Holiday reading #2 Franciscans and folio 1

In attempting to explain to a then highly-skeptical mailing list that to find so much non-Latin imagery and influence in the content of MS Beinecke was not incompatible with the history of medieval Europe.  I began by referring to John of Montecorvino – whose name one might even see in ‘rebus’ on f.1r.

This post was published before I realised just how many details and attitudes expressed in the imagery made a prior retention by Jews or Radhanites the most probable explanation for transmission from the eastern to the western sphere. I still find it quite possible that Franciscan missionaries or others interested in learning about the routes of silk and spices might have reason to want a copy of the same matter.  What is less likely is that they should feel a need to include so much reference to maritime calculations and customs. I reproduce it as published, typos and all. Only a duplicated phrase is removed.

First published on ‘Findings’ – blogger blog –  Sunday, October 30, 2011

John de Montecorvino (and fol.1r).

At Polumbrum [in India], the commander of the ship said to me in the Armenian language, which the rest of the people on board did not understand, that unless we could procure a favourable wind .. he would throw both us and the bones [of  Odoric’s deceased fellows] into the sea. … But as the time passed on, and no wind came, I gave one of the bones  to our servant, whom I ordered to go to the head of the ship, and cast the bone into the sea; which he had no sooner done, than a favourable gale sprung up, which never again failed us till we had arrived at our destined port  in safety.

– Odoric of Pordenonne

.. Which just goes to show how persistent and conservative are the ways of mariners.

It is a bit surprising to find that (a) Oderic understood Armenian, and (b) that no-one else but the ‘commander’ – pilot – did. And in this case it is unlikely that the pilot himself was Armenian, though Armenian traders figure prominently in later accounts of the trade routes.

In many cases the Armenians appear to favour the Roman rite even over that of the Greeks, and we hear that one Armenian king, Hethoum II  (1266-1307), even abdicated [more than once] in order to become a Franciscan monk.

The region of Cilician Armenia seems to have been the centre of a large pro-Roman movement, as well as being repeatedly described as the (or a) focal point in the network of Armenian trade-routes.

Here is the chronology-and-itinerary of John de Montecorvino and other persons who travelled from the west to China before the Vms was made. For a full list, including those travelling westwards from the far east see this page

8th-11th centuries AD – Radhanites.
c.1000 – a community now known as the “Kaifeng Jews” settled in Kaifeng, the Sung imperial capital. They maintained their customs until the 19th century, after which they are described by modern Chinese authorities as being ‘fully assimilated’.

12thC – anonymous Armenian merchants’ guidebook, entitled Names of Indian and Persian Cities, now in the Matenadaran (National Institute of Ancient Manuscripts of Armenia) in Yerevan.

That description begins from the north, with Lahore and Kashmir, ending at Ceylon. It describes the route, peoples and goods available in each city. As with the Cairo geniza, the business documents of Armenian merchants to India were sent back to the nearest territorial centre, in this case In Isfahan, at the Armenian monastery named Amenaperkich in ‘New Julfa’, to which the residents of Armenian Djulfa had been forced to migrate at the time of the Mongol incursions.

1173 – Death of Benjamin of Tudela, a Spanish Jew whose itinerary includes China, or its borders.

1224 and 1228 – Yaqut ibn-’Abdullah al-Hamawi wrote an encyclopaedic work with place-names set in alphabetical order. al-Hamawi’s dates are 1179-1229.

1254-1255 – Hayton I, King of Little Armenia, traveled through the Caucasus and territories of Khan Batu to the Great Khan Möngke in Karakorum and then back via Samarkand, Bukhara and Tabriz. The account of his travels was written down by Kirakos, who accompanied him. {see}

1272 – the year in which the likely-apocryphal ‘voyage of Jacob d’Ancona’ ends. It’s author (and hero) is said to have reached Italy by sea from Zaitun in this year, after six months there .Armenian merchants’ dominance over the spice trade to the west.

1275 – John de Montecorvino is sent to the ‘missions in Persia’ [to Djulfa?]

1279 – de Montecorvino returns to Rome.

1286 – 1287 – Bar Sawma and fellow Nestorian Uyghurs, representing both the patriarch in Baghdad and the Mongol emperor, arrive in Europe. They go to Rome, Sicily, Avignon and European courts, possibly to England, and spend the winter of 1287/8 in Genoa.

1289 – John de Montecorvino is sent back to Persia, as legate to Tabriz and Azerbaijan. He visits Ethiopia and Armenia.

1291 – He continues his journey, now by sea, to Madras(?) and the Community of St. Thomas.

1291 (or 1292) – He reaches the Coromandel Coast in December.

1293/4 – Again travelling by sea, he goes from Meliapur and its Nestorian enclave to Bengal, and then to China, to (“Cambaliech” – Beijing).

1299 – In Khanbaliq – according to an account by de Marignolli, John there taught Latin and Greek, and learned the native language, teaching them hymns.. translated the New testament and psalms…” “Among the six thousand converts of John of Montecorvino was a Nestorian Ongut prince named George, allegedly of the race of Prester John, a vassal of the great khan, mentioned by Marco Polo.”

1305-1306 – an appeal [de Montecorvino] had received to preach in “Ethiopia” explains overland and oversea routes from the Black Sea and from the Persian Gulf to “Cathay”.

1303/4 – Companions are sent to join John de Montecorvino. They include a German Franciscan, Arnold of Cologne.

1307 – Three of another seven Franciscans who were sent to John of Montecorvino arrive safely in Peking: Gerardus, Peregrinus and Andrew of Perugia (1308). John established an additional mission in the present Amoy harbour, opposite Formosa island (Taiwan)

1325-1354. Ibn Battuta

1328 – Death of John de Montecorvino.

1318 – Oderic of Pordenone (1265-1331), an Italian-born member of a Czech family, sets out for China.

1330 – Oderic dictates an account of his travels at the request of his superior, to a brother Franciscan, William of Solagna. This is said to have occurred at the monastery of St. Anthony at Padua. Alternatively, we are told that Henry of Glatz heard accounts of Oderic’s travels from the friar’s travelling companions, when William was visiting the Papal court at Avignon. There he took notes which he later (1340) wrote up in Prague. Oderic’s itinerary can be read here. It included Tibet. On the linked page, notes added by “-E” are unreliable.

1336 – Toghun Temür, the last Mongol emperor in China, sends an embassy to the French Pope (Benedict XII) in Avignon. Led and accompanied by Genoese servants of the Mongol emperor: Andrea di Nascio, and Andalò di Savignone.

1338: – Fifty ecclesiastics sent from Avignon papal court to Peking, including John de Marignolli whose accounts of his predecessor, de Montecorvino were written after his return to Avignon and include the following:

“after having been soldier, judge, and doctor in the service of the Emperor Frederick, [de Montecorvino..] had become a Minor Friar and converted the chief princes of the [Mongol] empire, more than thirty thousand in number, who are called Alans, and govern the whole Orient, [they] are Christians either in fact or in name, calling themselves the Pope’s slaves, and ready to die for the Franks. For so they term us, not indeed from France, but from Frank-land”.

1342 – Tombstone to an Italian girl named Katerina, in Yangzhou

1369 – All Christians expelled from China

1552 – Francis Xavier, founder of the Jesuits [the Society of Jesus] goes to China.

1553 – Xavier dies on the island of Shangchuan, never having reached the mainland

1582 – Jesuits again arrive in China, Matteo Ricci among them.


This figure appears on fol 1r of the Vms:

fol 1r detail

fol 1r detail

I’ve often wondered about it, and whether its evoking the phoenix legend is deliberate. Or perhaps it means to signify the pilgrim/journeying man, the peregrino.

It could also be a kind of imprimateur – added after heretical content was burned, or something of that kind.

Rich SantaColoma collected examples of the single “bird” motif from various medieval manuscripts, noting how it always appears on folios in a similar position.
I  expect archivists in the vatican library could tell us what it means, but here it seems [to me] to serve as (or replicate) that type of stamp used by the Chinese, an ex-libris mark as it were.

In that case, it might even have been adopted deliberately by Montecorvino, and it would nicely render his name, and its sense. A pun on the “monte- mountain” gives the idea of mounting (as a plume of smoke does), and the bird imay be read even more easily as a crow (corvus), than as a phoenix. The ‘mountain’ nearest his home town is volcanic.

As an educated man, Montecorvino may have known the poem of Lactantius, “De Ave Phoenice”, copied into many earlier medieval collections, and appreciated its equating the distant east with Paradise.

As Mackail says:
The poem “opens with a description of the Earthly Paradise, ‘a land east of the sun’ where the bird has its home… [the poem] has mingled touches of the Elysium of Homer and Virgil, and [of] the New Jerusalem of the Revelation; as in the Psalms.”

Lactantius was advisor to the Emperor Constantine and is sometimes credited with having “turned the eagle” (to use Dante’s mentaphor), just as Montecorvino turned the Mongol prince.

“Among the six thousand converts of John of Montecorvino was a Nestorian Ongut prince named George, allegedly of the race of Prester John, a vassal of the great khan…”

Of Montecorvino, as of Lactantius, might be said:

“has always held a very high place among the … Fathers, not only on account of the subject-matter of his writings, but also on account of the varied erudition, the sweetness of expression, and the grace and elegance of style, by which they are characterized.”


NOTE: in regard toArmenians, and “Tarsic” as the third language of John’s translations.
(What if it wasn’t tartar?)

Pahlavi language words still used in central Iran

TEHRAN, Feb. 5 (MNA) — Some words of the Pahlavi language are still used by the people of Abyaneh, which is near Kashan in the central Iranian province of Isfahan.

Cultural anthropologist Abbas Torabzadeh said on Saturday that the dialect of Abyaneh has changed over the years, but the local people still use some ancient words from the Pahlavi Ashkani language here and there.

The Pahlavi Ashkani language, a branch of Middle Persian which was spoken in the Parthian era, has almost been forgotten but a few words of the original language are still heard in Abynaeh…
The people of Abyaneh have retained some words of the Pahlavi Ashkani language, but one can not say they are speaking the language in its original form.

There is also a language called Taati spoken by the people of Jolfa [Djulfa, the new city established when the Armenians were re-located] in western Iran, Mirshokra’i noted.

Taati is a language that developed from Middle Persian almost independently of modern Persian. It has retained many of the characteristics of the Sassanid era Pahlavi language. Taati can be understood by Persian speakers with a little practice.

There is a great danger that that the Pahlavi Ashkani words used by Abyaneh residents will be replaced by modern Persian expressions, since the town is gradually becoming a major tourist magnet.
(Middle Persian … developed around 300 B.C., shortly after the end of the Achaemenid era, and is divided into Pahlavi Ashkani and Pahlavi Sassani. The alphabet used for Middle Persian is called Pahlavi.)

Frrom wiki article: ‘Tati language’:

“Azari, the Old Iranian Language of Azerbaijan,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, op. cit., Vol. III/2, 1987 by E. Yarshater.

PS: The following from Nick Pelling’s site in May, 2010. At the time, I had no idea myself of looking so far north, and was mainly concerned to show that the “Chinese” theory of the script and/or language had some claim at least, to be considered.

“…Master Peter of Lucolongo, a faithful Christian man and great merchant, who was the companion of my travels from Tauris, himself bought the ground for the establishment …
I have now had six pictures made, illustrating the Old and New Testaments for the instruction of the ignorant ; and the explanations engraved in Latin, Tarsic, and Persian characters, that all may be able to read them in one tongue or another”.

  • and see also Pelling’s views and any mention of Franciscans in his 2006 book Curse of the Voynich, as well as articles written while the theory of the manuscript’s having belonged to the Franciscan Roger Bacon was still the dominant, and virtually the only opinion.








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