folio 5v – edited, with additions

[Note on the Dioscuri in relation to ship-protection –  added June 30th., 2015]

Thanks to ‘Thomas’ comment to me on another site, I went back to my old exploratory blog, where I first looked at folio 5v (Post entitled, ‘fol 5v: ship-supplies … and Sadr al Samara’ 8th., July 2011).

At that stage, I was almost at the point of being able to enunciate the consistent principles by which imagery in the botanical folios’ are constructed; I knew it was a consistent structure and spoke to formal method, but how to express that in a limited number of points?  I was wrestling with the problem. (much as those studying the written text at present).  I never did go back to that post later to write a complete treatment of f.5v, but was pleasantly surprised when deciding to do it today to find that my current identification differs not at all: elm, nettles and perhaps again hemp. Ship supplies [and fire-twirlers’ too].

I’ve cut much waffle and cross-referencing from the original post, adding instead some different historical and cultural background, and keeping mainly the critical paragraphs where I stumbled into the identification.  Sure of it now, I have added here more directly relevant information and some quotes from other sources, especially on products gained from the elm tree.

One fascinating thing about this folio is that the old makers’ perception of a related group of plants exactly agrees, in this case, with our own way of seeing them.  Modern botany also  groups nettles, the elm and hemp.

In the original post I had wavered between whether the ‘dancing man’ was intended to represent St.Elmo or a fire-twirler.  I no longer think one need fret about any “either/or” here, unexpected as that conclusion might be.

Added note: (30th June 2015) The reason for identifying the figure with St.Elmo is not only by a bad pun for the elm, but because  as you’ll see this group of plants has uses for protecting the ship against various dangers. It refers to good material for sails, safe means to make fire, and protection from the most persistent threat of all, whether the ship was in harbour or at sea: t.navalis.  For the Greeks, the Dioscuri had been protectors of ships: they are usually shown wearing wide-brimmed traveller’s hats and (I may as well quote here) ” were twin star-crowned gods whose appearance in the form of St Elmo’s fire on the rigging of a ships was believed to portent escape from a storm”.

‘St. Elmo’s fire’ certainly can’t be an ancient term for the phenomenon, even in the Mediterranean. The Saint of Formia arrives on the world stage millennia too late for that. Maritime science was ancient when he was born, and so – obviously – was reference to the phenomenon.

By the way – if you’re tempted to wonder whether the “ant” at the plant’s root mightn’t be related to the name of his town, Formia, by allusion to a stinging-ant’s formic acid – well, I suppose that might have happened in medieval times, when etymology was generally based on no more than homophony and legend. Latin formica for Ant might seem fair enough, but in fact modern etymology makes the source older, from Greek hormiae: good harbour. ( sounds like Hormuz, doesn’t it).And as I’ll explain below, the critter isn’t an ant.

St.Elmo’s fire (corposant) is an ephemeral flame seen at the masthead, or on the spars of a ship (among other places). In other times and other seas, perhaps, those fires were envisaged as the sparks from the ritual fire-sticks of a dancer more familiar.   Cultural clues!

But where most medieval European manuscripts allude regularly to religious and political assumptions and hopes,  ours is always totally down-to-earth, with scarcely any overt reference in its earlier strata to any religious or political theme – though the botanical and pharma (better ‘lading’) sections show imagery of items in constant or seasonal demand for religious festivals in the east.

Mariner and fire-twirler had a common need for the things evoked by the image in folio 86v: safe and reliable means for creating fire at call; materials such as fibre for packing torches or the gaps in a hull, and.. bitumen.

In my old post, I spent a lot of space talking about how what we see in one botanical folio links to other developing themes in other sections and so forth.

I’ve cut all that, to reprint only the core paragraphs and the illustrations.  I’ve also clarified a couple of points, quoted sources for some less well known details and so on.  So what is the correct citation date?    For the identification of the group and three members, as well as description of the ‘dancer’, I’d quote the original post from 2011.  Otherwise, in regard to comments and quotes, this is the one to cite.  After all, I linked the folio to elm, nettle and cannabis as a group four years ago, now. It’s quite possible that Petersen or Dana Scott preceded me, but Edith Sherwood had not then referenced these plants as a group for folio 5v (though her web-page, like any other, develops an impression of ‘retrospective’ copyright if updates and additions aren’t separately dated when made. That’s one reason I don’t use a website. I think it looks a bit iffy.


folio 5v all

IN FOLIO 5v, the leaf announces a group which, evidently, the maker recognised (as we do now) as comprising elm, nettles, and hemp.

elm leaves

elm leaves

nettle leaf single

Nettle leaf









The plant is not shown as a full tree, I think, because it is not the primary reference here, and because in all three cases it is not the ‘wood’ but its inner fibre which is referenced.  However, the ‘dancing man’ at the top of the plant offers – most unusually – a second mnemonic and I think this a reference to the value of elm-wood in making good fire sticks as much as use of elm’s inner bark to make writing material and cordage, uses shared with nettle and hemp.

For all three – elm, nettle and hemp – the bast fibre is gained by stripping off the outer bark to reach the inner.  We know it must once have been used to make books of bark, as birchbark was used even in Rome itself in classical times.

Speaking of books, Isidore says in his Etymologies:

Liber is the inner membrane of bark, which clings to the wood. With regard to this, Virgil thus: The bark (liber) clings to the high elm.

It is interesting to wonder then, whether before he became our ‘fire-twirler’ this figure high on the “elm”group hadn’t once been a figure for the Liber of Greeks and Orphics – not Dionysius who later bore the title – but that other, Zagreus son of Zeus, who while still a child was set on the throne of heaven and let play with his father’s lightning bolts. He may again derive from a time before Rome, for the hands are formed like a pomegranate flower, the Phoenician “lily”. In my original post, I wrote:

The upper part of folio 5v includes a figure, reminiscent … of an acrobat’s balancing – as on a ball, or the shoulders of others. Looking more closely at the ‘hands’ – which if they were meant for flowers would chiefly resemble the pomegranate or the African hibiscus – you see that the fingers seem to twirl  something which has been coloured red. Fire sticks perhaps?.

fol 5v detail fire sticks

I would now say more certainly that they are. If we take him for a fire-twirler his relation to the group is entirely practical, but perhaps in other seas he was associated with St. Elmo’s fire,  so that while Christians in the medieval Mediterranean saw the fire of Saint of Formio, these saw those heatless flames as thrown from the sticks of an invisible performer in more familiar rituals.

All three – nettle, hemp and elm were valued for their bast fibre, but the elm’s is the least well known today, as is its particular value for fire-starting.  On those points, I’ll quote R.H. Richens, Elm, C.U.P 1983   (pp.109-9)

It was probably the toughness of wood which led to the elm being used for production of fire by drilling [in many parts of the older world] … in Europe the [ancient] practice only survived into recent times as a ritual performance, for the generation of need-fire.


In Europe the principal product from the [elm’s bast fibres] was bast rope, which was very widely used. In France, it served in particular for well ropes. The ancient Welsh laws refer to ropes made of llwyf.. [a term].. used indiscriminately of lime and of elm. .. Elm was also used as cordage in India.


In earlier times, both in Europe and till recent times in the far east … both the outer corky layer and the inner bark had manifold uses…

Elms contain little of any physiologically active or medically useful substances.


Rope, fibre, cordage and perhaps even writing materials could be obtained from all three: where one was not available you could be pretty sure of finding a local supply of at least one of the others.  That is the thinking behind these composite images, as I hope I’ve shown.

Fire-twirling has another need in common with the old shipmens’.  Bitumen.

In Roman times,  export of bitumen/mumia was associated with Nabataean trade, and today Bitumen (though not mumia) is still being sold, the Russian company advertising it emphasing especially its value for fire-twirlers.

Now, with all the plants which I’ve investigated from the botanical section, a great many are of this type – basic supplies such as food, oils, ropes and cordage, scribal supplies and so forth.  Nettles and hemp had their medicinal uses, but it doesn’t surprise me that elm, included here, has few.  The users’ interest was pragmatic, not narrowed by the occupation of any one type of buyer.

Bitumen, of course, was needed by seamen, and not least to protect the ship’s hull: in the Mediterranean as is the eastern seas, for the teredo navalis was constant menace.

It has been noticed that the great ships found in Lake Nemi, and usually supposed of Roman make, have a layer of bitumen below the lead which covered it.

The use of sheathing to protect the ship’s hull from teredo attack (by placing a layer of material over the outer planking which either slows or prevents the teredo’s access) has been known since at least the 4thC BC. A Greek merchant vessel excavated near Kyrenia in Cyprus proved to have sheets of lead up to 1/8 inch (3mm) thick attached by copper tacks to the hull below the water line… The Roman vessels found at Lake Nemi proved to have bitumen applied to the outside, over which a sheeting of lead was fastened with ‘gilt’ (brass?) nails.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the teredo was restricted to its natural range, warmer waters …. which included the Mediterranean … and .. tropical seas.

Mark Staniforth, ‘The Introduction and use of copper sheeting: an introduction’. (p.21) chapter available through

And so at last I think we may be closer to understanding the sense of the root mnemonic. In this case what we see around the stem is not a circumscription mark, but a kind of collar, as a wharf’s piles may be sheathed against erosion and damage.  Surrounding that, and evidently prevented by it from touching the plant stems is a peculiar creature with no visible head, a long tail and what appear to be a pair or horns or pincers. I think this image may be a record of a false belief that the ship-worm, or wood-worm teredo navalis was the offspring of a crustacean Paramysis bakuensis and or P. -baeri.  The latter is chiefly known in the Caspian and is small enough to be supposed an ‘ant’, while teredo navalis may be seen as chiefly a ‘tail’ but it provided, in two different senses, with effective ‘horns’.

fol 5v foot detail

Shipworm coiled

teredo navalis – wiki commons

Teredo_navalis PopSciMonthly Sept 1878It even has a kind of ‘collar’. 🙂

The mnemonic reinforces the message of the botanical image and the ‘fire-twirler’ by reminding the merchant/agent/shipman to obtain the sealant along with the caulking fibre.

oakum ropework mats-quintessentially nauticalRaw bast fibre provided cordage, rope and so matting –  but tar or bitumen made the fibres proof against water the and teredo navalis:

Oakum is a preparation of tarred fiber used in shipbuilding, for caulking or packing the joints of timbers in wooden vessels and the deck planking …as well as cast iron plumbing applications. Oakum was at one time recycled from old tarry ropes and cordage, which were painstakingly unraveled and taken apart into fibres.

Pre-tarred ropes were obviously good, but oakum wasn’t always available, and the tarring had to be done by the shipman.


natural nettle fibre oakum

natural nettle fibre.


Making nettle cloth had always been a traditional skill, from Russia to the Himalayas.

A picture of some mass-produced nettlecloth (left), and an account of China’s re-structuring of the Nepalese economy and traditional methods for manufacture can be read here.

Nor must one forget that hemp was used in all the same ways that nettle was, with a couple of additional uses besides.



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