The Rhone, the Radhanites and the Juifs du Pape ~ essay in outline.

[formatting issues fixed – 17/03/2017]

I’m deferring posts about manuscript production in Avignon (post-1377 AD), and about the history of Piacenza’s San Savino, of Fiesole, the “Hermits” and the “Blues”, to pull together a few threads which show why I think this ‘Avignon’ line worth pursuing, sitting (as it were) at the centre.

Some of these various items are:-

  • The manuscript’s ‘lower case’ letters. They are written in a style which places far less emphasis on verticals than we see in manuscripts originating in the Latin world after the Caroline period.  Its letters don’t look ‘sharp’ or place much more weight on vertical than on horizontal or curved elements. I’m speaking here of the letters’ conception rather than the writing hand as such ~
  • folio 1v script
  • As an example of a script more evenly weighted, I illustrated several non-Latin scripts, including a Greek cursive, but that shown below is dated to 1330 and is “from Spain or somewhere southern”.  It’s Sephardic cursive.
  • sephardic cursive c.1330
  • Where passages of text in MS Beinecke 408 have a high proportion of the “4o” glyph/s, the whole page looks a bit sharper, doesn’t it?  This is a detail from folio 19v.  Dana Scott identified the plant as a Rose, an identification I follow.  The same passage includes some of the “gallows” glyphs, so called. They are all shown here, as transcribed by the late Tim Rayhel, whose pen name was “Glen Caston”.
  • detail folio identified by Dana Scott as the Rose
  • Forms having a similar appearance to some of those so-called ‘gallows’ glyphs can be seen in certain chancery-, or ‘diplomatic-‘ hands that were written in, or influenced by, papal minuscule during the eleventh to fourteenth centuries, but the style is noted chiefly in the twelfth and thirteenth. The example below was written in the middle of the twelfth, in (or for)  a monastery in Piacenza. Jim Reeds first brought this example to the notice of Voynich studies.
script 12thC gallows Parma Capelli Dictionary

document of San Savino, Piacenza, 12thC.

  • I would have liked to add another comparative example from a Dalmatian document, but the various levels of permission needed would have delayed the post by weeks!.
  • Most of the plants represented in MS Beinecke 408 are, in my opinion, not plants native to the Mediterranean.  In having come to that view I find I agree with the seventeenth century possessor of the book, Georg Barsch (or ‘Baresch’), who in writing to Athanasius Kircher [1] spoke of them as “herbae peregrinae” and said they were unknown to contemporary German botanists. In his time, the general belief among European Christians, a belief shared initially by Kircher, was that everyone living east of Suez was descended from a son of Noah who had repopulated the east from Egypt after the Biblical Flood –  so while Barsch might really have meant “ancient Egyptian” when he said he thought the manuscript’s subject was “ancient Egyptian” matter, he might as easily have meant ancient matter gained from further east.

    fol 22r detail pods

    fol 22r detail pods. I identify these as the pods of Terminalia belerica, one of the ‘myrobalans’. Also known as T.arjuna, White Marudah, and Arjuna myrobalan.

  • Within the imagery in MS Beinecke 408 attitudes are expressed and specific motifs used which are very plainly not those of Latin Europe. Parallels for some occur in works made in Europe between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, but their precedents are found in works produced east of Europe, including Syria and/or Egypt.              One example is shown below, inset into a detail from MS Beinecke 408, folio 34v.  I have chosen this example of the great many from MS Beinecke 408, because it is very difficult to wave away by producing vaguely similar Latin forms as ‘comparative’ images.  It shows two distinctly different animal bodies conjoined under a single ‘head’, though the face is not depicted. The inset shows again how two creatures having clearly different bodies (though in this case, I think, intended for the same species) are again given one head between them.  That image is from a manuscript written in Syria but long retained in Cairo and the image itself is not drawn but formed from micrographic letters.  Micrography in this sense is characteristic of the Jews, and often more particularly of Karaite Jews. What I am reliably informed resembles a non-Jew’s efforts to copy micrographic letters is seen in folio 9v, a folio whose botanical image is differently constructed from the majority in MS Beinecke 408.
  • f34v 0dd bodies
  •  Folio 86v’s tower, with its conical roof, is a type found outside France, but is characteristic of southern France and the Rhône valley. Here, in a detail, we see one drawn with a ‘triangular’ court, a combination allowing me to suggest that this is meant as sign for Avignon, which had been remarkable in not excluding Jews from the security it offered its citizens,  even before the establishment of the papal court.  The oldest accounts of medieval east-west trade into Europe from as far as China attributes knowledge of those routes to Radhanites, who are said to have carried eastern plants and goods into Europe no later than the eighth and ninth centuries, and to have had the Rhône valley as the western terminus of their routes.fol 86v minimap western tower lgr

Relations between papal Avignon, Mallorca (Majorca) and parts of Spain were constant and close, as were those between Spain and parts of Italy. This is so of the Jews in each as of the Latins.  A sub-dialect of Provençal known as Rodanenc (Fr. Rhodanien) was spoken in medieval Avignon, a variety of which – known as Judeo-Provençal or Shuadit –  was spoken by the Jewish community. The last has been considered extinct since 1977. Provençal is by some considered a type of Occitan, though that issue remains contentious. I believe it may have been Glen Caston, or perhaps Jorge Stolfi, who first suggested that the month-names inscribed on folios  of MS Beinecke 408 were in Occitan. Since then, Sixto among others has  seen closer connection to a dialect of Judeo-Catalan [2], and quite recently this well-established ‘Occitan’ view has been re-investigated, or re-discovered by various writers to Stephen Bax’ site, including Bax himself.

I don’t see much purpose in summarising the history of Avignon and its treatment of Jews; I refer readers to the ‘Avignon’ entry in Norman Roth’s Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia (2003).

Avignon stands a little inland from the coast, but the wide mouth of the Rhône makes that no more evident to the traveller than that London is not precisely a coastal city.

That trade extending between China and the  Rhône valley, was attested as early as the eighth and ninth centuries, by two early Islamic geographers who described the routes as ones only travelled at that time by Radhanites, classed as Jews by those writers.  The routes’ net-like pattern joins in the east in China, while the western ‘knot’ lay in the valley of the Rhône. Before coming to consider the Radhanites, I had already recognised in folio 86v a map which (exclusive of its north roundel, which references the Mediterranean) shows only eastern ways: the routes overland (the ‘silk’ roads) and by sea (the ‘spice roads’) within the eastern sphere, and the sub-Saharan route I think to as far as north Africa.

Few scholars today derive the term “Radhanite” from the Latin Rhodanus, but none doubt that the Rhône valley was the western terminus of their trading routes until the tenth century, at least.  As I’ve explained in treating central figures in the month roundels, some comparable practices appear in some few Latin manuscripts of the Caroline period.  (see ‘Cross-eyed feline and red splash’ (October 29, 2012) discussing an apotropaic mark and comparing it with one from a Caroline manuscript).

Extant Latin texts make no reference to ‘Radhanites’ so far as I know,  but we have evidence that some of the goods which the Islamic authors say were being brought from the east at that time only by the Radhanites were certainly known in parts of Europe during the ninth century. The Islamic authors refer to: ” musk, aloes, camphor, cinnamon, and other products of the Eastern countries” as Radhanite items of trade.  In an earlier post, I discussed those materials, citing Riddle’s seminal article in evidence of the European side.[3] Thereafter, we have only brief references to  Radhanites until the twelfth century – by which time papal minuscule had now developed those characteristic elongated ascenders.

The Radhanites’ disappearance from Europe leaves some traces, however. An image in a manuscript whose text is written in a southern dialect of Occitan (Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale, Codex Palatina 586 folio 16v) shows one figure in a costume that appears also in images of traders along the silk road during the early medieval period. (I am indebted to Ellie Velinska for having drawn attention to that Occitan manuscript in the context of Voynich studies.)

We hear mention of Radhanites less directly in the eleventh century, and from two Jewish sources.  A rabbi of Mainz[4] mentions in his own time that Przemyśl (in south-eastern Poland) and Kiev (in the Ukraine) are sites  on the Radhanites’ routes, while in the twelfth  century – when the document in Piacenza was written –  Isaac ben Dorbolo (or Durbal)* travelled to Poland in the company of Radhanite merchants.

While some of the older Jewish references to the Radhanites leave some doubt as to whether they had been Jews before the Islamic conquests, it would appear that by the twelfth century, the former Radhanites had vanished or been absorbed into one or another of the required Abrahamic faiths.  We also see an easy shift, about the eleventh century, to use of those routes by Islamic traders and, extending into Latin Europe, by the Jews.  As Cosman et. al.  put it:

Even after the near monopoly of Radhanite trade had come to an end… the Cairo geniza documents regularly demonstrate that in the 11th to 14th centuries, Jewish traders were completely integrated in the Islamic global market that encompassed Africa, the Iberian peninsula, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Asia.

Madeleine Pelner Cosman, Linda Gale Jones, Handbook to Life in the Medieval World, (3 vols), Infobase Publishing, 2009. p.252

Their trading routes not only operated within territories of Islam but passed beyond.  The same ancient route from the Rhone valley, passing as it still does through Arles and Lyon to Verdun, and thence to Cologne, and Prague, Kiev and Cherson-and-Kaffa, continued in use, political changes and upheavals permitting.

It was in the twelfth century that Benjamin ‘of Tudela’ travelled for thirteen years, largely following the same routes recorded as known only to the Radhanites three centuries before.

Benjamin left his native Spain in 1160, first travelling to France, then to various city-states in Italy, Constantinople, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, Khusistan, Samarkand, and even further east: to parts of India and of China. He passed through Egypt, but did not return immediately, going to Abyssinia and following the Nile into Nubia.  In northern Europe he went to Germany, Bohemia, Slovenia and Russia, everywhere noting the remaining population of Jews, their occupations, the health of the congregation and the regard (or lack of it) which they received.  He returned finally to Spain in 1173.

Part of the matter in MS Beinecke 408 appears to reflect that contact with the northern route leading to the far east, a route which began from the Black Sea.

The ‘minimap’ on folio 86v shows an entry into the Mediterranean from about the position of Trebizond/Trabzon, the ancient Trapezus, and some of the ‘bathing ladies’ are drawn according to a very rare convention, one attested only (so far as I know) in works from pre-Christian Kiev.  (Kiev was not Christian until converted near the end of the tenth century by king Vladimir Sviatoslavich.) The convention I mean is that which represents a figure’s legs with very heavy thighs, but with calves reduced to little more than the thickness of a bone.   The custom is so rare that I believe it permits us to attribute some parts of the manuscript’s  ‘bathy’ section to precedents gained from that region and era, but certainly to non-Latin Christian origins.

pre-Christian deities Kiev. Ascribed to the ?8-9thC AD

pre-Christian deities Kiev. Ascribed to the ?8-9thC AD

detail from bathy section







At the same time, that same region and the northern route had brought westward astronomical matter found in a Spanish Jewish text dated to the fourteenth century – again, the time of the Avignon papacy.  The manuscript was originally part of the Sasson collection, so unfortunately broken up and dispersed.  MS Sasson 823 was obtained by the Laurence J. Schoenberg Collection at the University of Pennsylvania, where it is preserved as  MS LJS 057, Spain, Catalonia, and dated 1361 [A.D.].  Given the close similarity seen here between the way those figures’  limbs are drawn (note especially the broad feet, shown without any arch), such as we find in other (though related) folios in MS Beinecke 408,  I would suggest that “translation” of  textual matter which had been gained from that northern region had been paralleled by a  “translation” of the original imagery with greater or less success.  But disparity between the sections in MS Beinecke 408 is no so noticeable, especially in relation to its imagery, that this northern provenance for the ‘shapely ladies’ applies only to those particular folios and sections.  By contrast, the botanical and ‘pharma’ (-lading) sections, show no evidence of such northern affect and even this detail from 76v includes a distinctively Asian canopy.

(detail) Beinecke MS 408, f.76v











We know that astronomical data in MS Sassoon 823/LJS 057 reached Latin Europe, too, from the north, but came separately and via Byzantine Christians established in Trebizond.

It is of interest to us that the first folios of MS Sassoon 823/LJS 057 contain astronomical tables for the latitude of Perpignan, a town which was part of an independent kingdom of Majorca (Mallorca) from 1172 and 1344. Those tables in the Spanish-Jewish work are dated to 1361 – about ten years before the last of the recognised Popes of Avignon returned the court to Rome.

After the establishment of the papal court in Avignon (c.1305) relations with Mallorca were immediate, and remained close and benevolent, most of the Avignon Popes like the Mallorcan dynasty providing a safe haven for all in their territories. Our records show that Jews temporarily driven from Avignon at one stage had taken refuge in Catalonia, and that when persecuted in Catalonia, Jews re-settled in Majorca and Avignon.  The common region rather than notions of ‘national’ borders are the critical factor, and dialects of Provençal and Occitan were being spoken throughout.

Persecution of the Jews in Mallorca began to resemble that in Catalonia with the advent of Pedro, surnamed the ‘Cruel’ but until the departure of the Popes from Avignon in 1375/7, Jews of the city on the Rhône remained under the personal protection of the Pope, giving rise to their description as “Juifs du Pape”.  This situation makes more intelligible the approach taken by the Avignon librarian who was set the task of duplicating those hundreds of documents and manuscripts in preparation for a return to Rome.

Elements  in MS Beinecke 408, and especially in its folio 86v, further indicate the late acquisition of its model by makers of the new ‘cartes marine’, a genre for which Mallorca and Genoa would become so widely known.  This again adds to the probability that our present manuscript, or its immediate source-works, had been gained from that common region of Mallorca/Avignon/northern Spain – though this is not to deny other ties between that region and certain parts of Italy or of France, for example.  These are considered further in connection with Piacenza’s “Hermits of St. Jerome” and the “Blues” of Spain who came to be associated with an island in the Venetian Lagoon, the island of ‘St. George in the seaweed”.

That detail shown above, from folio 76v tells us of  influence from regions further to the east than the Black Sea.

The canopy is of early Indian and of Asian type – though again this should not cause any particular surprise.

  • Asian Influence in early medieval Europe.

Asian influence appears in western Europe even in certainly Latin imagery before the fourteenth century.  Lynn White was one of the first to draw attention to the fact, and to comment on it.  His papers still deserve study today, though in his time European histories were still being affected by a nineteenth century expectation that Europe’s art and cultural history drew on none but those of classical Greek and Rome, other than what the European set out to fetch and chose to adopt.  The world east was  imagined as inherently passive in the process, and as having no effect on Europe before the time of da Gama and the Portuguese invasion of the Indian Ocean!

Curiously enough, that antiquated attitude still lingers in pockets, and there has been quite concerted resistance to the idea that any manuscript made (as we suppose) in mainland Europe during the time before da Gama could possibly refer to, or draw from, more ancient and more eastern sources. In Voynich studies, I found to my surprise in 2010 that an argument was being offered that the Asian cloud-band motif, being present in MS Beinecke 408, was ‘proof’ of German authorship for MS Beinecke 408.  More astonishing was that the person offering this idea met with no apparent contradiction among ‘Voynicheros’, and the idea by then had become so entrenched that I was forced to defend the opposite view in the face of fairly vehement attack, for several years.  Finally, when I quoted sources from German authors, in 2014, the issue was reduced to a silence which is not necessarily the sign of an audience convinced.

In the wider world, scholars have become more interested in such topics during the past sixty years or so and articles are many.  A recent work which might engage the amateur researcher is Alan Borg’s discussion of the cintamani, or “wish-fulfilling jewel” motif as it appears in Romanesque works.[5] Other scholarly works might be cited, as some have been in my earlier posts. Whether the point will be accepted, or if accepted whether my name will be acknowledged in this connection by Voynicheros is yet to be seen.

SO:  along those routes which, as we are told in the ninth century, were known then only to the Radhanites, there came goods, people, forms of imagery, and other ideas (including use of the Indian numerals) from that time on.  These things reached the west – some sooner and some later – through the Black Sea, through Syria, through Egypt and in some cases through north Africa, the last having come in some cases across the sub-Saharan corridor. It bears repeating that ceramics made in southeast Asia were being traded to old Cairo and as far as Timbuctu before the fourteenth century.

Within MS Beinecke 408, the imagery shows evidence of its sections’ having come variously from these lines of travel.  So if that court-and-tower added (fairly late) to the content of folio 86v is meant for Avignon, then gathering of such disparate material at that point would be appropriate. If the ‘gallows’ forms are, indeed, related to those seen in papal minuscule, then we should suggest that the written part of our text had taken its form rather late: between  the twelfth and fourteenth century, with our  present manuscript later again, being dated to the fifteenth.


Disclaimer: I am not a palaeographer.


1. The translation is by Philip Neal, whose web-pages include a transcription of the original, and notes on the translation.

2. Comment made on February 17, 2011 by Arthur Sixto, as response to a post on Nick Pelling’s ciphermysteries blog.  The number of comments to that post was so many, that for readers’ convenience I quoted Sixto’s again in a post entitled ‘Spain 10thC’ ( Feb. 8th., 2013) and do so again for the same reason. Sixto wrote: To me the months [names] seem to correspond slightly better to Catalan than Occitan. June for instance, spelled with “ou” corresponds to Catalan pronunciation, in French writing. “ny” would be Catalan relative to Occitan “nh” or French/Italian “gn”. So the person might have ties with the North of Catalonia (and could have a French influence) …. Interestingly, many Jews in Catalonia spoke Catalanic, a Catalan dialect close to Shuadit, i.e. Judaeo-Provençal (i.e. Judaeo-Occitan). I apologise to Pelling for omitting reference to the specific post at ciphermysteries.

3. The first post mentioning Riddle’s article is ‘Of Angels, angelica and oliphants’ (January 25, 2013).   John M.Riddle, ‘The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages’, Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, Bd. 49, H.2 (JUNI 1965), pp. 185-198.

The ninth-century manuscript that Riddle treats in most detail is described in his article as St. Gall MS 44, (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 44,) and is dated by him to the ninth century. The holding library describes the relevant section of the same manuscript as “compendium of 27 medical and pharmaceutical treatises by known and unknown authors of the 9th century”, yet dates the manuscript to c.780 AD, noting that it was a gift from a bishop in Constanz to the monastery’s library. The original source/s used for this copy are unknown. With the treatises are some Jewish religious texts that had been part of the Christian canon from the earliest period, being by Christian writers termed Biblical texts, or works of the Christians’ “former testament” – as distinct from their “new testament” which records the life of Christ and includes various letters and accounts of his first followers.  Among the substances Riddle noted as appearing in eight or more of the recipes – adding the number of times per recipe in parenthesis- are: aloes (15), ammonicum (11), amomum (9), apium semen (10), cassia (12), ciminum (8), colofonia (14), fenuogrecum (10), libanus (12), Unum (11), mastice (16), murra (17), piper [white, long, and black] (33), petroselinum (17), picea (10), scamonia (14), storace (13), terebentina (17), and zinzibar (8).  Riddle adds that “an examination of the identities of these drugs reveals a startling fact: most can only be found in the orient. …” (p.189).  During the ninth century, and certainly in the eighth, according to all accounts such substances were brought only, or at the very least chiefly, by the Radhanite merchants, who may thus be identical with those ‘Syrians’ to whom we do find reference in the earlier Latin works.

4. Yehuda ben Meir (grandson of Yehuda HaKohen ben Meir of Mainz who is known as Yehudah Leontin). By some sources he (the grandson) is  credited with a  Sefer ha-Dinim on civil law, several other works of that description existing by other authors, among them the Catalonian Judah ben Barzillai (Albargeloni) who flourished at the same time, that is, from the end of the eleventh century to the beginning of the twelfth. His family being a distinguished one, ben Barzillai was often referred to as  “ha-Nasi” (the prince), a custom then applied to his descendants in Barcelona. His book of the civil law, Sefer ha-Dinim “was divided into five ‘gates’.

5. Alan Borg, ‘Romanesque Sculpture from the Rhone Valley to the Jordan Valley’ in J. Folda (ed.), Crusader Art in the Twelfth Century, pp. 97-119.


Sefer ha-Dinim. A fifteenth century work dealing with the proper standards for Jews to observe in various circumstances includes an interesting provision in regard to non-Jewish books.  Referring to those which a Jew may handle and sell to a Christian priest, or which a Jew might accept from a priest or other church member as pledge on a loan, the text says that although it is prohibited to deal in ritual objects or texts intended to promote the religion through theology, preaching and so forth, these being termed ‘improper things’ ((sefarim perulim) for the Jew ..  yet leniency may be granted “if the content is not known .. since most of these works are about Law, mathematics, astronomy and music.” see in a paper by Ephraim Kanarfogel, ‘The Image of Christians in Thirteenth century Rabbanic Ashkenazic literature’, Chapter 10 in Elisheva Baumgarten, Judah D. Galinsky (eds.),  Jews and Christians in Thirteenth-Century France, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. (footnote 48)

I was unable to obtain a copy of a potentially very helpful article by Beit Arié. It appears in his bibliography as ‘Ideals Versus Reality: Scribal Prescriptions in Sefer Hasidim and Contemporary Scribal Practices in Franco-German Manuscripts’,  published in G. Sed-Rajna (ed.),  Rashi 1040-1990: Hommage à Ephraïm E. Urbach, Congrès européen des Études juives, Paris 1993, pp. 559-566, pls 1-17.  A similar difficulty of access is noted by Norman Roth (ed.), Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia. (p.567)


HEADER – picture of the three crowns from a sixteenth-century printer’s mark, Venice.