Clear vision cont 5 – notes

note to second ‘update’ – The local internet (wifi) has been dropping out each 20 seconds for the past week..yes, it could have led to a revolution, but fortunately we have DVDs.  The effect on this post was to have some key-strokes register, and not others, to mash formatting and my desktop .. you can imagine.  The men who came carrying cable say it will solve the problem. 🙂

[1] ‘They were not understood in the seventeenth century…’  Thus Baresch, enlisting Kircher’s help to identify the script, “the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in Germany”(Letter dated 27th of April, 1639. PUG 557 f. 353rv).  Transcription, translation  by Philip Neal).  Edith Sherwood sums up the impressions of most since 1912 and how the images seem so very alien:  ” to have fantastic and eccentric characteristics”.  If they had been invented by any fifteenth century Latin in Europe, the one might say that Dali was twice-born. But it is only the expectation that they will be of  medieval European origin, and Dioscoridan in style which creates that impression. Edith Sherwood’s treatment of folio 5v is  here.

[2] ‘reverence for the antique might also explain it‘.   I think that in fact the content in Beinecke MS 408 was valued because the information it contains was valuable – valuable enough for it not to be widely shared.   Entire nations made their wealth by having access to the routes and goods, produced east of the Caspian, or of Suez, and such (with a map and technical information pertaining to navigation and to provisions and maintenance of ship or caravan) appears to me to form the whole subject of its various sections.

[3] ‘the coin in which they may have been paid‘. Dirham Tabriz mint.  Genose had a place assigned them in Tabriz by this time.  After 1335, relations with the Ilkhanate broke down, altering the eastern routes to which Europeans had access.  see Patrick Wing, ‘Rich in Goods and Abounding in Wealth’ in Judith Pfeiffer (ed.), Politics, Patronage and the Transmission of Knowledge in 13th – 15th Century Tabriz, Brill, 2013 ( pp.300-320). For the Genoese in Mosul and Baghdad: Bar Hebraeus, Chronicon Syriacum. In the  edition by  Bruns and Kirsch, vol. I, p. 620. John of Winterthur, ‘Chronicon..’, in Archiv fiir schweizerische Geschichte XI, p. 52: ” Dum multi Christicole in Baldach civitate maritima… etc.”  Perhaps Montecorvino had travelled to Baghdad in their convoy, since he writes of departing the following year – with the opening of the sailing season –  from Persia, bound for India.

[4] ‘referring to the Mashad Diocorides in this context..’  I refer to ‘Botanical: Habit and Habitat – waterplants and (19th. December, 2013), which isn’t the first but perhaps the most useful instance.  Shortly after the Mashad Dioscorides was made Ibn Jubayr passed (May 14th – June 11th., 1184)  through Mosul. He describes its oil and bitumen .. and pomegranates.  The passage not easily found in English translation, but is in Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes Vol 1. (2012).  The Arabic text, with Wright’s commentary and Introduction, and Goeje’s revisions, is at the internet archive here.  Broadhurst’s translation, first published in the 1950s, is still cited.

[5] ‘ figure dressed in Mongol costume..  source’.   ‘Thundering jackets and fleur de lys‘, (Jan. 15th., 2015) – first mention of this in Voynich studies to my knowledge, though do leave a comment if you know an earlier..

[6] Sokhumi: “Yoke Elm“..   Caprinus betulus is also called  Hornbeam or  “Ironwood”. Some sources translate Sokhumi vas ‘Beech’. For the older ‘Yoke elm” see e.g. Encyclopaedia Perthensis; Or Universal Dictionary of the Arts …, (1816), Volume 23, p.364.

[7] ‘ Yoke Elm (C. betulus) with U. Minor abundant ..’   These maps show the present range, believed wider in classical times.


maps (upper) from G. Caudullo, D. de Rigo, ‘Ulmus – elms in Europe: distribution, habitat, usage and threats’ in European Atlas of Forest Tree Species.
(lower) from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.

In case the folio 5v’s written text refers to sources for the plants, I might add that tthe Colchian lowlands is an important backdrop to actions of the Dioscuri in Homer’s Odyssey and references by Roman writers.  The lowlands are watered by two rivers, one the Phasis (mod. Rioni) and the other the Akampsis (mod. Chorokhi. Classical Athens relied heavily on Amphipolis (Thucydides,  Histories 4:108).

[8] ‘ both woods familiar to  shipwrights of the Mediterranean‘.  Mediterranean shipbuilders preferred to use elm for the shearwater  – and  see other notes here.  Current uses include ship blocks and strop blocks.  It was a tradition through the Italian peninsula, and perhaps in Greece, to grow grape vines over U.minor – which would have added depth to that identification (in the Samothracian cult) of Polydeuces with Liber, for Liber is normally taken as a type for Dionysos.

[9] ‘..but in earlier times it was perceived as an elm‘.   I might also mention here the ‘Hop Hornbeam’ (Ostrya carpinifolia Scop. ) which might be mentioned by the text on folio 5v.  Two Roman wrecks have shown that this other hornbeam was used for cabin door-frame.   See: Laura Sadori,   ‘Archaeobotany in Italian ancient Roman harbours’, [in press] to appear in the Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology.  In the Mediterraenan, fir and silver fir were generally preferred for hulls.  The classical texts are gathered in  Lukas Thommen, An Environmental History of Ancient Greece and Rome, CUP (2012) p.39-40. in Mediterranean, by Greeks and Romans. Leo Weiner refers to it in connection with medieval European laws. See Leo Weiner, Commentary to the Germanic Laws and Medieval Documents, pp.109-10.   (the ‘Hop Hornbeam’) it was very likely referenced by the image, and may be by the accompanying text.  Two Roman wrecks show O.carpinifolia was used for cabin door-frames.  In the 5thC BC,  speaks of Amphipolis as a chief source for the Athenians’ timber, and of the alarm felt in Athens when Sparta took that Thracian harbour town. Fir and Silver fir were chiefly used for hulls where they could be obtained.  For the classical texts see

[10] ‘The flower may be omitted, or represented by some regional, conventional, stylized form‘.  Failure to realise this has led to a number of false steps in Voynich studies. Hugh O’Neill’s imagining sunflowers the subject  of f.33v 93r has had lasting repercussions. (for the opportunity to correct this point, and avoid causing others further false steps, I am very much indebted to “L” who, in his own words, ‘came for a giggle but stayed to follow”.

[11] The flowers… “starry”.  The catkins of C. betulus are pendulent; I have turned them upright to explain a perceived similarity to the flowers of U. minor; flowers in the Voynich botanical folios are regularly upturned, so I do not great violence to the original enunciator’s habit. I’ve used the layman’s description of the leaves as ‘serrated’;  formal description would say they have itoothed margins.

[12] ‘..timber of the Yoke Elm is near-useless, intensely hard and difficult to work‘. Modern techniques reduce this difficulty, but historical sources all say the same, the Wood Database saying that “overall, Hornbeam is considered difficult to work on account of its density and toughness” and “.. rated as non-durable to perishable in regards to decay resistance, and is also susceptible to insect attack.. but has excellent resistance to wear and abrasion“. It can be turned on a modern lathe.

[13] “For the shipwright, though, its  short dowel and  straight pegs were invaluable”... these short dowels or pegs being called ‘treenails’ though not only used in that way.

[14] ‘Fire sticks made the elm valuable‘. See note to previous post.

[15] ‘... pegs served to fix the planks of a deck‘.  See Frederick M. Hocker and Cheryl A. Ward (eds.), The Philosophy of Shipbuilding: Conceptual Approaches to the Study of Wooden Ships (2004).  Also Christer Westerdahl, “Treenails and History: A maritime archaeological hypothesis”,  Archaeology and Environment, No. 4 (1985) pp.395-414 (Dept. of Archaeology, Umeå university). Writing in 1939, Moreland thought treenails a typically European custom. More recently, Westerdahl sees treenails between planking as distinctly Slavonic. W. H. Moreland,  ‘The Ships of the Arabian Sea about A.D. 1500’ The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 2 (Apr., 1939), pp 79  and pp173-192.   I am not sure that we are intended to see an awl or chisel and some wooden nails within the image of Polydeuces’ hand but just in case, here’s the general idea.


[16] ‘For rowlock pins,  pegs to hold rigging tight and even for gear-pins ...’  See ‘Mittelzeit’, a blogger blog, ”Hornbeams’ (January 20th., 2009). Other woods were used, of couse.  A wide range of timbers has been identified in the galleys in the old Theodosian harbour at Byzantium/Istanbul (the harbour’s name is now Yenikapi; Ottoman period Vlanga).  The galleys date from the third quarter of the 4thC AD.  pdf  (here).   Ünal Akkemik, and  Ufuk Kocabaş, ‘Woods of the Old Galleys of Yenikapi, Istanbul’, Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, Vol. 13, No 2 (2013), pp. 31-41. The authors conclude that.. the [Byzantine] trade ships were built by using mainly oak and chestnut trees.”The authors use the older description for the Field Elm – Ulmus campestris – but U.minor is now usual.

[17] And idle shipmen might carve them into chess-pieces in lieu of ivory… sorry, I’ve misplaced my  note about this point. When it turns up, I’ll add a note in the ‘comments’.

[18] ‘..resistance to water decay is exceptional and … used .. for underwater piles, water-pipes and barrels’. G. Caudullo, D. de Rigo, Ulmus – elms in Europe: distribution, habitat, usage and threats; the footnotes citing P. S. Savill, The silviculture of trees used in British forestry (CABI, 2013) and  A. Praciak, et al., The CABI encyclopedia of forest trees (CABI, 2013) but the fact is everywhere noted. Somewhat surprising is the elm keel of an eleventh-century ship, one of the earliest frame-built ships.  It is known as the Serçe Limani wreck, its resting dated to 1025 AD.  Treenails and   iron nails were used in its construction. See Hockey and Ward., op.cit. p.124.

[19] ‘recommended for levers and for mallets, and to make the handles of tools…’.

[20] ‘in addition it served for the bows – and the stocks of those crossbows ..‘  Elm for ordinary bows is well known. As that preferred for the crossbow-stock see  Hunt Janin, Ursula Carlson, Mercenaries in Medieval and Renaissance Europe,(2013)  p.37.  15,000 Genoese crossbowmen were on the field at Agincourt in 1415 within the radiocarbon range for the Voynich manuscript.  They were a well-known sight at the time. Most other naval crossbows preferred yew.  See ‘Iberia etc‘, (December 6th., 2015).

[21] “..qualities of the elm..”  Caudullo and de Rigo op.cit. “a source of good-quality wood, easy to work and used for furniture ,flooring and as firewood.. except U.laevis.”

[22] ‘.. Before the Padre Island finds ..’  The bow’s mechanism well illustrated in  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 and bibliography.

[23] ‘before I wrote on the subject ..‘. While hunting the first recorded instance of a crossbowman’s being called  ‘Sagitario/Sagittario’ –  ‘Ballisterios’ (and variations) having been the usual form, a former colleague got in touch and offered the first coherent explanation for the crossbow’s form, wooden stock, and otherwise inexplicable position of archer’s right hand, none of which Jens Sensfelder or anyone else had an explanation for.  I posted the information then in D.N. O’Donovan,  ‘f.73v: The word thank you Sancho Panza’, (August 1st., 2015).

[24] ‘…  determined to remain anonymous ..’  I hope this may change, one day.

[25] ‘No suitable timber in Mosul.. led Richard to speculate..’  Jean Richard, ‘European Voyages in the Indian Ocean and Caspian Sea (12th-15th Centuries)’, Iran, Vol. 6 (1968), pp. 45-52.   I am much indebted to Richard’s seminal paper on this subject.

[26] ‘ Mosul’s reserves of bitumen were the marvel of the ancient, classical and medieval world…‘ Using pitch, tar/bitumen to waterproof a hull is as old as the Akkadians in Mesopotamia. It is mentioned in Jewish law: Noah is told “Make for yourself an ark ..  make compartments in the ark and cover it with tar [=pitch] inside and outside”.  Phoenicians obtained tar from the Dead sea and  from Commagene though Syro-Phoenicians would have known the deposits of Mosul (ancient Nineveh).  Herodotus (Bk.1, 179) describes a fountain of pitch in Babylon in lower Mesopotamia and, later, Eratosthenes (as reported by Plutarch Alexander, 35) did the same.   It occurs  in Mosul in association with natural petroleum oil and sulphur. On the history of bitumen’s  trade  see  Jacques Connan and Thomas Van de Velde, ‘An overview of bitumen trade in the Near East from the Neolithic (c.8000 BC) to the early Islamic period’, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, Vol. 21, Issue 1 (May 2010) pp. 1-19.

The British Museum in 2010 reported a project underway to research  tars and pitches used in medieval European boats and ships and noted of one ship which came to rest in Newport in Wales during the second half of the fifteenth century had “associated finds suggest[-ing] contacts with the Iberian peninsula”.

On other materials used with pitch, and on vegetable pitch (for which beech was one preferred wood) see Andrew N. Sherwood, Greek and Roman Technology: A Sourcebook: Annotated Translations of Greek …  p.341, and H. Michell, The Economics of Ancient Greece (2014) p.201.  For the staggering quantities of trees and timber needed to maintain the Greek fleet, see  statistics  in Eugene N. Borza, ‘Timber and Politics in the Ancient World: Macedon and the Greeks’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 131, No. 1 (Mar., 1987), pp. 32-52.

Header picture: detail from an Attic vase (800-725BC.)



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