Dominican and Franciscan language studies in the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries

As those who have actually read my work will know, I date the latest chronological stratum in the imagery – barring a few late and minor additions – to about the late thirteenth or earlier fourteenth centuries. One of the late additions is the diagram of which a detail is shown in the header.

This chronological scheme agrees with the appearance of the manuscript overall and explains why the most competent and independent appraisals saw the manuscript in those terms, from the first.  Only Panofsky realised that some of the pigments required a fifteenth century date.

On this point, too, I agree, the range of the complete palette bringing us to the time of the present manuscript, and accords with the radiocarbon date range obtained from four folios taken from the top eleven quires.

Personally, I would date its manufacture (as I’ve often said) to about 1427-1428, though as a very good effort at close reproduction of its late thirteenth or fourteenth century models. I should opt for the fourteenth century, but defer to the opinions of Voynich, Panofsky and other well qualified appraisers who at first glance took it for a thirteenth century work.

As I’ve said, I believe the exemplars  most probably obtained from the Jews, but the purpose for which the fifteenth century manuscript was made might very well have been related to the needs of those missionary-ambassadors whom I’ve mentioned in a good many posts here and in the old exploratory blogs.

Most of the papal ambassador-missionaries to regions further east were of the Franciscan order, but  Dominican preachers served in the northern regions (especially attempting to convert Prussians and Cumans). They were also active in the holy land.

Because it looks as if the Avignon series of posts might not resume before March (something else has come up), I’ve picked out some of the references in them to language studies in relation to those missionary orders.  Throughout most of the fourteenth century the ambassadorial sort were commissioned from Avignon and returned there to make their reports.  Since national borders were a matter of indifference within Europe (including England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland) copies of any report might also appear in other libraries. I mention a few examples of this in the Avignon posts.

For those interested *now* and not posts due to appear in a month or two, here are some bits about languages.


The return from Avignon which occurred in 1377, as I’ve described, did not last long…

  • An election then saw Bartolomeo Prignano (Urban VI) succeed to the chair, but his appointment caused a furore. Prignano’s character was as contentious as the circumstances of his election and many of the clergy shared the public’s opinion of them. Within a few months a “contingent of the Cardinalate” held another election, while Urban still lived.  This time they named Robert of Geneva, who took the name Clement VII and promptly returned to Avignon. There he remained until his death in 1394, having meanwhile resurrected the original libraries which had been walled up in 1376-7. He added substantially to their number.

Some among the volumes in that library there were works in languages other than Latin, Greek or Hebrew, these vaguely grouped as “oriental” manuscripts.

“Oriental” influences:

  • Armenian had been taught in Avignon by at least 1321-2, after the arrival of two Armenian scholars sent by the king of Cilician Armenia for that specific purpose and probably by request.

relation to MS Beinecke 408:

In analysing folio 86v, I recognised that its east and west lay opposite our usual “west-left” custom. Thereafter I was able to identify various features, and by reference to those, to offer an identification for a tower on the western side of the small schematic map inset to the north as probably meant for Avignon, while the “castle” – which I saw must lie on the eastern side of the enclosed sea – as Laiazzo, the port of Cilician Armenia.

I should perhaps emphasise that these identifications were made solely by reference to the primary source and external sources; I had no theory about the manuscript to which I hoped the evidence might conform, and at the time had not begun to consider the Avignon period. The evidence led the research.  Here are the original identifications. Note that adjusting the image to an orientation more comfortable for  readers makes unavoidable a reversal of the inscriptions and, thus, of the ‘tower’s appearance here.

fol 86v minimap western tower lgr

Papal Avignon (detail) north roundel, MS Beinecke 408 f.86v

fol 86v minimap castle

Laiazzo (detail) north roundel, MS Beinecke 408 fol.86v











Odoric of Pordenone

  • It may have been due to the urging of Ordoric of Pordenone, or his Franciscan superiors that those Armenian teachers came to Avignon.  Odoric left Europe in 1318, stopping first in Armenia where apparently he had learned something of the language, for having arrived in India in 1322, he left carrying some disinterred bones of earlier and less fortunate friars.  The crew and passengers on board the ship, on discovering the fact, were disconcerted, and as Odoric records, the captain warned him “in the Armenian tongue, that others might not understand”.  Clearly, Odoric did.


Mongol Period

  • Evidence  from MS Beinecke 408:

That some of the latest among the additional images in MS Beinecke 408 relate to the Mongol period is fairly clear.  In earlier posts I have discussed these details and others on the same folio.  This, I think, is one of the most telling.

On the reverse of folio 86v, there is a diagram drawn in a visual language easily read by European custom, but a figure in it wears a jacket of distinctively Asian type, and what appears to be a curved band of horn on his head, of a type also seen in imagery of Mongols from the same period. Distinctive elements include  the jacket’s narrow collar of a separate colour, the cut which places the opening to the side, curving towards the lower arm-pit, and less certainly what appears to be a fastening of frogging, though it might possibly be meant for buttons.  This type of robe is the simpler, commoners’ version of the garment which is shown below in the form worn at the Mongol court.

Preacher fleur partizan

Mongol costume (and note the headwear)

Mongol costume (and note the headwear)

Mongol court robe

Mongol court robe

Details of clothing, in this case, are more convincing of direct contact that ornamental use of such motifs such as the cloud band, which might be (and generally were) taken up from traded artefacts, including silks.


About missionaries’ self-image:

The founder of the Dominican order initially had an ambition to preach either to the Cumans or to the Prussians, attempting to convert them to Christianity.  The founder of the Franciscans had sailed to Egypt in the hope of converting the Muslims of Egypt.  Neither was particularly successful, it would seem.

“The missionaries of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders realized that … they must possess linguistic … knowledge. Concerning the learning of foreign languages we find some statements worthy of notice by Humbert de Romans, the fifth Master General of the Dominicans (1254-63). In his treatise of reform for the Council of Lyons (1274), his Opus tripartitum, he writes:

God does not, as in the earliest days of the church, grant the gift of languages for preaching the gospel among foreign people, but this knowledge has to be acquired by hard and most diligent study. The legates, sent by Rome to the Orient, need the help of interpreters, but no one can say whether they know the language … well, and, if they do, it remains doubtful if they are conscientious in translating.

Roger Bacon wrote:

  • “There is practically no mission among the Jews, because no one is able to read the Old Testament in Hebrew and therefore no proper explanation of the text can be offered. Furthermore, in behalf of the Greeks, Russians, Chaldeans, Armenians and Syrians efforts should be made to explain the Catholic Faith to them in their own language. The same holds good for the Mohammedans, the Prussians and Tartars and for all unbaptized nations of the world.” Then he adds: “Repeatedly I have heard from reliable information, that missionaries who understand to some extent the language of the people, or at least do not depend much on interpreters, are most successful. … to disregard the study of languages is sinful neglect of the important duty of preaching to the pagans.”

There is enough available on Bacon’s study of Hebrew and other languages. I won’t add references here.

Ricoldus da Monte Croce (d. 1320), wrote, in his unpublished ‘Dicta super Mahomet …’

  • The missionary should not be content to explain … in sermons or disputations with the help of an interpreter; he must speak the native language himself. The interpreters, as a rule, are familiar with the expressions necessary for commerce and trade, but they lack considerably the ability to state the truths of the [religious] faith properly. Of all mistakes the worst one is this, that the interpreters have not the courage to admit their insufficiency.


  • a report written in 1237 to Pope Gregory IX says “…we established schools for languages in our houses … the brethren have mastered the [local] languages, and preach mostly in Arabic.” From the same report we learn that ‘by invitations of the king, four Dominicans left for Armenia and will first study the Armenian language.”


It is probable that a reorganization and unification of [Dominican] language schools was planned at the general chapter at Piacenza in 1310. The plan was to establish three schools for Hebrew, Greek and Arabic.


Council of Vienne in canon 11 on May 6, 1312, which was inserted in 1317 by Pope John XXII in the Clementine Decretals, Lib. V.
tit. I. According to this canon two teachers for each of the languages, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Syriac were to be appointed at the universities at Rome, Paris, Oxford, Bologna and Salamanca (specifically to aid propagation of Catholicity).


A resolution of the general chapter of [Dominicans] at Dijon; it was in compliance with the express desire of Pope John XXII to the Master General to send fifty
members to the monasteries at Pera (suburb of Constantinople) and Kaifa (Crimea) and to provide for teachers in the languages.

Ramon Lull

  • argued for the establishment of centres to teach preachers, and not only in Arabic and Hebrew, on the grounds that

“If the Tartaric powers  which are sought by the Jews and Saracens, could be gained for the Christian religion..”

I will only supply my sources for the foregoing is a reader particularly wants it. I hardly think that the majority would be able to cope with the style of the originals.

However, as a less self-congratulatory sort of study, I can perhaps recommend still the following very substantial (104-page) article on language studies among the Franciscans. Despite its date, it is well researched, and better still, accessible online through JSTOR.

John H. Lenhart, Language studies in the Franciscan Order: A Historical Sketch, Franciscan Studies, No. 5 (December, 1926), pp. 3-104.

Rather a somber thought – it came out just three months too late to been seen by William Romaine Newbold.


–  and thank-you again to my most long-suffering helper, whose job is not to type ‘Voynich’ blogposts but to assist research and who agreed to do this anyway.


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