Some events of the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; posited evolution of an emblem on folio 86v [85v-86r] of MS Beineke 408. I

Postscript [2018]: This post is left as it was when first published several years ago, but readers should be aware that I later found reason  to correct my identification for the ‘castle’ and am now certain as is humanly possible that the ‘castle’ is a semi-schematic image of  Constantinople and/or Pera.  I explained the reason for this revised opinion in a separate series of posts, providing the historical context that also allows me to offer a date for the latest revision as the early fourteenth century.  At that time, the former content of the map’s North roundel was shifted to its present position in the North-west roundel, at the cost of one ‘rose’ among the original four.  The purpose of that alteration was, obviously, to permit the vignette which includes the ‘castle’ and the Mediterranean to be included.  It is significant that until that time the map had made no reference to the Mediterranean at all, and that even now the focus of the fourteenth-century addition are the centres of the ‘Serai-Constantinople-Cairo’ axis.  Neither Rome nor Jerusalem has been included.   As to the original content of the North roundel, its details indicate origins in the Hellenistic period and the region about Sinope.

I should like again to emphasise again that whereas the botanical folios relate to routes of the southern, maritime ‘spice road’, the ‘ladies’ folios are a product of Hellenistic matter retained across the upper, overland route.  Those two ‘roads’  were treated as complementary, not alternative, and I must  decline to do – as one recent correspondent has suggested I should  – “make up my mind” for the one or the other to explain the whole manuscript.

In reality,   the higher and the lower roads were interconnected, and persons who travelled outward by the one might (and several did) follow the one route outwards and the other when homeward bound.  This sense of complementarity is already seen in early descriptions of the Radhanites’ roads, and is attested from medieval sources earlier than 1438.  In my view, the map is the key to the entire work and should not be made a subject of ill-founded theories or conjectures relying more on self-confidence and imagination than historical and iconographic research, as has been an unhappy fact of Voynich writings since 1912.  The following is not a medieval map.  The Voynich map does not appear, to me, to show regions east much beyond the Tarim basin or thereabouts, and merely indicates the Great Sea to the east, by the passage between a landing in the Red Sea and its opposite in the Persian-Indian-Arab gulf.

map silk roads upper and lower

This post summarises contextual matter, much already published, as preparation for the next, in which is discussed why this period and environment, is reasonably posited for the last stage in the evolution of a figure now in the maps’ north-west roundel and whose origin (I will argue) is Hellenistic or earlier.  Longer-term readers probably don’t need to read Part 1.

[for newcomers the ‘Postscript’ may also be helpful].

THE Vignette occupying the north of the map on f.86v (pagination 85v-and-86r) is the part most easily legible in terms of European mores, but not so much so that any item had previously been appropriately identified consistent with the map’s orientation and/or serving as a  coherent scheme for the physical world.

86v map centre

About the border, the line of inscriptions is interrupted by a “beginning and end” mark  at the top centre : paired lines with a broken chevron pattern.

map f86v minimap beginning and end point

The earlier diagrams in the manuscript typically do include a ‘beginning and end’ marker. In this case, and given the nature of grids seen in charts of the rhumb-grid type, I should not be surprised if this  circle’s inscriptions refer to points for the wind- and/or star- compasses.

Their vocabulary is not only that formalised and generally known today.  Ibn Majid’s works, to which I have often referred my readers, record the names and lore for the Yemeni mariners’ compass (named by stars) and he also refers to a combination of  star- and of wind-names employed by the Mediterranean’s “Egyptian” mariners. In this context of the Yemen and its maritime traditions, I’d also like to thank those readers who have have been kind enough to write saying that they, too, see similarities between a number of the glyphs in an old Yemeni script called Sabaic minuscule, and those used in the Voynich text. Majid’s existing works are of course written in the language common to all in Islam: Arabic.

Four sites are emphasised in the vignette. To compensate for the map’s reversed “east-west” and for the maker’s following the circle, I have turned these details upright for readers’ convenience.  In my opinion, they represent –  first (below left) –  Cappadocia’s “chimneys” which lie on the northern side and (below right) (b) Alexandria/Canopus on the southern, the site here denoted by its lighthouse. My reasons for these identifications were explained in detail and with comparative imagery when first published.

f.86v chimneys and Pharos detail from the North roundel

Alexandria’s ‘Pharos’ was progressively destroyed by earthquakes until  finally demolished in 1480 AD. This did not prevent its emblem continuing to appear on maps, but I do not consider the vignette so late.

The structures marking the western and eastern sides of the Mediterranean I have identified  as  (below, left) Avignon, or less probably the ‘new Avignon’ of Peñiscola and (below, right) the port of Armenian Cilicia, Laiazzo (also known as ‘Ayas’). Note that above the ‘Avignon’ tower are lines which might be meant for a flame, though whether that was the original draughtsman’s intention, I am not quite sure. I have found no record of any beacon’s having existed in medieval Avignon or in Peñiscola, that now standing beside the old papal ‘palace’ in Peñiscola having been built in 1892 and I have found no record of any being earlier on the site. Given the scale of this ‘mini-map’ in the north roundel, the site might conceivably be meant for some other.[1]

Avignon-or-Peniscola and Laiazzo

Connection between Cilician Armenia and the western Church was particularly strong from the mid- and late-thirteenth century, to the end of the fourteenth.

The Armenian King, Het’um II, having for years struggled to satisfy the demands of both the Egyptian Mamluk sultan, and the Mongols at the border, made his first abdication in 1293 [2] and a second in favour of his nephew T’oros, about two years later. His attraction towards the Roman rite, and his increasing Romanisation of the formerly Byzantine church in Armenia was a cause of some friction.

In 1295 or thereabouts, (i.e. about ten years before the Papal court moved from Rome to Avignon) Hat’um was obliged to leave his capital and journey to the Mongol camp in central Asia.  Some believe that his abdication, and his adoption of the Franciscan rule and habit (as ‘Friar John’)  may have been formalities at this stage, the first as a precaution against being unable to return, and the second perhaps a requirement of the Ilkhans, who show little inclination to permit foreign rulers, with their guards and retinues, to approach their camps.

It is tempting, certainly, to imagine that the Voynich map as a whole might have been created for the King, or by his scholars for the benefit of the Franciscan order.  Part of the wider map does include the route towards the relevant area of inner Asia – something which, again, I have explained previously and in detail.  Inclusion of, and emphasis on, what I take to be the ‘Avignon/Peñiscola’  site necessarily requires a late later than Het’um’s death, for the papacy removed from Rome only in 1308 (or so – accounts differ slightly), and the first Armenians of whom we hear teaching their language in Europe had arrived in Avignon, by request, in 1321-2 AD.

Armenian appears, at that time, to have been an eastern lingua franca across the southern, maritime, route, though not one widely known.   In his Practica della mercatura, written 1339 to 1340, Pegolotti spoke of Cuman as the language known by all across the northern ‘silk roads’. 

It must be emphasised, however, that Pegolotti’s handbook was unpublished and had a limited circulation. Other guides of similar sort undoubtedly existed, Pegolotti himself believed to have used one written in Pisa in 1279, entitled ‘Hec est memoria de tucte le mercantie come carican le navi in Alexandria e li pesi come tornano duna terra addunaltra’. Others of the genre are known as Zibaldoni, and include the Zibaldone da Canal.

In MS Beinecke 408, allusions to the Mongol period include one, at least, which is perfectly plain.  On the back of the map, on what was  formerly foliated f.86r, now “85r (part) 86v (part) (part of 85-86 foldout)” is diagram of interest, one whose pictorial conventions are closely similar to those used in Latin Europe, and thus fairly easily legible for European-trained eyes.  Within the left-hand diagram is one figure of particular interest.

Partisan detail f.85r

detail from folio 85r,  paginated as “85r (part) 86v (part) (part of 85-86 foldout)” on the Beinecke library website . inset shows the position, relative to the figure’s head, of the diagram’s “beginning-and-end’ mark” and how cursorily it is drawn in this diagram which I consider to belong to the last chronological stratum in this manuscript – which is not to argue it is on ‘late’ vellum.

The figure’s pose is the same used in Latin works to denote oratory and so on.  One notes that the object raised is not, however, a Christian cross nor a book, as one might expect it to be in Latin works were the figure meant (as I think it is) for a missionary or preacher. His jacket is of Asian cut, the opening running from the side of the collar to the armpit; his ‘horn headband’ is of Mongol type; and the emblem he holds forth, or reaches towards, is in my opinion meant not for a fleur-de-lys but the imperial tamgar, as rendered in Fars and in Amaligh during the years 1252-1253.

Mongol coin and costume

(left) coin produced for Amaligh 1252-3 AD; (right) mongol costume.


Here I refer to Judith Kolbas’ comment that “between 650 and 651H coins produced for Fars show the imperial tamgar deliberately “drawn to resemble a graceful fleur de lys …”  The capital of Fars was Shiraz, which had already submitted to Mongol rule by 1246, and its delegates attended the same investure witnessed by John of Plano Carpini in that year.  I add a footnote on the location and allocation of Amaligh.[3]

For this folio in the Voynich manuscript, therefore, I believe its last phase of development should be attributed to a period between the middle of the thirteenth century and the end of the Avignon papacy.  The ‘Mongol century’ is usually deemed to have ended in 1386, nine years before the end of the first Avignon papal period in 1376-7.

In fact,  a second sequence of Avignon popes – or ‘anti-popes’ as they are called – returned to Avignon, the last being obliged at last to take refuge in Peñiscola, where he died in 1423: that is, within the radiocarbon date range for MS Beinecke 408 as published by the University of Arizona – 1403-1438 AD.

Further – if more circumstantial – evidence is seen in western manuscripts of the time. Here swirling lines, as near-concentric circles,  represent a voyage across the sea: in this case to the eastern Mediterranean from France, as the voyage to “outremer”. A similar idea informs the swirling and starry centre of the ‘mini’ map, indicating it as a voyager’s reference.


Grandes Chroniques de France, 14thC. The text was much copied, but was first compiled between the 13th and 15thC. The monks of St.Denys played a major part.

Turning back to the map proper, and the area in between the  vignette and the upper edge of the page, we see that the space includes a roughly circular area, one having barriers or enclosure on two sides, but otherwise linked to the wider world by a broad way – apparently raised by an embankment – and a narrower way which is pictured as if it were a doubf 86v north Parai dezale stairway or something of that sort. 

The model is not unlike the ideal form of the Manichaean city-world, as I have pointed out before, and across the northern silk roads, it should be remembered, Manichaeans thrived and gnostic philosophy was dominant for centuries – certainly to as late as the eleventh century.

There is, in addition, the inclusion in MS Beineke 408 of a diagram representing the number of the world’s elements as 5, something characteristic of Manichaean thought as, more generally, of India and Asia, as I’ve noted before.

Such matter aside, though, the walled enclosure may be a form of parádeisos in the non-religious sense or, to use the Aramaic, a pardaysa as royal domain.

It might even have been envisaged as a ‘world in minature’ or paradise on earth, but what it cannot be meant for is a T-O map. 

The T-O diagram is an abstract representation of the world, showing it as three geometric regions (Europe, Asia, Africa) all completely enclosed by the ocean.  One cannot take a broad road or a stairway across the world’s boundary, save to the supra-mundane heaven, and even then the ‘broad’ and the ‘narrow’ ways are metaphorical. Matrakçı_Nasuh_Map_of_Tabriz rotated

In attempting to identify this site, I first considered Mshketa in Georgia, chiefly by reason of its northern location and topography, but more recently I have considered Tabriz, which identification I favour at present.

As we’ve seen, Tabriz is linked both to Laiazzo and to Genoa by way of the silk trade as early as the middle of the thirteenth century.

Siena’s first phase of prosperity was due to the silk trade through Tabriz, with which people of all nations were well aware by the early thirteenth century. It was a hub of the east-west trade at that time, and Siena’s prosperity as a result was curtailed only by the advent of Plague. To quote Prazniac, whose paper is to hand, “before… 1347-1348, Siena was a Tuscan commercial center on the periphery of Mongol Eurasia”. The Via Francigena linked it in one direction to Rome, and otherwise to Lombardy, Provence, and Languedoc – and Avignon.

By 1280, the number of Genoese merchants in Tabriz was sufficient to require an allotment for them in the merchants’  ‘temporary accommodation’ or international caravenseri-and-market in Tabriz.

Most of the information which follows has come from primary sources but is also reflected in  Prazniac’s paper.

By 1286 two Franciscan monasteries functioned in Tabriz .  In 1287, Rabban Sauma, from the Ordos region north of Khubilai Khan’s capital sought permission to visit sacred Christian sites in the Holy Land, and then travelled via Baghdad where he offered his respects to the Patriarch and was appointed representative to Europe.  There is no record of his ever completing the original pilgrimage but he insisted on visiting the holiest shrines of western Christendom.  He went to Rome and to Paris, escorted and largely assisted by the Genoese, the great company with Mar Sawma remaining in Genoa over the winter as they waited for a ship to begin the long journey eastwards. 

To Prazniac I owe the information that “In 1291, Pietro of Lucalongo, [a merchant of Sicilian origins] who was resident in Tabriz, offered to accompany the Franciscan missionary John of Monte Corvino eastward to the Yuan Court”.

It should be said, perhaps, that these are the same years during which Jews were expelled from England and they overlap the life of Roger Bacon, who died in 1290.  By one person, at least, MS Beinecke 408 has been believed written by Bacon; others have conjectured that he had owned it, and considerably more (and independent) specialists dated the manuscript by hand, vellum and general appearance, to the late thirteenth or early fourteenth centuries.   I believe that there is sufficient reason for supposing that  our fifteenth century manuscript reproduces closely the content and layout of exemplars from that time: that is, ones which had been most recently made (and not necessarily by Latins) in c.1280-1330 or so.

fol 1r detail

fol 1r detail

.Here we pause to note again a pair of red characters seem on folio 1r, and which might – possibly – reproduce the form of a ‘seal name’, one which could yield the name Montecorvino, but which in any case looks like something originally stamped or written with a brush, while its is currently an image outlined in pen and then coloured: I’d suggest the original had been in vermillion.

(I apologise to those who have followed this my blog since its early days; these last two items will be ‘old news’!)

I have said, often enough, that I consider the content in this manuscript, as evinced by its imagery, to concern the routes and goods of the world east of the Mediterranean and Black Sea.  I have explained that in some folios the content appears to me to be chiefly useful to the maritime trades and to practical navigation.

At the same time, I doubt that those sections which include ‘shapely ladies’ came – as I believe the botanical and ‘roots and leaves’ folios did –  by way of Syria and the Levant.  They appear  more appropriately assigned to the overland routes which are also described by the Voynich map.

This post is offered by way of historical background, a summary of my own research to provide the necessary context for the following discussion of the map’s north-west roundel (as it now is) and the evolution of its central figure. I believe it important that this roundel, and figure, were originally the ‘crown’ of the map.


The next post begins – and might hopefully complete – this discussion.


[1] Our knowledge of the number and location of older beacons and towers is scant.  We have record that the Phoenicians, trading from the Mediterranean to Great Britain, marked their route with lighthouses, and that thereafter the Romans erected many, so that by the beginning of the 5thC AD, thirty served the routes from the Black Sea to the Atlantic, of which three are noted: that at Ostia, the port of Rome and others at Boulogne and at Dover. The antiquity of settlement at Peñiscola, as well as it’s position as a ‘Gibraltar’ of the eastern Mediterranean coast, would make it a logical site – among the hundreds of other logical sites. History is silent and, so far, so is archaeology.

[2.]  for conflicting accounts of Het’um’s reign see e.g., Angus Donal Stewart, The Armenian Kingdom and the Mamluks: War and Diplomacy During the Reigns f Hetʻum II (1289-1307), Brill, (2001).

[3.] Judith Kolbas, The Mongols in Iran: Chingiz Khan to Uljaytu (1220–1309)  pp. 149-150. As it is increasingly difficult to find references online to places recently taken by China, I add a passage from Henry Hoyle Howorth, History of the Mongols from the 9th to the 19th Century: The Mongols Proper and the Kalmyks (2008).  On page 173 he notes that the range assigned Ogotai after Timur’s death was bounded to the south by “the long chain of mountains commencing near Lake Balkash and successively called the Kabyrgan, Talki, Bogdo Oola, and Bokda Thien Shan ranges, having at its south the countries of Kayalic, Amalig, and Bishbalig, [all] which belonged to Jagathai.”

[4] Roxann Prazniak, ‘Siena on the Silk Roads: Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the Mongol Global Century, 1250-1350’, Journal of World History, Vol. 21, No. 2 (June 2010), pp. 177-217 (p.179).  On p.183, she adds the interesting information that “In 1266 the merchant Arnaldo Marinario, who did business in the vicinity of Trebizond on the Black Sea, adjacent to lands of the Ilkhanate, approached Sicilian king Carlos I on a political mission to establish communications with the Ilkhanate”.
see also an earlier post to this blog, ‘Avignon notes’, (Feb. 9th., 2015).



I have written elsewhere of chronological strata discerned in the imagery in MS Beinecke 408, including in its fold-out map which is drawn on a single sheet that was previously foliated as f.86v, but is now on the Beinecke library site  “85v-and-86r”. Readers should not be mislead into thinking that this means the map is partly drawn on the back of one bifolium, and finished on the front of another.

I have also explained before, and elsewhere, my reasons for concluding that the space presently occupied by a vignette (‘mini-map’) of the Mediterranean had originally contained what now occupies the map’s north-west roundel.

Identifying the whole of folio 86v [85v-86r] as a map whose range extended eastward at least as far as the Indian Ocean, but which had not originally included the Mediterranean Sea, was not a minor task and the conclusion and results are solely a product of the present writer’s  research, analysis and conclusions about the map as a whole.

That none had been able to interpret it before was perhaps partly due to the unfamiliar conventions in drawing and the fact that none had noticed the map’s “east” and “west” lie opposite their placement according to our own custom. Ideas about this folio had depended less on any detailed observation of its drawing than assumptions made by the internal logic of one or another theory.  For these reasons, I must suppose, a ‘castle’ plainly located on the eastern side of the Mediterranean, and which I identified not least by its proximity to the Cappadocian ‘chimneys’, was constantly said to be a Ghibbeline castle in northern Italy, and not a few posited an inland site for it.

Because no analysis had been done before – although certain ‘Voynicheros’ have  attempted to apply the method since – I hope I am correct in citing only such scholarly works as proved helpful.

I do wish to thank again here a particular scholar who, when approached and asked to write a paper “investigating the idea” that the folio’s map might be related to the medieval cartes marine, declined when he found that the “idea” was in fact one of my research conclusions, already published here. I should also like to thank the person who, having read my posts and sharing a common interest in the subjects of maritime history and naked-eye navigation techniques, made both parties aware of the situation.

It seemed best to me, then , to keep aside two sections of my explanation: those relating to the far west and to the central section. I have published only my conclusions viz. that the west roundel probably depicts Ceuta as it once was, and that the centre – in my view – shows the region about Raidan and the dam of Mar’ib as it was before its destruction.  Other possibilities exist, of course.




  1. I’m pretty sure the tower you have labeled as the Alexandria lighthouse is a Byzantine-style tower with a European saddle-back roof that includes the traditional globes or flags at the tips, standing behind a wall with arrow slits.


    • The reasons for my conclusion about that site, including the style and position of that structure, are given in earlier posts. There might have been Byzantine towers built in the southern Mediterranean: Byzantium held Egypt until 640 AD or thereabouts, but I see no reason to suppose this motif is any differently intended from all the others which I sighted, and of which I cited some – all refer to the Pharos, or to the (apparently very similar) lighthouse built for Canopus/Abukir.

      Have you seen the section about two-thirds through, headed “Canopus/Alexandria” in this post:

      (The new format has upset the spacing on that post, I’m sorry to see).

      The identification is not of the building alone, but of a building built in that form, in the right position (i.e. due south of Cappadocia), and appropriately linked to the wider map, and of course – first and foremost – correctly oriented.

      Historical examples and documentary evidence, including classical accounts, coins, pictures, medieval travellers’ accounts, early and later medieval maps, and other sources including fourteenth-century pictures led to the final identification.

      If you happen across any reference to a Byzantine tower in thirteenth- or fourteenth century Alexandria (or environs) I hope you’ll come back and let me know.


  2. Diane

    Wonderful read, as always. Very happy to read an overview of these things, many of which I’ve been wondering about.
    Did you notice the figure has six fingers? Does that mean something or just a common mistake?
    Also, are you sure he represents a man? He seems to have a breast, or at least what passes for one in this manuscript. Or is that part of the dress?



  3. Koen, no, I hadn’t noticed that, and I do expect it was meant to bear some significance. As so often, similar imagery crops up in central Europe from about the time our present manuscript was made.

    There is a paper online (which I expect you’ve already noticed),
    Richard D. Barnett, ‘Polydactylism in the Ancient World’.

    It is a survey of instances noted by the writer in some ancient and classical works.

    He also says:”The motif of six fingers, however, re-emerges into the full light of canonical Western art in the late Middle Ages. At the pilgrim center of Maria-Laach in Austria, there is a painting, done in about 1440 and much venerated by cripples, that is known as “die Maria mit den sechs Fingern” (The Mary with Six Fingers). Here Mary has six fingers on her right hand. A Spanish statue in wood, dated 1609 and displayed in the church of St. John in Oud Valkenburg, Holland, shows John the Baptist with six fingers on the right hand. A fine painting, attributed to Maerten van Heemskerck of Alkmaar (or to Jan van Scorel) and now in the Marquis of Salisbury’s collections at Hatfield House in Britain, depicts Adam and Eve seated before the Tree of Knowledge, in which lurks the serpent. Adam raises his left hand, which has six fingers, and points his index finger.”

    It occurs to me that in the popular imagination the six-fingered person might have been equivalent to those which Dante calls “the primal people”. In each case these later European instances show people considered holy, but born before the death of Christ, and thus ‘not exactly’ Christians. Perhaps the artists’ handbooks might have something to say about it, but the obvious text – the one everyone would know – was the Biblical text which associates the ‘6-fingered’ person with a pre-Israelite people in the Holy Land.
    I give the reference as Barnett did:
    2 Samuel 21:20–21.


    • The six fingered emperor of Byzantium. That’s fascinating indeed.

      As you know, the area I’m studying lies elsewhere. I’m not planning to write about this part of the manuscript, nor do I consider myself qualified to do so. If you find the sixth finger relevant, consider it yours 🙂


  4. I don’t understand: why draw a map the wrong way around? Why place the Western church to the right and the Eastern on the left, when it should be the other way around. Or are the buildings drawn upside down?
    If we take the TO map nearby as orientation, then what you identify as Armenia would then be in Africa and Alexandria Pharos is in Europe, with Peniscola/Avignon on the border between Europe and Asia, while an ocean separates Cappadocia and Armenia. Wouldn’t such a map be really confusing and useless?


    • VViews.
      Voynichviews. The map is not “the wrong way round” but simply not drawn to the conventions we are used to.

      The orientation is made quite clear by the images of the setting sun (sinking head down…) which indicates west, and which shows the ‘path’ which the sun will take to be reborn and rise again in the east.
      Opposite this, we see the sun rising vertically. Plainly the sun-rise.

      It might help you get your head around it (as they say) if you imagine this map were the drawing from which a wood-block was to be made, for a printer.

      The carver would leave off the script, and just carve the map. When printed, as you might imagine, it would then look “right” to a Latin living in the northern hemisphere. Does that help?

      I rather think that the people who designed and used it first had it as a separate sheet, and when laid on a table it would be turned about to suit the current position of the users – as we do with maps, all the time. We have record of ‘table maps’ used like this, and of some maps made to be turned on a wheel.


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