyptian demotic script as written in the 1stC BC.[2]

script Demotic Egyptian Shoyen Adler papyrus MS 116 detail
(detail) Adler Papyrus MS 116, Shoyen Collection.





1. Magali Gomes Noguiera, ‘O Manuscrito Espanol 30 e a Familia do judeu Cresques Abraham. Um estudo sobre as fontes da Cartografia Maiorquina (Seculos XIII-XIV), Universidad de Sao Paulo, 2013 (available as pdf).[title trans: The Spanish Manuscript 30 and the Family of the Jewish Cresques Abraham. A study of the sources of Majorcan  Cartography ( XIII-XIV centuries)’. see p.135.

2. It is not beyond all possibility that the Voynich script is some version of an Egyptian one.  Before and after the Arab conquest, the Egyptians themselves were deeply interested in the older Egyptians’ learning, and Okasha El Daly has shown that Champollion’s was only the first European decipherment, not the first ever achieved.

Non sequitur..

In the course of researching this post, I came across the most fascinating thing. There was a prehistoric goat which lived on the island of Majorca and which “lived like a cold-blooded crocodile”.  Photo of it at the end of a blogpost Hidden dragons (June 2010) from Poemas del rio Wang – still one of my favourite of all blogs ever 🙂  Included is the photo of a skeleton and a reconstructed animal  ~  at the end of the very long and as-always-fascinating blogpost – this one on living ‘dragons’ around the world.




2 Replies to “Starting from scratch #7d – “Seeking the Voynich hand” continued 3”

  1. As footnote to what Dr. Mosconi might have learned in Egypt, those interested might enjoy reading a couple of papers by Dr. Efraim Lev,
    1. ‘Drugs held and sold by pharmacists of the Jewish community of medieval (11th -14th centuries) Cairo according to lists of materia medica found at the Taylor-Schechter Genizah collection, Cambridge.’


    2. “Reconstructed materia medica of the Medieval and Ottoman al-Sham’
    both have kindly been made available free of charge as pdfs online.

    (al-Sham = the Mediterranean)


  2. Lev quotes only one study which investigated connections between old Cairo and the eastern trade in medical substances:
    Dietrich A., 1954. Zum Drogenhandel Im Islamischen Agypten. (Carl Winter,

    There doesn’t appear to be a copy of it easily accessible in Australia, but I will continue the hunt. Do let me know if any of you has better luck.


Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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