‘… these transactions breach the boundaries of the national and imperial territories of the Renaissance (boundaries which we unguardedly put in place as if they were the international frontiers of today)…. The circulation in maps across the terrain of a supposed east-west dichotomy affords just one example of the ways in which these dichotomies begin to collapse upon closer scrutiny’.


Having so far traced a route from the region of the Black Sea to the borders of China, I pause to consider the scripts and languages a medieval trader or traveller was likely to encounter to this point and those which are mentioned in connection with the maritime routes which lie ahead.

It’s a tedious sort of post, a byproduct of research into the imagery, but I add it with the faint hope that something here could save another researcher a little time and effort.

Accounts of these routes, including primary documents by Asian and western authors (the latter including Marignolli, Carpini, Clavijo and Rubruck) are in English translations here at Silk Road Seattle.

A blog called ‘Trade route resourceswhich ran from 2002-2011 is a valuable resource.

Fifteen years before the  Norman kingdom was established in Sicily, a Jurchen dynasty had been established in northern China; it ended fifteen years before the death of Frederick II, the Emperor.

In that brief period (c.1115-1215),  it would have been possible – at least in theory – for a person to have made his way by the higher road from the Balkans to China’s eastern seaboard using only three languages: Cuman, Persian and one of either Uyghur or Jurchen (the circled area is the approximately that of the Tarim basin).

The Kara-Khitai held the centre of the route at the time. They had adopted China’s imperial style, but used Chinese, Khitan, Persian and Uyghur as their administrative languages. Biran describes their religions and mentions the probable role of fire-worship. (p.173)

Michael Biran,The Empire of the Qara Khitai in Eurasian History: between China and the Islamic world, CUP, 2005.

One hundred and fifty years or so earlier  (988 and 1030 AD), the Rus script – at least in Novgorod – had apparently looked like this.

And a century later(c.1340) Pegolotti would describe a high northern route to China, telling his readers they should take with them from Serai on the Black Sea a servant able to speak Cuman, since  by now Cuman was understood almost everywhere. (During Montecorvino’s lifetime, Hungary had had a Cuman queen, whose son inherited the throne).

Between these two events, before the advent of the Plague and while Roger Bacon lived, it was possible for a single company go from China in the opposite direction to as far as the western coast of France.  It was not only possible, it was done.

Thanks to the efforts of Wallis Budge, we know that it was in Bordeaux, in 1288, that a company of Chinese  Nestorian Uyghurs met   Roger’s king, Edward I of England. The Uyghurs had come west as emissaries for both the Mongols and the Nestorian Patriarch of Persia, though it is evident that religious pilgrimage held as great an importance for them as their diplomatic assignment, it having been in the hope of seeing Jerusalem that they had first requested permission to leave China.  Their route went across the north, and through Trebizond, and shows a close association with the Genoese.

The  wiki article gives a convenient summary, but more detail is available in the full account, available online as a pdf.  Mar Sawma’s languages were Chinese, Turkish, and Persian.

Aquil.tartar (?)

If any closer contact was made between the Uyghur embassy and Roger Bacon in 1288,  it was most likely at second-hand, and though the order of Friars Minor, to which Bacon belonged and to which was entrusted, at that time, the task of arranging reciprocal diplomatic visits. The party was of considerable size, and had stopped in Sicily to meet the Emperor. During the return voyage, it spent a full winter in Genoa. Their time in Rome shows the leader more than worthy of his diplomatic task, managing to defuse the inquisitorial interviews in Rome – interviews of a type which (as we learn from other sources) would later end the journeys and lives of other Nestorian prelates. At least one had been diverted from his pastoral journey between the Nestorian partriarchy and the Nestorian see in southern India by a summons to Rome. We are told that he and the books he carried were burned.

John of Montecorvino, formerly Frederick’s military advisor in Sicily, at some time entered the Franciscan order and was the first among them to be sent to the extreme east. He arrived by sea into the  southern port of China in 1294, after spending thirteen months in southern India. He warns later against the sea voyage and interestingly, if Yule reads it correctly, in the same letter seems still to consider the Cuman territories those of the  ‘northern Goths – although others take Yule’s reading  ‘G’  here as an error, and make of it ‘C’  rendering the relevant passage thus …

per terram Cothay Imperatoris aquilonarium Tartarorum est via brevior et securior, ita quod cum nunciis infra V vel VI menses poterunt pervenire. (Sinica Franciscana, 1, 349).

According  to Pegolotti, the journey from Tana to Peking took from 259 to 284 days.

It has occurred to me, in passing, that if Montecorvino were using oblique language as a form of encoding , then he might have meant the script, and/or language of ‘Gothic lands’ as brief and convenient, as well as the route best employed.  To refer indirectly to shared culture, unknown to likely readers, is one of the best of all ‘ciphers’ and one that is near-instinctive and thus universal. And in the same way, the old Gothic script might be intelligible to member of religious order dedicated to preaching abroad.  But, as I say, Yule’s reading of the word is often considered erroneous.

Gothic script

additional note: (Feb 20th. 2013) I’ve just seen this  post by Rich Santacoloma with more examples of the ‘bird glyph’. Readers have added some interesting comments to it, too.


Which were the most widely used spoken  linguae francae  of traders in the eastern seas, before the fourteenth century, is difficult to determine. More difficult still is to discover what scripts might have been used across different ‘nationalities’.

In Ch’uan-chou (Zayton), the foreigners’ port in China, tombstones have been found written in Syriac script (Estrangela), but beyond the greeting and although some of considerable length they cannot be read, being in “some Turkic language with possibly some Chinese words in transliteration.”

Perhaps it’s Cuman too, who knows?

Elsewhere in southeast Asia, parallel inscriptions are known, but by reason of being set up in fixed locations tell us about residents and visitors rather than any linguae francae. A system of buying and selling used in India, conducted in silence by means of finger-signs, seems to have reduced even the need for an interpreter. At the same time, trade was organised by family- or guild- based merchant companies, so that written communications used the language common to all. This is so of the Jewish merchants (see Goitein’s studies) as of the Gujarati and, probably, the Karimi, although this last was a multi-lingual and (although information is wanting) a multi-ethnic commercial guild among whom some were Arabs, others Egyptian and others again from India. It appears that all were obliged to become Muslim, and thus to have Arabic, although information on that point is not unequivocal.

see also: ‘Afterword to Routes and Scripts’

In the tenth century however, before the effort to restore Hebrew as a vernacular language, we are told that Frankish Greek was the usual international language of the Mediterranean and European Jews, with Frankish a secondary tongue that was used even within the Byzantine territories. Another source mentions the ‘French of Cyprus’ as a separate dialect. The long-ranging traders known as Radhanites  are today described as Jews, although earlier accounts of them, especially by the Jewish community of Baghdad, do not regard them as such. (It is possible that they were at that time the semi-Jewish Athinganoi of the Byzantine records). Medieval Muslim geographers record the Radhanites as speaking Arabic and Persian, (as well as Greek, Spanish, “Frankish” and “Slav”) though which script/s they employed is not mentioned in any of the sources I have found.

Tamil and Old Javanese are mentioned in connection  in the spice trade of south-east Asia, the scripts being the Sumatran and kawi. They also refer to  one or more of the Sabaic/Yemeni group,  and to Malayalam ~ all these in the context of the Indian ocean’s internal maritime trade.

Extremely small script is characteristic of inscriptions on palm-leaf, a genre which crosses many ‘national’ borders from the earliest times to the present day, from northern Africa to the Himalayas and from southern Arabia through the southern seas as far as China. Most are much neater and more regular than the Sabaic minuscule illustrated above. An idea of scale, below.

During the mid-fourteenth, Marco Polo claims acquaintance with ‘four languages’ of the seric lands, but again there is no mention of script in those accounts.

Polo  generally avoided the maritime route, too. Scholars still debate the question of which four languages Polo might have spoken,  but Persian, Uyghur and  Arabic are presumed to be three, with a Mongolian dialect the most probable fourth. To read and write formal Chinese characters was a continuing and life-long study within China; one doubts that a merchant would have the time or leisure to pursue it, and the long connection between China and Persia made Persian the lingua franca in the Chinese ports during Montecorvino’s time. By the time of de’ Conti, that situation had not changed, and he himself may have learned a dialect of Persian peculiar to Lars.

Due to the matter which is referenced in certain imagery of the Voynich, and for the early presence of the Armenians in early Nusantara (about which I wrote in another place some while ago in relation to trade ceramics), I understand that a suggestion has been made that the Voynich script might be one used in medieval Thailand. (For languages used in Sabah see links given in this post). I have no opinion on the issue, though Tamil inscriptions have also been found there. A good, if anonymous paper available online speaks, for example, of

the handful of medieval inscriptions written in Tamil language and script that have been found in Southeast Asia and China, mainly in Sumatra and peninsular Thailand. These texts arose directly from trade links between south India and certain parts of Southeast Asia and China, which involved the residence in those regions of Tamil-speaking Indians. Several of these overseas Tamil inscriptions mention well-known medieval Indian merchant associations. Since they were so intimately linked to sea trade connections between South and Southeast Asia, these texts – their locations, their contents, timing, and the contexts in which they were written – provide an interesting sidelight on an important period in the economic history of the region.

Another language, rarely considered, is Tibetan which became very widely known through its remaining the preferred language of the Buddhist scriptures within Mongolian China, despite their having been formally translated – first into Chinese characters and later into the newly developed Mongol script. It is conceivable that its being a phonetic script led to its wider use among non-Chinese.

I should say, rather, Tibetan scripts – the number of variants is considerable. That illustrated below is a form of Tibetan found at Dunhuang. When reversed, the script shows some similarity in size, spacing and even letter-forms to Voynichese. I add illustrations; in a long dull post it may amuse..

8th C AD. Dunhuang. (right – reversed)


Tibetan is among the scripts derived from Aramaic, the adminstrative language and script of Persia before the Islamic period.

A myriad varieties of Aramaic script are recorded, from the terrifyingly cursive to the superbly lucid.

However, the continuing wide use of Persian as an eastern lingua franca, as well as the very long-enduring influence of the Sasanid period make evolution of the Aramaic script interesting – and perhaps even relevant – in the context of Voynich studies.  Its derivatives are the scripts found along most of the older land routes, and some of the sea-routes.

The manuscript below shows below an overwritten Aramaic text of about the 6thCAD, the overwriting dated to the tenth. (Ms 035, SchØyen Collection)

Aramaic script and descendants.

A very good overview with reference and images at Encyclopaedia Iranica ‘Aramaic’.

By medieval historians of Islam, Aramaic and its script was considered the world’s original language, from which they held that even Hebrew derived.

Among the many recognised as being scripts derived or evolved from  Aramaic are some from  the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The list altogether  includes..

..Nabataean, Syriac, Palmyrean, Mandaic, Sogdian, Mongolian and probably the Old Turkic script.(Omniglot)

‘Ancient Scripts’ adds Hatran, and in the second generation:

… Kharosthi and Brahmi scripts;  Pahlavi – and from it the Avestan and Sogdian scripts, then through  Sogdian, Uighur, Mongolian, and Manchurian. (Ancient Scripts)

Palmyrean also shows affinities with Sabaic minuscule.

I’d be inclined to add here too, a script known in  Georgia on the east coast of the Black sea. It was  recorded by Cidi Celebi as ‘Ubyk’ but others identify it as being used for Abkhaz.

The following image of it is not meant as an argument for the source of Voynichese script, but is here only because illustrations are so difficult to find.



* I have no particular opinion about the language.  In purely statistical terms the probability is high that ‘Voynichese’ represents a language and/or script now extinct.

* for previous comparisons between the script used in ms Beinecke 408 to any of those  mentioned above or in other posts, I can only refer you to search engines and  ~ except for any also used in western medieval Europe, which may be mentioned on

*for the family tree of Aramaic languages see e.g. this chart

*for Professor Stolfi’s view that the Voynich language is Jurchen, see my  references.

* the extract of Tibetan script comes from SchØyen ms2100.

I’m happy to refer others to details of my sources, as wanted.

11 Replies to “ROUTES AND SCRIPTS.”

  1. I see that my link to the Syriac Book of Medicines now takes you to different material. Sorry about the Syriac version, but the translation can be read online through Search Wallis Budge AND Book of Medicines (or Syriac medicines etc.)


  2. For detailed discussion of the overland route, the roads, towns and place-names, in terms of Claudius Ptolemy and his times, see
    Jeffrey D. Lerner, ‘Ptolemy and the Silk Road: from Baktra Basileion to Sera Metropolis’, East and West, Vol. 48, No. 1/2 (June 1998), pp. 9-25.
    Published by Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente (IsIAO
    available through JSTOR.

    the article contains a good, large, black-and-white version of Ptolemy’s map, with roads and place names.


  3. What a heck!!! This is GEORGIAN script right here “The manuscript below shows below an overwritten Aramaic text of about the 6thCAD, the overwriting dated to the tenth. (Ms 035, SchØyen Collection)” This is Georgian!!! It will drive you crazy when you are Georgian and your alphabet is labeled as “Aramaic”, your songs – “Gregorian”, and so on!!! How the heck that happens? Who told you it’s “Aramaic” where did you find it.


    1. Zviad –
      If you don’t believe me, here’s wiki evidence:
      “Mainly through Phoenician and Aramaic, two closely related members of the Semitic family of scripts that were in use during the early first millennium BCE, the Semitic alphabet became the ancestor of multiple writing systems across the Middle East, Europe, northern Africa and South Asia”
      “The Georgian alphabet is of uncertain provenance, but appears to be part of the Persian-Aramaic (or perhaps the Greek) family.”

      Omniglot used to be an excellent site, with full information on related scripts and (separate thing) related languages, but it seems to have become a little dumbed down of late and is now filled with advertisements, so I won’t direct you there.

      The wiki article is the ‘History of the Alphabet’ but any good text on linguistics and history will explain the ‘Aramaic family’ of scripts. Hope this helps.

      PS the over-text is identified not as Georgian but as Ubyk. The under-text is not only in Aramaic script, but in the Aramaic language.


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