This seems a good place for a glimpse of Europeans presence in the east before and during the period of Mongol rule (Yuan dynasty). I derive much of the information from Jean Richard’s essay, from the Silk Road Seattle site and from the magnificent Cathay and the way thither.. by Henry Yule and Heni Cordier (eds). Volume 1; Volume 2; Volume 3; Volume 4.
According to just one source – the Sirafi, Abu Zayd – there was a large and well-established foreign community in Guangzhou ‘Zaiton’/’Zayton’) by the 9thC, numbering according to him 300,000 and by modern writers as more than a hundred thousand. Their number included Jews, Christians, Muslim and non-Muslim Arabs, Muslim and Zoroastrian Persians. The entire community was massacred in 879 AD.
Also in the 9thC, Alfred the Great of England is recorded as having sent an emissary to the tomb of St. Thomas in India, though more recent scholars dispute that the emissary travelled so far. It is true that the bones of St.Thomas (or most of them) had earlier been taken from southern India to Mesopotamia, and then to Syria and (allegedly) even to the island of Chios, so fetching the relic may have required a shorter journey. Definitions of ‘India’ were more flexible in earlier times, and even speakers of Arabic spoke of lower Mesopotamia as “nearer India”.
Next, we have a legend that one “Bernard the Penitent” of Languedoc (d. 1182) had visited St.Thomas’ tomb in India, but the circumstances of his life, character and the reason for this travels, together with an absence of solid evidence permit doubt.
13thC (Yuan/Mongol period)
By the early thirteenth century we are on surer ground.
Before 1217, Henry of Morungen had been to India (almost certainly our ‘India’) returning with a relic of St.Thomas which he presented to a newly established monastery-school in Leipzig before entering the same school as a monk. He died five years later. His character accords well with Baresch’s description of the “virum bonem”, for Henry had been a career solider and was awarded a small pension by the Margrave of Meissen “alta suae vitae merita.” He gave the money to the same school.
A pontifical letter of 1267 mentions a Dominican Vasinpace as having travelled “to the lands of the Indians and the Ethiopians”.
The evidence improves from the last quarter of the thirteenth century, though the writers were less high-minded: mercenaries, crusaders of the worst type and merchants make most of their number. The Catalan, Jourdain of Séverac (1280 ca.- after 1330) travelled to the east but there his aim was less to serve as a humble friar than a new Genghis Khan, a would-be strategist and military general launching a war of extermination. He does at least tell us there were numerous Latin merchants in the Persian Gulf by that time: multi mercatores latini venerunt, dicentes se fuisse presentes and he names one Genoese, a certain Jacopo, who agreed to carry a letter to Tabriz.
Three more writers from that mould, Guillaume Adam, Raymond Etienne and Renaud (Reynald) of Châtillon display religious fanaticism with relish for murder, though the last enjoyed bloodshed and rapine to a degree that overrode religious ideas. His inclinations were indulged first in Cyprus, then in Mesopotamia and finally in the lands bounding the Red Sea. ‘Nobles’ in the technical sense, and certainly literate, none of these is easily imagined taking an intelligent interest in the astronomical or botanical knowledge of foreign peoples. Still, it’s not entirely impossible that someone associated with them brought the content now in Beienecke 408 to wherever it was copied in the early fifteenth century.
Adam had commended Genoese already resident in the east to the Pope as potential pirate-crusaders, describing them as “the best sailors and most avaricious in the pursuit of gain.” Nor was he mistaken – exactly – but he underestimated their practicality. One Antonio Reccana, being provided a couple of galleys and told to go and attack the ‘Saracen’ soon found that sword-waving and looting were not the easiest way to turn a profit. He turned the galleys into his private fleet of merchantmen and continued, as before, to profit by maintaining good relations with suppliers and other traders in that region.
John of Montecorvino stands out as a person of exceptional quality. A former member of the Sicilian court, he was well received in China though was left very isolated and without regular contact with Europe. Were the content of the Voynich manuscript something sent to the west by him, or by some other traveller, one could imagine that the script might well present as a hybrid of Latin alphabet and glyphs as simpler versions of what were termed Chinese ‘hieroglyphs’ . In the same way, one might imagine Odoric of Pordenone, or John of Marignoli bringing back useful information – but please don’t confuse this for a ‘Voynich theory’.
I’ve already noted, some years ago, that the red characters on folio 1r look to me as if they attempt to copy forms originally written with a brush – and perhaps a vermillion brush, and that one would even work as a rebus for “Montecorvino” – as name-seals do in Asia. As far as I can discover, no previous Voynich writer had suggested these things, and none took up the same line of investigation for some years after – again so far as I know. At one stage, on mentioning the eastern missionaries again, I was accused of ‘trying to get on a bandwagon’ so it appears that the point had arisen again though nothing much followed my reposting my earlier survey.
Today I see that Rene’s Zandbergen’s site ( dated “2004-2016”) includes an assertion that the red characters look like a Chinese “book title” and that some person (unnamed and uncredited) has a “theory” that the Voynich manuscript’s “author” is an (unspecified) missionary to China. I should have liked a little more detail , but Zandbergen gives no reference or credit for it, and the site permits no comment or query, so all I can say is that whoever that unnamed ‘theory’ holder is, it isn’t me. I find that theories about any imagined “author” waste everyone’s time, including the proponent’s, and have never yet helped explain a single image in the manuscript.
Finally, two tombstones, both of Italians who died in China before 1438. One is dedicated to an Italian girl named
Katherine Katarina Vilioni (d.1342); the other has been said the tombstone of a Franciscan, Andrew of Perugia. (d.1332). Both are illustrated in the Babelstone blog, “Christian Tombstones of Zayton”(look it up online – the hotlink failed) Post is dated 25th November 2006. The second stone contains a mysterious script, raising the interesting possibility that foreigners in China used a script which had been invented – and without any link to those of the different religious traditions, as would be the case for use of Latin script, or Hebrew, or Arabic, Syriac, Greek or Avestan.