fol 86v: The great sea: Part 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 folation  “folio 85v and 86r” (Image scan 1006231) – note added 24/02/2016.

Note (Nov. 23rd., 2014 – In retrospect, I rather wish I’d made this post the first of the two!)

Given that I’ve described this South roundel as showing the southern seas,  (or more exactly all the seas of the eastern and southern world – what Ibn Majid called simply ‘The great sea’ – there being no conception then that the sea might be assigned national boundaries), so one might expect it to include some familiar geographic feature, such as the profile of India.

But as the following illustrations  will show, I hope,  the roundel’s containing a central sea bordered by various irregular inlets and estuaries is not only typical but fairly advanced for a work made before the middle of the fifteenth century. We have only a single Chinese map (1404) as a definite exception to the rule that medieval maps were ignorant of India’s shape.

The Persian Gulf, and some hint of India’s western coastline appears in Pietro Vesconte’s map of 1321 (illustrated below) but then in 1406, with the Latin translation of Claudius Ptolemy’s works, the whole of the Latin-speaking west reverted to the ideas of a thousand years earlier, revering such classical authors.  Ptolemy’s  co-ordinates were taken even more seriously in the west than in Byzantium.

Ptolemy’s notion of India had it an oblong cut by rivers which flowed due east and emptied into the East Sea on a shore shared with China. The same Roman ideas inform the Tabula Peutingeriana.

The list of western map-makers can then be followed almost to the end of the sixteenth century without finding an exception. India’s form is unknown to the maker of the Laurentian Medici map in 1351, to Pirrus de Noha in the early fifteenth century, to the maker of the Duns Scotius map of 1505, and even to the makers of an improved Ptolemaic map in1561 ~  that is, more than a hundred years after the most likely date for the Voynich manuscript, and nearly a century after the Portuguese voyages.

Not even the the de Virga map (c.1440) can be excepted,here.  Its amorphous waters with their various extensions  present a more three-dimensional view and do include Arabia but otherwise  what it offers is a  fair comparison to the schematic forms seen in the South roundel.

de Virga map (lost). detail shows region from East Africa to China. The roughly-oblong promontory is Arabia.

In spirit, perhaps  al-Tusi’s map of 1332 is most useful as a comparison to fol.86v’s image, despite the circular form of his world and the centre being set at  Mecca.

It does recognise the Caspian as an enclosed body of water, and places the ‘Indian’ shores in  a way that explains why, from a point on the northern shores of the Indian ocean our path next touches land down the African coast, to pass thereafter to the far west by what was evidently the sub-Saharan corridor.

Because of the shape of India is not defined, either, in fol.86v, it isn’t possible to know whether the route from the Tarim does pass, as I’ve supposed, to the Persian Gulf near Hormuz, or whether in fact this group who made the map were able to take the road southward from the basin’s eastern end. In that case, the route could have passed through the eastern side of the Himalayas and down the Irrawaddy to the sea. This area was relatively well known, since it once marked the crossing towards Taxila and the route overland to the Indus. It is also – and fairly remarkably – indicated in Vesconte’s map (1321).

It is by reference to the strong Hellenistic influence in many of the manuscript’s sections, and similarities to arts still seen in that area that I’ve opted for the more westerly route, and if that is the one intended, then so far most of the map lies within the borders of Alexander’s conquests.

[shortened to this point 17/04/2015]


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