A detail on folio 80v reconsidered. Pt 2

f 80v instrumentWhen I first came to  consider this object  – back in  2010-11 – I compared it with two artefacts which at that time I considered unrelated.

One is the “cornucupia-which-is-not-a-cornucopia” and which was shown in Part 1.

coin BlackSea Sinope Paphlagonia 120-100 BC blog

The other is an object  said to have been discovered by Wilhelm Konig, possibly in the Museum of Baghdad – of which he had become curator.

In a  paper written in 1938,  Konig claimed that the object was a type of ancient battery, or more exactly a galvanic cell, and dated it to the Parthian period (250 BC – 225 AD). Others date the object, by reference to a pottery jar which forms its exterior,  to the Sassanian period ( 250 AD – 650 AD).

W. König, “Ein galvanisches Element aus der Partherzeit?”, Forschungen und Fortschritte, vol. 14 (1938), pp. 8-9.

The circumstances of the find are a little unclear.  Konig is sometimes described as a painter and at other times as an archaeologist.  Most scholars reject the idea that any form of battery or galvanic cell was known so early, but the idea still circulates, and one is told that experiment has shown it could produce about half a volt of electricity.

Here is how Konig represented it:-  formed of three parts, a  jar as exterior, a metal cylinder and a spike, each kept apart and the top sealed by bitumen, through which the central rod protruded. Here is how Konig drew it.

Baghdad battery Sasanian period
Konig’s diagram

Leaving aside its alleged use in generating electricity etc.,  it is interesting for its size and construction. It is  easily portable.  Here is a more recent drawing in illustration. What Konig called asphalt, I shall call bitumen. (for definitions and distinctions, this wiki article is ok)

Baghdad battery and hand
modern diagram showing the object’s relative size.

In my opinion, though, the jar is just storage jar, there to protect the metal in the longer term, just as jars of this sort were used to store scrolls.  The bitumen served to seal it, and to isolate the iron rod from the copper cylinder.  The separate parts and their size relative to one another can be seen in “Ionie”s drawing, below.  What we are left with,  if we set the jar aside,  is something very much like an object which the Latins knew as horologia viatoria pensilis.

The object disassembled with external measurement of the jar. Original drawing by “Ionie”.

One of the Roman sort is shown below. When its nature was recognised it had been on display, mis-labelled, for more than a century in the Museum of Este, near Padua.

A.J. Turner realised what it was in the 1980s and refers to it in his  paper:

A.J. Turner, ‘Sundials: history and classification’, History of Science, XXVII (1989) pp.303-18; p.311.

Este cylinder viatorum pensilia

That artefact is believed Roman, and we have reference to the ‘horologia viatoria pensilis’ in Vitruvius’ ten books of engineering and related matter, commonly called De Architectura. It was written in the 1stC AD,

The name given it implies the thing was, in some way, suspended in air. ( Vitruvius  9:9)Elsewhere, Vitruvius praises the the “cultural capital” of the shipwrecked man, whose  paideia, or corpus of Greek learning serves as universal capital for the universal traveller, “An educated person is the only one never a stranger in an alien land … a citizen of every country”. (6:2) Perhaps the horologia viatoria pensilis came under the same category.

*see Totius Latinitatus Lexicon 4, p.644.

Lynn Thorndike found numerous references to this sort of object in medieval works, and in a paper which he published in 1929 made a point of saying that he had already published notice of textual references to the “horologium viatorum” and again listed the manuscripts in a note.  Why he felt the need to make a separate paper on the subject after he had already dealt with the sources in his great work on medieval science, pseudo-science and magic is not said. Unusually, and in the same Journal the following year, he published the matter again, now in German – and just as unusually added to his name and that of his co-writer and translator a German title.  One suspects some issue of regarding claims of precedence. IN any case, the papers are:

Lynn Thorndike, ‘Of the Cylinder Called the Horologe of Travelers’, Isis, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Sep., 1929), pp. 51-52.

Herrn [sic!] L. Thorndike and Ernst Zinner, ‘Horologium Viatorum’, Isis, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Oct., 1930), pp. 385-387

The first of those articles speaks of his earlier giving notice,  In the catalogues of collections of medieval manuscripts .. ” descriptions of a treatise or treatises concerning the construction of the cylinder called the Horologe of Travelers”. Among the list of  manuscripts cited in the footnote is one from the library of the Basilica del Santo (Padua MS Antoniana 1, 27). The Basilica was a Franciscan monastery built c.1240, but the manuscript is dated to the 9th or 10th century:  Of it, Thorndike says it includes  “a Horologium viatorum with De computo of Rabanus ..and other astronomical treatises.”

Before saying more, I would add that the Padua manuscript has proven to be important for a number of reasons.

Among the ‘other astronomical treatises’ in it, one was recognised in the mid-1980s as being  the only extant evidence of the Irish Easter Table and its calculations.  The Tables in the Paduan manuscript cover the years 438-521 AD, and may be an indication of how the  ‘traveller’s horologue” survived in the Latin west to re-appear in medieval Christian texts.

Daniel McCarthy and Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, ‘The ‘lost’ Irish 84-year Easter Table rediscovered‘, Perita, Vol.6-7 (1987), pp. 227-242.

 Thorndike had earlier mentioned, in relation to a manuscript in Rome  (Vatic. Palat. lat. I340, fols. I5v-I7) a diagram which  “purports to be [sic] a new version of the horologium ‘according to moderns of Erfurt’.

Thorndike was not greatly impressed by the claim, but it might signal some change in appearance or range of use which is related to the change in terminology: from the  Roman ‘ viatorum pensilia to the medieval Latin ‘horologium viatorum‘.

Claudia Kren was to comment in 1977, and again by reference to the Paduan manuscript  ( Biblioteca Antoniana, MS I. 27) that its folio 96r provides   “a textual link between the earlier  [Roman] viatoria pensilia and the [medieval] horologia viatorum, with a crude sketch of a fan-shaped grid of hour lines, months given at the bottom, and the hours in Roman numerals along one side. The sketch is entitled horologium viatorum.

Claudia Kren,  ‘The Traveler’s Dial in the Late Middle Ages: The Chilinder’, Technology and Culture, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Jul., 1977), pp. 419-435.  where she notes (fn 4. p.420).

I don’t have an copy of that diagram, but the following should give readers a rough idea of how a calendar and time-piece could be drawn fan-shaped – as a set of chords, resembling a harp, or a scallop-shell.

(detail) B.L. MS Royal 13 A XI (f. 14) Last quarter of the 11th century or 1st quarter of the 12th.
(detail) B.L. MS Royal 13 A XI (f. 14) Last quarter of the 11th century or 1st quarter of the 12th.

Thorndike’s description of the Palatine text sounds very like the object in the Este Museum of  Padua, but he describes it as having uses other than determining the hours of the day.

“It gives a figure of an upright cylinder with a conical top terminating in a knob by which it might be turned, with a vertical scale to the right of the cylinder and obliquely curving lines across the face of the cylinder which are to trace the sun’s shadow. Apparently these instruments were used to determine the latitude as well as to find the hour and the altitude of the sun, or at least they were adapted to determine the hour in different places and latitudes where a traveler might be.”

Lynn Thorndike, op.cit., p.52

If he is correct, then the ‘suspended travellers’ aid’ may have been the means by which traders might travel as far as China and return able to provide details of latitude and longitude (whether or not exact) to city-dwellers such as Claudius Ptolemy.   That may sound speculative but the authors of a paper submitted to the Journal of the History of Astronomy in 1997 included a list of examples found to date, the earliest being dated to the 6thC BC and found in a city which is now  – but wasn’t then – called  Aphrodisias.

In the 6thC BC, it was  Carian and Greek, and – almost inevitably – it iis set in the region of the astronomer’s coast of Asia minor.

A fifth-century example has also been recognised, but the find-place seems to be unknown.  A fourth century example was recovered from Memphis.

Asia minor and Egypt at the dawn of the Hellenistic period is a common point of intersection for the oldest stratum of imagery in MS Beinecke 408.

The early examples of the artefact are all of bronze.  All are attributed to Greek workmanship, though before the time of Alexander, the ‘Greeks’ in Egypt were not numerous, whereas the Carians were resident and served as border guards for the Egyptians.

The  Carians were not Greek, but shared their territory with Greek-speakers.  Their own language was related to Lydian, and their  Carian script is related to the Greek, I understand, by a  mutual descent from the older Phoenician script.

The authors of the that paper, Arnaldi and Shaldach, were chiefly concerned with the example in the Museum d’Este near Padua and  point out that it was no universal dial, but one able to operate (in their opinion) only within a given range of latitude.

They included following drawings in their paper:

Traveller's dialI have reason to think that, just as it may do to a modern viewer, the older instrument  evoked the mental image of a harpist, resemblance between the harp and the bow being as evident to ancient peoples as it may be to those who have seen both played. It is from the word for the string of a harp or bow that we have our geometric term for a chord.

But before turning to other questions such as what the instrument was originally called, whether it alluded to an astronomical form, and if so which – I’d like to mention again the situation in thirteenth century England, and the possibility that Roger Bacon and his contemporaries also knew the theory and form of the traveller’s horologue.  Which is, I think, what the object is meant to be – a traveller’s blessing as it were. But the form given the body is nearer to the more ancient type than the medieval cylinder. Its shape is that of the parts touched by the shadow-line.

f 80v instrument


England in Bacon’s time.

An anthology of scientific and mathematical treatises, dated to the second half of the thirteenth century, was donated to the Bodleian Library at Oxford in 1634 by Kenelm Digby, the first volume among those which form the collection now bearing Digby’s name.

Bodleian MS Digby 1 includes Chapters 1-4  of Hermannus Contractus’ De horologium viatorum ( ff.36va-37va), and – shortly afterwards –   a section that has  been described as being Abraham Ibn Ezra’s Sefa ha-middot.(ff.38va-48vb), though an important paper by Levy and Burnett argues otherwise:

Tony Lévy and Charles Burnett, “Sefer ha-Middot”: A Mid-Twelfth-Century Text on Arithmetic and Geometry Attributed to Abraham Ibn Ezra, Aleph, No. 6 (2006), pp. 57-238.

That the works of a Yemeni astronomer and mathematician named  al-Firisi (1267- 1319) who is often cited by Jewish scholars of the time, were also known to Bacon has already been mentioned in connection with Digby’s donation to the Bodleian (in this post).

The books which Kenelm donated had been left him by the bequest of a renowned Oxford scholar and his former tutor in mathematics – John Allen.The Bodleian catalogue notes the fact that Digby had inherited

“the whole of [Allen’s] collection of scientific and historical manuscripts, including several valuable volumes of Roger Bacon’s works”

With what we know of the Voynich manuscript’s materials, it is also perhaps worth mentioning that the thirteenth century manuscript was written on parchment described as being “of the Italian type” and that it is copied in more than one hand, some hands being Italian, and others English.

Moreover, the Professor of Classical Literature whose assistance Wilfrid Voynich enlisted, Professor Romaine Newbold, did not entirely agree with Wilfrid’s story of the manuscript’s earlier history.  Rather than imagining the story of the manuscript having been in a monastery whose contents became the property of an English noble family, passing then to John Dee, and being presented to the Emperor Rudolf,  Newbold suggested rather that the manuscript had been among those which had remained in Oxford itself, then passing from John Allen who was known to have collected Bacon’s manuscripts, to John Dee before the latter left for the continent.  Nor did Newbold imagine the manuscript given to the Emperor (let alone presented with an invoice!) but rather taken as a  gift to Rudolf’s physician-pharmacist, who maintained a garden for the Jesuit community which had raised him apparently an orphan.

Whether that reconstruction is true, the pharmacist-physician’s name was at some stage, by someone, inscribed on the first folio, though no longer visible except under ultra-violet light.

At any rate, whether or not it was Roger Bacon, there was certainly someone in thirteenth century England, and probably in thirteenth century Oxford at the time of the expulsion of Oxford’s Sephardi community, who knew the theory of the  ‘horologio viatorum’.  

The Paduan manuscript remain in a library of the same religious order as that which Roger Bacon joined, and  is one of the few such libraries never to have been disrupted or looted.

So Padua – in the Veneto – contained both textual evidence in an eighth-century manuscript, and physical evidence of a Roman-era example, of that traveller’s aid, in use almost  two thousand years by the time Roger Bacon was born.

Other terms for the medieval and later object are “Pilgrim’s dial”; “Shepherd’s Dial” and “Cylinder dial”.   Holbein includes one in a painting:





For those intrigued by the purpose of any curved gnomon, some possibilities are suggested by the content in

Martin Isler, ‘The Gnomon in Egyptian Antiquity’, Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Vol. 28, (1991), pp. 155-185


11 Replies to “A detail on folio 80v reconsidered. Pt 2”

    1. Koen,
      That’s not as easy to answer as one might expect, but the problem is that our own culture is pretty one-dimensional We have dictionaries which give one meaning for a word, and encyclopaedias of imagery which assign one meaning to each thing, but before books, dictionaries, glossaries, standard orthography and other tools aiding conformity (or agreement, if you prefer), it really wasn’t so simple. The rudder came from Egypt where it signified the ‘hidden one’ governing the ship of the world/universe/dead, and actually our words for governor, cabin and so forth come from the Egyptian – though Etymological dictionaries of the 19thC seem to begin from the Greeks, pass to the Romans and ignore everyone else’s input. The Greeks didn’t use the ‘rudder’ emblem so much, but it was used in North Africa – apparently by the Carthaginians who associate it with a lioness deity. Not sure why. The Romans took it as a sign of ‘fortuna’ and of the mistress who determined the outcome of naval battles. It passed then into Renaissance England (for example) where John Dee used it to mean “governor of State” as emblem at once for Elizabeth I and for England (the two being the same in those days).

      Which means that to know just what is meant by the rudder, you have to know the context from which the image came.

      Generally speaking, there was a transmission of the Egyptian custom of denoting character and attributes by an emblem, but the Greeks and Romans weren’t comfortable with setting the emblems on the heads of people of deities, so they placed them elsewhere. The system was actually very elegant, and Christianity adopted it. That’s how come you can determine the character of one or another person considered a worthy example (a saint). A palm means that they died for the faith; sometimes other emblems tell you how they died; roses indicate pure intentions; then the specific ones like the tower for Barbara or the wheel for Katherine of Alexandria.

      So in general, throughout the ancient and modern world, you get these ’emblemata’ and renaissance painters collected information about the correct ’emblemata’ for ancient and classical deities. Which meant they might also re-use them, or even invent new ones. Again, to interpret them correctly you need to have the context right.

      There’s also the multi-dimensional or layered way of thought to consider. Early Christian writers say that any text (including pictorial) should be read at three levels: first the literal, then the metaphorical, and finally the allegorical. That seems to carry over the older customs of exegesis.

      So at one level this figure stands for say, the port of Canopus; at other it might represent the deity worshipped at Canopus and at a third level it might represent the star Canopus which anciently guided people to that port, but time and precession altered the correspondence.

      That’s the sort of thing that is quite hard to explain to people without any particular background in history or cultures. We expect that a picture should be a picture “of” something, and just one thing. We expect it should have one interpretation, and only one. But imagery didn’t work that way; it was an expression of language at a time when strings of association were the norm, and were positively expected to be expressed in imagery.

      So, the short answer is yes – to the extent that both are emblemata. Otherwise, probably not because these images are less about cult and religion than about how to get from A to B. So the spoken vocabulary from which they emerged could be quite specific. For example a certain sort of cloud formation was known to the mariners as “foxtails” and we see that imagery used in medieval France. It would make a familiar mnemonic for some, but others including us, might never twig to it.

      To many moderns, including I think, most Voynicheros, this all sounds horribly complicated and messy, and they turn instinctively to our own superficial “looks like a” sort of interpretation – often quite wrong for the time and place being treated. It’s really like learning a new language – you can’t just say “sounds like the English word…” and suppose that’s what’s meant by the original, in a different language altogether. Same with imagery. The thing might ‘look like’ something, but one has to study enough to understand what it signified for the original maker and his audience. A ‘lamp’ is just a lamp for us. For someone else it was supposed to be read as meaning Christ, or perhaps scholarship or a genie… or whatever. Lots and lots and LOTS of reading needed to read imagery. Few Voynicheros think imagery worth the time, I think.


  1. I see, so basically it’s just hard to know what exactly they meant if we don’t know what they could have wanted to mean 🙂

    I would guess that it’s used almost solely as an attribute here, like just to tell us who the character is. I say so because on another folio (which I think was originally seen next to this one) it appears again, though curiously without the spike [f.82r]

    That’s annoying because Tyche/Fortuna is usually involved symbolically rather than playing an physical part in the narrative.

    Interestingly, she has the same pose in both instances, but in the one I linked she is not on her “cloud” and she raises an empty hand instead of the emblem. Good fortune versus bad fortune? 🙂


    1. Ooh, I think I know what could be meant (sorry for spam, can’t edit my previous post anymore).

      “I am greater than any whom Fortune can harm, and though she could take much away, she would leave me much more.”


    2. Koen,
      Haha. It’s not quite so circular. Style is the first cue for us when identifying a visual language, because it first announces whether the image is ‘speaking’ in Armenian, of Coptic, or Persian, or Buddhist or Hindu etc. A failure to consider stylistics – next to the failure to ‘read’ what is on the page in the imagery – undermines most of the discussion we’ve seen since c.2002. But I will agree that the style and stylistics in the Vms are not like any standard common style, and especially not any within the mainstream (i.e. Latin-) European before the end of the fifteenth century. And the later you go the European becomes less and less like.

      PS – Please just publish the folio number – and check that it is correct according to the Beinecke library site, if you wouldn’t mind. For historical reasons, there are three sets of foliation around, and they differ to greater or lesser degree from each other; a holding library’s foliation is always the standard description.
      In this case, Jason’s 82r is also the Beinceke’s 82r.


      1. Koen – sorry. The first thing I should have said was well spotted! Do you realise that you have almost formed a theory – already? Sounds as if your theory is that the manuscript’s imagery is key to another book.

        Your observation is the first mention I’ve seen of that detail, so I’ll credit it as original to you unless anyone knows of an earlier mention of the correspondence. From my point of view it re-inforces everything else I’ve seen in this section, so my interpretation is more pragmatic, “the thing you could see earlier along the line [of travel] you can’t see here.”

        great observation, however we interpret it.


  2. My comment was mostly about the torch like object and how it looks like the attribute held by the nymph in this post. The other images don’t matter too much 🙂

    I’m kind of in an in between stage, I just finished my paper about the nymphs so I’m going to let those rest for a while. I actually might return to the small plants and focus on some non-mythological ones. The monkey drew quite a crowd. Finding the right plant ID is extremely hard though.


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