fol.86v The great sea ~ Pt1

PLEASE READ PART 2 FIRST  ‘fol 86v: The great sea ~ Pt 2 ]

PLEASE NOTE: The folio is referred to in this article by the original foliation published on Yale University’s bibliotecapleyades site.  The Beinecke Library site now gives the same diagram the foliation  “folio 85v and 86r” (Image scan 1006231) – note added 24/02/2016.


This roundel represents what Ibn Majid called simply ‘The Great Sea‘ meaning all the waters stretching east and south from modern Suez. The route taken in fol.86v apparently reaches the great sea near what we call the Persian Gulf, there being few routes to the sea from the western side of the Tarim basin.

fol 86v south roundel eye

Island ‘Flower of the Great Sea’.

It is something of a relief to reach the salt water roads, which connect immediately to matter in the botanical section and the ‘bathy-‘ section.  Many other forms and emblems in fol.86v (as  in other sections) show direct parallels with maritime traditions.

Unlike the west, where formal geographies paid less attention to the “stories of seamen”, concentrating instead on classical texts and Christian authors, the Islamic and later Asian geographers placed more faith in the records and reports offered by navigators, they being so careful and practiced in measuring time-and-distance between points, while having a knowledge of shorelines which considered sky, land and depths.

Note (Nov. 23rd., 2014) – for the existence of maritime charts in earlier Avignon and England see the marvellous work entitled The Sea and Englishness in the Middle Ages: maritime narratives, identity and culture.  Edited by Sebastian I. Sobecki and published by Boydell and Brewer.

The Chinese admiral Zeng-ho surely gained an  idea of the world different from the usual ‘square world’ model, when, by reason of his wide-ranging hunt for an escaped noble – a possible pretender to the throne – he scoured the world for decades, with a massive fleet equipped with so much in the way of valuable gifts to state heads that it was known throughout the eastern seas as the ‘treasure-fleet’.

As the number of voyages grew over  almost thirty years (1405-1433), the Admiral’s  favour fell with the Emperor, the seventh voyage ending (according to  formal reports) with Zeng-ho’s falling overboard in the Persian Gulf near the home of his late grandfather, Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar.

As far as we know all  his records, charts and any account of the wider world gained from those voyages were then destroyed, and China’s view of a flat, square earth never disturbed again until the arrival of the Jesuits in the sixteenth century.

(for more details and a superb sea-chart in which peninsula India is correctly represented as early as 1402, see the  wiki article).

Change in the maritime maps made in the Mediterranean had begun from the early fourteenth century, but from the mid-fifteenth, change is suddenly more rapid, early ‘outliers’ in the west including the Vinland map and the (sadly lost) de Virga map,  tentatively assigned to the first part of the fifteenth century.

Loss of the de Virga map (1411-15) is especially regrettable.  If we had it still and could subject it to modern tests, it might be proven that  ‘missing link’  in the history of portolan-charts that it appears to be.

As with fol.86v, the de Virga map contains some points in common with, on the one hand, customs of older China and on the other to that same remarkable Vinland map mentioned above… and again to a Maritime Atlas (D 4) in the Topkapi Serayi (illustrated further below). [In some sources, the spelling given is ‘Topkapi Serai’)

But where the de Virga map is immediately recognisable as fitting within the western style of map-making, fol.86v leans away from it, save in the northern roundel’s minimap, the architectural details and (from a still earlier period) the ‘Angel of the Rose’.

The likenesses which I’ve noted between the de Virga  map and Asian – or more exactly Chinese – forms are yet to be   explained satisfactorily, though they are clear enough.

Our photographs of it show the map presented as an acceptable circular ‘plate’ set within the encompassing ocean, but nonetheless the whole is formed square, and with diagonals emphasised.

Depiction of the landscape to its  north and east are typically Chinese in their style of drawing, akin to scroll paintings. (East is laid to the right* in the image below)

* that is, conceptually. As far as this photograph per se is concerned, west is at the top, and north to the right.

courtesy wiki article ‘de Virga map’.

Such conventions certainly pre-date Mongol rule in China.

The de Virga map itself is believed to have been produced in Venice.

But its most fascinating aspect – even more than its atypical precision or use of the “crows’-nest” view

‘crows nest’

– is its evident kinship to another maritime instrument,  one which has been rarely considered except as a token adjunct to the magnetised needle and compass rose: namely, the traverse board.

Because shorelines were mapped by calculations of time taken and line of sail, it is certainly possible that in other seas this simple instrument was a positive aid in chart-making. Its reticular grid is shown in the diagram  in the wiki article, and could explain otherwise curious presence of shorelines represented as pure arcs, and of waters drawn as a fan of dots in such works such as the Nautical Atlas (D 4) in the Topkapi Serayi.

To depict water as overlapping ‘fans’ is typical of Chinese maps, but not in this way, by using a dotted patterning.

Such features are more readily intelligible as expressions of the traverse-board’s peggings, made (say) with tissue overlaid on the board, than by the usual forms of geographic triangulation.

Mediterranean custom – as evidenced in the earlier medieval maps of Europe – retained an old habit of the Egyptians, denoting waters by parallel waved lines.

What has this to do with the South roundel in fol.86v?

Almost nothing – and that’s the whole of the point.

On fol.86v, nothing except perhaps its general arrangement in a square, with emphasised diagonals and its systematic representation of changing terrain by the use of specific patterns, associates it with Asian style and habit. It is not characteristically Chinese, but perhaps better considered SerIndian, though this overlaid upon what is, I believe, a Hellenistic foundation.

It resembles the maps of fifteenth-century China scarcely at all, nor does it conform to any other of the dominant styles in map-making familar to us from the early fifteenth century – except that schematic use of curves to represent shoreline, exemplified here in the South roundel.

Its arrangement does not accord with Europe’s pedagogic ‘T-O’ maps, nor even with the usual form for portolan charts (save in regard to the minimap, which I believe a later interpolation and which does fit perfectly into establish European custom. Otherwise it does not conform to them, nor to later maps of Europe or Islam, nor to the maps of fifteenth-century China.

Folio 86v  so very unlike western maps that, despite a century of concerted study of this manuscript, when I began work on this folio about three years ago, I could find only two suggestions (both very brief) and that fol.86v had ever been recognised as a map at all, and certainly by none as a map of the world.

I understand that more recently, and perhaps more noticeably over the past six months, opinion among Voynich researchers is moving in this direction, but as recently as a month ago this was not the case for some, and perhaps not for the majority, so in supposing myself  the first to  identify its range and many of its conventions and emblems, I trust that I have not simply failed to find and credit earlier work.

As I write, a new theory is being proposed, one which argues that fol.86v is the design for a European herbal garden; and of another which suggests it is a guide for a tour of Italy; the roundels are described as mushrooms.

The point here is certainly no complaint that these views are not mine, but the degree to which fol.86v is so plainly not ‘map-like’ to western eyes. It simply does not ‘look like a map’, and that is understandable, since it is not a map having many points of connection with the evolution of western cartography.

Neither is it plainly Chinese, nor Turkish nor obviously Islamic, but if we assume it was copied for some specific reason in the early fifteenth century, then it must accord with what some people or another recognised and could use as a map at that time.

There are some few details in it which occur in Islamic maps of about the tenth century, and other parts of the manuscript which show points in common with European works of about the same time … but I’ll leave them till they are relevant, treating the Islamic parallels for fol.86v and its South roundel in next post.

Since I hope not to test the patience of readers too much, I shall try in future to limit each post to about 1500 words. Do let me know if you find it more convenient to have all related matter in one long screed.

Postscript: I owe a debt of thanks here to Dana Scott, who raised the question of the de Virga map again recently, prompting me to take a long look at it again. I noticed its ‘crowsnest’ emblem for the first time, and also recognised the ‘star of navigation’ (or spirit of the masthead) within its barrel-like container.

I should add that all the ‘ladies’ in what I term the ‘bathy-‘ section, and those within barrels in what is often called the ‘astrological’ section are navigation-stars, though of course that use for stars need not preclude any other .. and more of that later, in the appropriate sections.


  1. Note: by ‘crediting earlier research’ I mean just that – research. The sort of hard work which results in a conclusion for which the researcher themselves accepts responsibility, and for which they can refer others to the sources which led to their conclusion.

    Vague and airy ‘jeux d’esprit’ are available in mailing lists and blog-comments, by the bucketload. On the rare occasions I offer ‘ideas’ they are noted as being so. For the rest, it is the result of either my previous or my current research, and I expect the usual acknowledgements when it is adopted and used.


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