Iberia etc.

That various elements in MS Beinecke 408 reflect the language, customs, imagery (and whatever else) of medieval Iberia has been proposed, asserted, argued and explored by writers since the 1920s or ’30s, the theme being recently revived by contributors to Stephen Bax’ site.

The mystery  is why the conclusions of so many researchers, most independent of each other, have been continually ignored.  By comparison with the range of items which have been attributed to this region, those indicating a “central European” provenance reduce to one:  a possibility or probability that the person who inscribed the manuscript’s quire numbers had been educated north of the Alps.

I had intended to make this post a list acknowledging each of those people who, before me, had found the research led them to Iberia. Initially, I hoped to summarise their contributions and so on, but the list is very long – too long even for one of my essay-like posts!

The first person to be definite about the Iberian-or-southern character was, I think, Irwin Panofsky, though according to some sources, Fr. Petersen  investigated a possible link to Ramon Lull. John Tiltman’s paper only says that his address had considered “very little of John Dee, nothing at all of such figures as Ramon Lull”.

In 2008, Jan Hurych posted this web-page about Ramon Llull*, chiefly as theory about the “cipher text”, but noting that Lull’s hand ‘is slightly similar to the comment in the VM, starting “michiton oladabas“.

  • preferred spelling today is “Llull” but “Lull” is common in the secondary sources.

After that, the list of persons referring to Iberia just kept growing.  Try looking for ‘Catalan’, ‘Spain’ etc. in ciphermysteries’ archive of posts and, more recently, posts to Stephen Bax’ site.

Panofsky’s opinion that the manuscript was Jewish has been ignored; for the rest those that I’ve seen tend to look for some eminent person among the Latins – such as Lull. Otherwise, the usual practice has been to presume a Latin Iberian author and some noble or cleric well known to history -when names are offered.

Not all those writers were addressing the manuscript as a whole; some were speaking only of the astronomical diagrams; others of  the month-names or the marginalia.  But when all the matter referred to is added to Panofsky’s opinion of the manuscript’s appearance and imagery, it make a body of matter which would in the usual way have been taken as a basis for more concentrated investigation.

Apropos of the crossbow’s use in Iberia – and the Maghreb – readers might like to know that we have a fourteenth-century Mamluk text (contemporary with Papal Avignon), speaking of bows then in use in those regions, including those used at sea, presumably by the Barbary men among others.

The text is known as Saracen Archery. It was translated into English, with commentary, by Latham and Patersen. It is their notes which appear here in parentheses.

Crossbows are of different types. The Franks, for instance, have the jarkh, the Maghrebis (North Africans) the laqshah, the Persians and Turks the zanburak, and Islam (the Mameluks?) the banduk.

Crossbows of this type (or of the last-named type; the text is not clear) are the most useful for land-forces; for naval operations, on the other hand, the most useful is that made of yew (taqs). The limb of this weapon should be made of two opposing staves (i.e. presumably, one of two halves of a split length is reversed and joined to the other), and its stock should be of boxwood or orange.

In the West (i.e. north Africa and Muslim Spain) crossbows are a great favourite and are the weapons of preference. Those who use hand bows, however, deprecate them. My own view is that in the manoeuvres of mounted combat, in the desert, and on expeditions the hand bow is a better and more serviceable weapon, whereas in fortresses, sieges, and ships greater power and advantage will be derived from the crossbow.

from: J.D. Latham and W.F. Patersen, Saracen Archery, London: Holland Press, 1970. (p.9).


The same authors comment on the naval crossbow, saying:

Because damp sea air could have a most adverse effect on glue, the composite construction with wood, horn, and sinew, which was often employed in crossbows before the introduction of steel limbs, was unsuitable for naval operations. The best solution to the problem lay in the use of the more simple, but more reliable, wooden limbs. The yew recommended by Taybugha is one of the finest bow woods obtainable, but there are problems in working it as the craftsman has to pay close attention to the run of the grain. By taking a length of the wood and splitting it in half, two lengths can be obtained with an almost identical run in the grain. If one length is then reversed and joined to the other, the two limbs should be almost identical. In this way the bowyer’s problems are eased and a better bow results. Such is the most probable explanation of the ‘two opposing staves’ indicated by our author.


I myself am rather intrigued to know more about the adventures of the heterogenous collection of freebooters known as the ‘Catalan Company’.


The crossbow on f.73v

73v hands large

Since writing up a separate page about the crossbow, I have been provided, most kindly, with a copy of an article published in 1995. Apologies to my readers; I had earlier understood that publication was dated to 2005, and thus unavailable to Jens Sensfelder.

The bow’s design, and a photograph showing the locking mechanism (which is not the same as the lock plate) are illustrated below, from that article.

J. Barto Arnold, III, David R. Watson and Donald H. Keith, ‘The Padre Island Crossbows’, Historical Archaeology, Vol. 29, No. 2 (1995), pp. 4-19.

The drawing is by Roy Garrett.

Padre island crossbow lock plate


crossbow Padre island lock and wedge

If you like the look of the Padre Island crossbows, you can have a copy (here) made by the same expert who provided the reconstruction for the Museum curators, and who is referenced in that article.







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