A Revisionist revisits… Canterbury Part 3a


Having been born and spent the greater part of his life on the eastern side of the Mediterranean, an elderly man named Theodore came for a time to Rome. There he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in the seventh century and  though Greek and Syriac were his natural languages, and his Latin apparently poor, he set out for Canterbury, and  probably along that great arterial highway of the medieval world which today we call the Via Francigena.  It does not stop at Calais; the water crossing becomes part of that road, then continuing through London to end at Canterbury.

map via Francigena Rome to Calais 990AD
Via Francigena from Rome to Calais (and Canterbury) c.990 AD

It has what is, effectively, a southern continuation from Rome, one passing through the wilder southern region to the port of Brindisi and the old harbour at Tarento, that road known as the via Appia, the most famous of the Roman roads, which brought Greeks and people from the east, and eastern goods too, from before the time of Strabo.  Brindisi is thus the most probable point from which Theodore began his ‘road’ that would end in Canterbury. (click to enlarge)

Via_Appia_map Rome to Brindisi
Rome to Tarento and Brindisi. The Appian Way.

This road offers a practical link between diverse items connected to study of Beinecke MS 408, so I have taken its full length as a unifying motif for this series, whose chief questions relate to the unexpected number of exotic plants referenced in pre-Salernitan antidotaries and, in addition, to mentions of a “Thomas” as authority for medicine in the same antidotaries and, later, of “St.Thomas” in the Vermont ‘Tuscan’ Herbal.

From Egypt – whose influence on the botanical imagery was considered in the previous post – as from Syria, Byzantium or north as far as the Black Sea, entry into the Italian peninsula was most often made in Theodore’s time as it had been in Strabo’s: from Brindisi or Taranto and then upon the Appian Way to Rome.

In a sense, that side of the peninsula like the south, was ever the “foreigner’s coast” and remained so in the thinking of northern Italians well into the modern era.

All the peninsula from south of Cumae and including Sicily, was known as ‘Magna Graecia‘ for the number and prosperity of its Greek cities before the rise of Rome.  Thereafter, Imperial Roma had settled captives from Syria and from Jerusalem around the northern end of the Adriatic, and it was there that the secret of glass-making was practiced by the enslaved and so perforce taught to Roman artisans.

In the south much remained of that older Greek character in the seventh century, and Greek culture under the Byzantines extended still more widely. Theodore went to a Rome where the man elected head of the western church was also Greek. As late as the last decades of the fifteenth century, according to Marsilio Ficino, an ancient Greek dialect was spoken in Lecce in the heel of Italy, Ficino requesting appointment to a parish there in order to study and learn it.[1]

In 965,  Byzantine rule was re- established in the south with the Catepanate of Italy which survived more-or-less until after the Norman conquest of England.  In any case, and regardless of who nominally ruled a given area in the south, the habit continued of settling ‘foreigners’ on the Adriatic side, whether they were traders, or refugees, or even the bones of a ‘foreign’ saint.  A multicultural character and dialects in which the entire history of the regions’ successive conquests, occupations and ethnic variety found its echo made the southern end of the peninsula remarkable then, and to a large extent still does.[2]

Strabo was certainly a Roman. He described the roads in his Geographica a couple of generations before those giants lived who were so revered by  Latin Christian scholarship: Claudius Ptolemy of Egypt, Pliny the Elder from the Celtic region of  Gallia Transpadana, and the Greek Aratus from Sicyon in the Peloponnese. Persons living in areas invaded and conquered by Rome were sometimes permitted to be classed as Roman citizens and persons who were Roman citizens sometimes lived elsewhere, but the term ‘Roman’ is by convention used far more loosely than it might be. Strabo was more nearly contemporary with  eastern Greeks,  whose botanical and herbal works were extracted to make the Juliana Anicia codex in early sixth-century Byzantium, little more than a century before Theodore’s arrival.

From the South..

So, having  said that nearly all travellers  from Greece and from the East arrived through Brindisi, Strabo had then described the way north in detail and because some of these towns, in their modern names, feature in our own way north I will have to risk boring my readers and repeat the text verbatim:

“From thence there are two ways to Rome, the one [the via A. Traiana] adapted only for mules … the other through Tarentum, deviating a little to the left, and going round about a day’s journey, which is called the Appian, and is better adapted for carriages. On this are situated Uria (between Brundusium and Tarentum) and Venusia (mod. Venosa)… Both these roads, starting from Brundusium, meet at Beneventum. Thence to Rome the road is called the Appian, passing through Caudium, Calatia, Capua, and Casilinum, to Sinuessa.  [Sinussia also called Monte Dragone].[3]

This  ‘Voynich studies pilgrimage’ begins in the south, not only because Theodore probably first set foot in mainland Europe at Brindisi, but because late in the twelfth century or the first half of the thirteenth, the reverse journey was taken by another Archbishop of Canterbury – or a part of him.  By the good offices of one ‘Roberto’, Thomas Becket’s arm was brought to Gravina, where Frederick II had recently built a cathedral and his new castle, giving that he had inherited in Montepeloso (modern Irsina) to the Franciscan order at some time between 1209 and 1250.

map detail Venusia Gravina Metaponto Tarento
The south –  Venosa to Taranto; distances;  image of St.Thomas Becket from Canterbury Cathedral [4]
The map above also shows one of the most ancient stops on the via Appia – old Venusia, medieval and modern VENOSA.  Because this was the birthplace of Manfred, born in 1232 to Frederick II and Bianca Lancia (or Lanzia), I’ll make the first “postcard” for this route one which compares an image from Beinecke MS 408 (below, right) with one from BNF Latin 8623 6823, a compilation of herbal and medical matter whose incipit is inscribed  “Manfredus of Monte Imperiale”. It is not believed made or owned by Frederick’s “Manfred” who lived from 1232 – 1266. BNF Latin 8623 6823 is dated 1310-1350.

little tears

The pictures are shown side by side, not to argue that the Voynich image represents the same plant as that labelled Diagridium,  but as a first instance of the way in which any  effort to argue that Voynich botanical imagery is part of the Latin herbal traditions (stemma), will constantly result in no more than a feeling that there is something ‘like’ but that the Latin never really offers a true parallel.

For those who like detail, the Diagridium was sometimes associated with the “little tear” frequently mentioned by the Lydian Greek, Alexander of Tralles (c. 525 – c.605), a common authority in the old antedotaries.  However, Platearius says rather that that “little tear” refers to the sap or gum of a kind of grass that grows in lands “over the sea”. The following note as it appears in  J.L.G Mowat’s edition of Bodleian Selden B.35 a Glossary made in England c.1462 –  evidently from one much older. [5]

Diagridium Alexander of Tralles Platearius etc note from

The next post takes a closer look at the “Manfredus” who made that herbal but with regard to those  pre-Salernitan antidotaries with their large number of non-Mediterranean materia medica, Riddle says:

Some [receipts] have emperors’ names, e. g., Vespasian and Alexander of Macedonia, and other writers of the early middle ages, e. g., Afrodisius, Thomas, Gentilis, Neuclerius, and Eugenius.[6]

… to be continued…



  1. On the same point, I might quote from a more recent source (here):
    … Italo Talia has written: “The same Basilicata dialects distinguish themselves from those of Campania and Puglia by a more accentuated conservation of archaic residues: in the Potenza territory the long Norman, Swabian and Angevin dominations, have barely grazed the Latin lexical patrimony, and in the Matera territory the Greek-classical heritage is more evident than the Byzantine (Talia, 1976, p. 146). Anna M. Compagna attests that the passage from the use of Latin to the vernacular is to be dated from the first decades of the Fifteenth Century and, in fact, it can be surmised that the “lack of an intense communal life in the Kingdom during the Fourteenth Century explains the absence of local vernacular documentary texts, found in such abundance elsewhere” (Compagna, 1983, p.280). Raffaele Nigro has documented a widespread usage, beginning with the Seventeenth Century, of poetic and political texts, but also religious and scientific, written in vernacular (Nigro, 1981).
  2. Again for the linguists: Adam Ledgeway, From Latin to Romance: Morphosyntactic Typology and Change,OUP (2012).
  3. Thus Smith writes in more detail: “Strabo distinctly speaks of the Appian Way as extending, in his time, from Rome to Brundusium; and his description of its course and condition is important. After stating that almost all travellers from Greece and the East used to land at Brundusium, he adds: “From thence there are two ways to Rome, the one adapted only for mules, through the country of the Peucetians, Daunians, and Samnites, to Beneventum, on which are the cities of Egnatia, Caelia, Canusium, and Herdonia; the other through Tarentum, deviating a little to the left, and going round about a day’s journey, which is called the Appian, and is better adapted for carriages. On this are situated Uria (between Brundusium and Tarentum) and Venusia, on the confines of the Samnites and Lucanians. Both these roads, starting from Brundusium, meet at Beneventum. Thence to Rome the road is called the Appian, passing through Caudium, Calatia, Capua, and Casilinum, to Sinuessa [Monte Dragone]. The whole distance from Rome to Brundusium is 360 miles. There is yet a third road, from Rhegium, through the Bruttians and Lucanians, and the lands.of the Samnites to Campania, where it joins the Appian; this passes through the Apennine mountains, and is three or four days’ journey longer than that from Brundusium.” (Strabo, Geographica. Bk6, Ch.3, §7 online) .
  4. From modern Gravina, known to Stabo as Silvium, it is about 15½ kilometers to Irsina, known in medieval times, and until late in the nineteenth century, as Montepeloso. Gravina Cathedral (11th-12th centuries) was built by the Normans in Romanesque style and it houses a splendid reliquary of an arm of the English Thomas Becket, obtained by Bishop Roberto in 1179. The castle at Gravina was destroyed by fires and earthquakes in the mid-15th century.
  5. John Lancaster Gough Mowat, Alphita, a medico-botanical glossary from the Bodleian manuscript, Selden B 35, (1887) (p.50).  I would also note the apology and caveat beginning “The editor finds…”  on p.vi.  The volume is available online.  Regarding this species, a comment in de Venenis, a work commonly ascribed to Arnold of Vilanova, reads “Species omnes titimalli ut solben seu sene Hyspanie seu mesaira ulcerativa ac necativa”.  For anyone interested in the subject, I highly recommend Michael A. McVaugh, ‘Two Texts One Problem: The Authorship of the Antidotarium and de Venenis attributed to Arnau de Vilanova’, in Josep Perarnau (ed.), Actes de la I Trobada Internacional d’Estudis sobre Arnau de Vilanova, Institut d’Estudis Catalans, Vol.2 (1995), pp.75-95.
  6. John M. Riddle, ‘The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages’,Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, Bd. 49,H. 2 (JUNI 1965), pp. 185-198. (p.186). His footnote after ‘..Eugenius’ refers to Henry Sigerist, Studien und Texte zur frümittelalterlichen Rezepliteratur, (Leipzig 1923), pp. 182-4. I first referred to Riddle first some time ago in connection with mention of ‘exotics’ in medieval Europe. The first of the posts published through voynichimagery is dated Jan.25th., 2013, but see especially ‘…”thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos” series which begins here; Riddle’s article was fully referenced in Pt2 of that series.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s