Trade routes and scripts

‘… 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’.


[this post was originally published on Sept 9th. This seems a better place for it; a couple of additional illustrations].

Having so far traced a route from the region of the Black Sea to the borders of China, and thence to the southern seas, I pause to consider what scripts and languages the medieval trader or traveller was likely to encounter to this point.

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.

<strong>Fifteen years</strong> 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 <a href="; target="_blank">Frederick II</a>, 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).

<a href=""><img class="aligncenter size-full wp-image-2119" title="map languages c1220 tarim" alt="" src="; height="150" width="594" /></a>

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.

One hundred and fifty years or so earlier  (988 and 1030 AD), the Rus script – at least in Novgorod – had apparently <a href="; target="_blank">looked like this</a>.

And a century later(c.1340) <a href="; target="_blank">Pegolotti</a> 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<a href="; target="_blank"> Cuman queen</a>, whose son <a href="; target="_blank">Ladislaus IV</a> inherited the throne. He preferred <a href="; target="_blank">Cuman culture</a> and met Rudolf I)

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 <a href="; target="_blank"> wiki </a>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.

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.

<a href=""><img class="size-thumbnail wp-image-1920" title="fol 1r blog" alt="" src="; height="150" width="84" /></a> Aquil.tartar. (?)

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 <strong> 'northern <a href="; target="_blank">Goths</a>'</strong> – although others take Yule's reading  'G'  here as an error, and make of it 'C'  rendering the relevant passage thus …
<p style="padding-left:30px;"><em>per terram Cothay Imperatoris aquilonarium Tartarorum est via brevior et securior, ita quod cum nunciis infra V vel VI menses poterunt pervenire.</em> (Sinica Franciscana, 1, 349).</p>
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.

*  <a href="; target="_blank">Gothic script</a>

'Gothia' is still present on the circular <a href="; target="_blank">world-map by Fra Mauro</a> in the late 15thC, and the Baltic sea is called the 'sea of the Goths' 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’.  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.

In the tenth century however, before the effort to restore Hebrew as a vernacular language, we are told that Frankish was the usual international language of the Jews, even those 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. 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.

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.

On Europeans in Persia before the 15thC, see the entry at Encyclopaedia Iranica, from which I quote the following:

The will of Pietro Vioni, possibly a business agent, redacted in Tauris (Tabriz) in 1264, is the first document attesting Italian presence in Persia (Cecchetti). There are more substantial traces concerning the existence of a Genoese colony in Persia at the end of the 13th century. From this environment came the Genoese Buscarello di Ghisofili, a member of the royal guards (qurči), who was sent by the Il-khan Arḡun (r. 1284-91, q.v.) as ambassador to the pope and the king of France, bringing proposals for an alliance against the Mamluks of Egypt (Mostaert and Cleaves, eds., pp. 18, 29; Spuler, pp. 229-30). At that time Genoa and Venice had their own consulate in Tabriz.

A full bibliographic list of travellers along the ‘silk’ roads from the early centuries AD (Asian, Islamic, Byzantine and European) here.

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. I have no opinion on the point, though Tamil inscriptions have also been found there. A good, if anonymous paper which is available online, for example speaks 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 as 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. I should say, rather, Tibetan ‘scripts’ for 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.

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

The Book of the Cave of Treasures, though, means by ‘Aramean’, Syriac:

… and from Adam until this time they were all of one speech and one language. They all spake this language, that is to say, SÛRYÂYÂ (Syrian), which is ÂRÂMÂYÂ (Aramean), and this language is the king of all languages. Now, ancient writers have erred in that they said that Hebrew was the first [language], and in this matter they have mingled an ignorant mistake with their writing. For all the languages there are in the world are derived from Syrian, and all the languages in books are mingled with it. In the writing of the Syrians the left hand stretcheth out to the right hand, and all the children of the left hand (i.e. the heathen) draw nigh to the right hand of God; now with the Greeks, and Romans, and the Hebrews, the right hand stretcheth out to the left. [Both Hebrew and Syriac are written from right to left, but Greek and Latin from left to right.] cf. fol.57v

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.

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

* In the mid-nineteenth century, August Dillmann, among others, noticed that an Arabic manuscript in the Vatican (No. XXXIX; see Assemânî, Bibl. Orient. i. page 281) contained a version of the “Cave of Treasures,” which had clearly been made from the Syriac. The Cave of Treasures is dated to c.4thC AD.

*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.

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