Chronological strata ~ Avignon 1300s

To readers bemused by my referring to Mongolian elements in the diagram on folio 85v (‘Thundering jackets and fleur-de-lys’) I feel I owe an apology. It is not common knowledge that such elements are not so remarkable in a manuscript produced as late as MS Beinecke 408, even granted a production in mainland Europe.

Hidemichi Tanaka wrote a landmark paper in 1986 entitled ‘The Mongolian script in Giotto’s paintings at the Scrovegni Chapel at Padova’. It is published in Akten des XXV. Internationalen Kongresses fur Kunstgeschichte Pt.6 pp.167-74.

giotto_angel Raphael query

Angel from the Scrovegni chapel

What is a little unexpected about Giotto’s use of the Mongolian script is that its invention is dated to c.1269- just a couple of years after Giotto’s birth, and his paintings for the Scrovegni chapel in Padua,  using a version of the script, were completed not later than about 1305.

Even earlier examples occur in Assisi, where the  ‘Master of the Isaac stories’ (dated variously 1290-95 and 1296-1300) makes a better copy of individual letters, but turns the whole at right-angles to the page, as if an Asian fold-out book had been stitched to make it more nearly resemble a European manuscript. (Notice what seem to be ‘paragraphs’ here?).


So by 1315, Phagspa script was known to some foreigners in western Europe and we know the same true in southern China, where a tombstone carved in Phagspa script bears that date.  The stone itself bears Nestorian ornament but this carving seems plainly older than the inscription, which suggests that the original stone has been re-used, and possibly its older inscription re-carved rather later.

Giotto’s knowing the form of Phagspa script is said by Arnold to be due to his access to  documents brought to the Papal court –  chiefly, of course, by Franciscans.  On this point, see Lauren Arnold, Princely Gifts and Papal Treasures: The Franciscan Mission to China and Its Influence on the Art of the West, 1250-1350. Desiderata Press, 1999,  pp.124-125.

Avignon and not Rome was the Papal court at that time – from 1309 to 1377- so when we read of an archive and inventory having  ‘papirum tartaricorum’ it can be assumed the documents were in Avignon at the time. The inventory was made after the death in 1314 of  Clement V in 1314.

Arnold reproduces the relevant paragraphs from the documents. (ibid. p.37).

Now this array of events, I think you’ll see, connects rather well with our manuscript. As I’ve pointed out in several posts, there is very little reference to European mores, or to any place in Europe, in its imagery and the single exception – as far as places are concerned – appears to me to refer to Avignon and certainly to belong to the latest stratum of the manuscript’s imagery.

On Avignon as the only site in Europe represented on folio 86v,  see second half of my post:  ‘Green Ocean Matthew Paris DATES

fol 86v minimap western tower lgr

Three centuries later, as the keenest Voynich researchers will know, Athanasius Kircher received from one Fr. Mattias a copy of a ‘Voynich-like’ script.

Matthias was writing from Lyons, the somewhat sleepy town that had been given new life by the arrival of printers and proof-readers. (see  second half of my post ‘Voynich-like scripts’, 19th December 2014. )

script Doclea Kircher Lyons

So that’s why I think it important to note that not all the papal treasures had been held in Rome or in Avignon. In the year 1305 (again to quote Arnold),

‘Clement V had instructed the Papal treasurer, Michael de Encret, to send some of the Papal treasure .. north from Lyons to Avignon’.

Arnold, op.cit. p. 86.

Manuscript production – Avignon.

Quite some time ago, I referred to an important article which describes the processes which were involved in creating copies of Avignon’s records, books and archives preparatory to the return of the papal court to Rome in c.1375.

Political conditions led to a two-year wait in Viterbo, so the papacy actually returned in 1377.  It is important to note that the stationers’ companies in Avignon were chiefly Jewish.

On this subject of manuscript production, I published a couple of posts in ‘Findings’, giving one reference in the post of 6/11/2011.  Being one of my exploratory blogs, ‘Findings’ is not available on the open web any more, but here is the source I mentioned:

Dom Anselm M. Albareda, “The Preservation and Reproduction of the Manuscripts of the Vatican Library through the Centuries” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society , Vol. 104, No. 4, Dedication of Library Hall of the American Philosophical Society, Autumn General Meeting, November, 1959 (Aug. 15, 1960), pp. 413-418 (JSTOR 985621)

I’m reposting the reference now because – as I think some readers will have realised –  I’m narrowing the final stage of the manuscript’s chronology and arguing that it shows that our last or next-to-last version had been made in fourteenth century France, and that it expresses a particular link between the Papal court and the Jewish community, and the broader connections of both – including a link between the court of France and the Mallorcan Jewish cartographers.

– but more on the Avignon community a little later.)

Giotto’s rendering of Phagspa script was not perfect ….

Giotto Scrovigni chapel from Tanaka per tibetologic blog

but at least he didn’t turn it at right angles,  as the ‘Master of the Isaac stories’ does (dated variously 1290-95 and 1296-1300):

Jerome and  Assisi


Church of St.Francis, Assisi. Picture shows St.Jerome.

Here is an excerpt from Tanaka’s seminal article.  For this, and the other images of Phagspa in Franciscan paintings, I am indebted to writer(s?) of this blogpost: ‘No Prophet in Buddhism’, Tibeto-logic., November 10th., 2011.

Phagspa from Tanaka article per Tibetologic blog

It was the cut of that jacket, you see, which demanded attention and required me to give it a reasonable explanation … the manuscript has to be taken seriously if you want it to speak to you.

Preacher fleur partizan


Mongol court robe


fol 1r detail

fol 1r detail


  1. Oh – and for general information. Hellenistic in my posts does NOT mean ‘Byzantine’; it refers to the time of Alexander of Macedon and of his successors, until the Roman ascendancy. Byzantium was, technically, capital of the eastern *Roman* empire.


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