I’m away until the beginning of February, but have arranged for a number of posts from my old ‘Blogger’ blogs to be reprinted so that the few ‘addicts’ will still have something to read. Those old-time readers may also find it convenient as marker of how my understanding of the imagery has developed since 2012 – or not. No idea whether the old links will still work. I’ll check them when I get back. (Thanks to Chin for seeing to this).
Sunday, January 1, 2012
A calculating practice
More than an example of practices we would term magical, Jem’s shirt (see previous post) shows how deeply established by this time in Islam were the Hindu numerals. Yet, a century later as this much-reproduced woodcut from the Margarita Philosophica shows, higher mathematics – as distinct from arithmetic- was still associated in Latin Europe with the specialised calculations of the astrologus.
To the left one is shown, acquainted with the Hindu numerals which serve to identify his profession. To the right is the merchant, adept on his abacus and at the signing of number, and who – though surely able to read and write those same numerals – lived a world away from such calculations.
The awe felt for the astrologer’s skill was due in part to a long-surviving belief that the stars were ensouled creations by whose agency divinely-ordained degrees of growth and efficacy were transmitted to all things in the lower world.
It was natural enough to notice a correspondence between the annual roster of life on earth and the annual roster of stars’ procession; belief that there was a causal relationship between the two remained part of orthodox western Christian belief to as late as the thirteenth century.
A German cleric’s sermon from that time insists that humankind are not to be considered subject to that scheme. He said:
As God gave their power to stones and to herbs and to words, so also he gave power to the stars, that they have power over all things, except over one thing. They have power over trees and over vines, over leaves and grasses, over vegetables and herbs, over grains and all such things; over the birds in the air, over the animals in the forests, and over the fishes in the waters and over the worms in the earth: over all such things that are under heaven, over them our Lord gave power to the stars, except over one thing. … man’s free will: over that no man has any authority save thyself.
– Jim Tester, History of Western Astrology, p.178
Writing in the middle of the seventh century, the Nestorian scholar Serverus Sebokht had plainly despised astrologers, yet his writings on astronomy still include information we would term astrological, particularly his instructions on the astrolabe. His praise of Hindu numerals is oblique, and must be understood in the context of an ancient rivalry which existed between the Nestorians on the one hand and the Harranians of Syria on the other. The latter were Graeco-Egyptians universally known in the near east and greatly respected by many as ultimate masters of stars:
I will not say anything now about the science of the Hindus and their subtle discoveries in astronomy – they who are not even of Syria – save to say they are still more ingenious than those of the Greeks and Babylonians. And if certain people who believe themselves to have reached the limit of science because they speak Greek only knew these things, they too might be convinced, albeit tardily, that others also know something – not the Greeks alone, but men of different language.
‘Men of different language’ included not only the Nestorians themselves, who maintained Syriac as their liturgical language, but those speakers of the various languages used in southern India and inner Asia – languages spoken in centres governed and regularly visited from the Nestorian patriarchal see.
David Pingree holds that the debt is mutual: that the earliest Indian manual of mathematical astronomy depended on Mesopotamian sources, which he believes had been transmitted a thousand years before – during that time when Egypt too was under Achaemenid rule. (6thC BC)
For people studying the Voynich manuscript, the important point in all this is that the person who included its astronomical diagrams necessarily understood more than a western trader’s arithmetic.
These charts would have been, quite simply, beyond the ability of most western merchants to interpret in detail and indeed beyond the knowledge of the majority in fifteenth-century Europe. In this, Niccolo de’ Conti appears to have been an exception, just as he was to so many other general rules.
As late as the mid-fourteenth century not even Rome’s ambassador to China understood as much as a primary school student does today. While he was in the kingdom of Saba-in-India, John de Marignolli had noticed that the sun behaved differently, but had to wait to find a Genoese astronomer before he understood why.
He writes that the sun “there rises just the opposite of here, and at noon the shadow of a man passes from left to right, instead of from right to left, as it does here” for the explanation of which he gratefully mentions one “Master Lemon of Genoa, a very noble astronomer” who had told him that “the north pole there was six degrees below the horizon, and the south pole as much elevated above it”. John’s admiration is evident and he adds that the same person “told me besides many other wonderful things in regard to the stars.”
Why a Genoese?
The Genoese were already considered the masters of navigational astronomy in the west, even if Majid would think little of their skills by comparison with those of an eastern mu’allim kanaka. The Genoese are credited with translating into graphic form the content of formerly-secret handbooks of navigation:
The (European) portolan chart seems to have been constructed from the collective first-hand knowledge of local sailors, pilots, captains and merchants about the distances and directions of their sailing voyages. Much of this information was already available in mariner handbooks or rutters – what the old Greeks called a periplus and Medieval Italians called a portolano. These handbooks were compiled by professional mariners and pilots, largely as a mnemonic set of notes for their own personal use, and passed secretly from master to apprentice. Only a few of these handbooks survive or were made public – such as the Compasso da Navigare, written c.1250 and published in Genoa in 1296. Handbooks often contain a wealth of information beyond distances and sailing directions, e.g. instructions on how to use a compass, descriptions of coasts and islands, calendars, astronomical tables, mathematical tables, customs regulations at different ports, medical recipes, ship repair, etc
The Nautical Almanac and Portolan chart of Guillaume Brouscon was made in 1543, a century after the Voynich manuscript. An older but related work, known as the King’s mirror (Konungs skuggsjá ) considers some of the same matter. And while I have no opinion for or against, is not impossible, as some have suggested, that the Voynich script is an adaptation of runic.
IF as their internal evidence suggests, the astronomical diagrams in the Voynich manuscript are again derived fairly directly from classical works, it is unlikely that this part in the collection of extracts was originally copied for use by any run-of-the-mill western missionary. Nor for any run-of-the-mill western merchant. But it might have been copied initially for a mariner’s book, to be ‘secretly passed down from master to apprentice’.
Only … in what language?
J.L. Berggren, Episodes in the mathematics of medieval Islam.
The Encyclopaedia Iranica describes the history of Astrolabes in Islam.
*Contrary to what is commonly seen on web-sites, the word’s etymology does not come from Arabic, but from Greek.
*For eye-shaped versions of the Astrolabe see illustrations in Gunther’s 2 vol. Astrolabes of the World.