A revisionist revisits…Canterbury 3-b i

[footnote error corrected: 6/10/2016]gravina_in_puglia_panorama2

Like the custodians of Gravina’s Cathedral and the authors of the Catholic Encyclopaedia (1912), any online tourist guide will say that an arm of Thomas Becket is held in an impressive reliquary within the Cathedral, taken there in 1179 by a certain ‘Bishop Roberto’ – yet modern studies of relics’ distribution, and distribution of Becket’s relics in particular, lack any reference to Gravina.  So the question is why, whether or not Becket’s relics are there, a town in the centre of southern Italy, in that region saturated with Greek heritage and from which there had come recently into the Latins’ horizon “an explosion of new [medical learning]”[1] should feel any inclination to admire an English saint, even one associated with healing.

The year in question – 1179 –  was six years after Becket’s canonisation, and more noted for the Third Lateran Council, presided over in that year by  a strongly pro-Norman Pope named Alexander III.  Diplomacy by certain Venetians had reconciled Alexander just two years before to a man he detested, the German king, Frederick Barbarossa, whose ambitions included possession of the Italian peninsula and Sicily.

Frederick’s behaviour suggests an immoderate sense of self-importance, an  egoism so extreme that it defeated his own ambitions, having led to a united front in opposition, composed of the Lombard league, the rulers in Constantinople and the papal states.  Not even the Germanic  “Henry the Lion” would assist him.  Frederick – like a number of his modern biographers –  interpreted the united opposition of the Greek, Latin and Lombard as a “conspiracy” of inferiors, rather than a clear and coherent expression of political and cultural opposition by those representing the major components of the population.  Frederick Barbarossa seems to have been unable to grasp the fact that he was not entitled merely by his genetic inheritance to assume the title “Roman Emperor of the West” but that the title’s having been revived – or more properly ‘exhumed’ and re-invented,  for it was defunct – by the Papacy, so the Papacy might bestow it on whom they chose.   When Alexander did confer that title on Barbarossa,  it  seems only to have removed any last vestige of self-restraint. Frederick wanted control not only in terms of politics, but of religious faith.  We find another instance of his self-regard in a gold reliquary, where his own portrait replaces the usual depiction of the saint, or some other religious scene.  (note, though, this use of  ‘hatching’- characteristic of ornament in monochrome media).


Becket’s immediate and near-universal popularity throughout Europe must be understood in the context of the times, of Barbarossa’s behaviour and its seeming contempt for all others, including God’s  duly elected representative on earth – as the Pope was then believed to be.[2]

Becket’s was murdered for having opposed another dictatorial ruler and he was murdered within the Cathedral, an act of appalling sacrilege by the standards of those times.  It offered a graphic illustration of the way in which secular powers seemed to admit no limits on their decisions and behaviour, and Becket’s being so soon declared a saint offered a way for the common people – usually so powerless before the nobility –  to give public expression to their opinions.  Every church where Becket was venerated,  and to which the people flocked to support his image as an exemplary character – which is what a saint was – made the public statement that not even a monarch should believe his power unlimited,  and that even if the individual was condemned to death for opposing a king, such action was justified by a higher authority still.  Becket was, in effect, a symbol of rebellion against the growing belief among kings that neither religion nor law should affect them.  It is no wonder then, that Henry VIII later had Becket’s remains in Canterbury disinterred and burned – or what he believed were Becket’s bones. Becket had spoken truth to power. For those of the Christian faith, it was a model which (including the consequences of opposing “Caesar”) resonated from the very foundations of their religion.

Becket was not described as “of England” but “of Canterbury”, for   “England” consisted of whatever territory the king carrying that title might claim: Canterbury meant the Cathedral town and its traditions, including an early study of Greek and possibly of Greek medicine first brought by Theodore five centuries earlier than Becket’s time.

And although the king whom Becket opposed was a Norman (Henry II), it was through the ‘Norman’ network that Becket’s reputation and veneration first spread. Our earliest portrait of him is not that in Canterbury, but in Sicily whose continuing Greek heritage is evident in it.

Thomas becket in MonrealeConcerning our current interest in how the west gained materia medica from as far as southeast Asia, including plants which are represented in Beinecke MS 408 and which were available in England by Becket’s time,[3] we need to consider less which  Latins of Europe were fetching goods from Tunis or Alexandria, than the documented fact that such materials were being brought into southern Italy and Sicily before the time of Norman rule.  I would argue that while the  ‘Norman line’ linked Becket to the court of France during his exile, and brought his family and friends to seek refuge in Sicily under William II, so it also carried these materials northwards together with  knowledge of their uses, and thus maintained a still older line of transmission which we associate with the Radhanite period.

Though the notion of a ‘Norman’ hegemony began as a myth promoted by the Normans of France, their efforts and their adding practice to propaganda soon gave it real substance.  So, for example, one of our earliest extant copies of the Sicilian Circa Instans was made in France  (BL MS Harley 270), and is bound with a  rhymed biography of Becket composed as early as 1173 by Guernes de Pont-Sainte-Maxence. It nicely epitomises that line of connection between England, France and the old region of ‘Magna Graecia’ which will offer our best explanation for the otherwise curiously diverse elements in the imagery of Beinecke MS 408.

The medical lore which emerged from Norman Sicily into Latins’ horizons is less well described as ‘new’ medical knowledge than older medical knowledge newly-introduced to the Latins; to identify it with the institution in Salerno is inappropriate. To call it  “Lombardic” is to misrepresent it, and certainly to pretend it could be called “germanic” is nonsensical. Its character and heritage are plain enough from those paired portraits [4] in the Manfredus manuscript.

Here is Hippocrates (as ‘Ypocras’) an Asiatic Greek from Cos, off the ‘astronomers coast’ of Asia Minor, and who is believed to have worshipped as a priest of the god Asclepius, in the temple at Cos. He faces Galen, another Asiatic Greek, from Pergamon.

folio 1v lower Hippocrates and Galen ManfedusThere is the Iberian, Ibn Rushd, known to the Latin as Averroes, who lived under the Caliphate and who is shown with Porphyry, a Semite of Tyre whose name was actually Malchus, which means ‘king’ or ‘messenger’.  Educated in Athens (where he probably gained his sobriquet as allusion to the ‘purple’ of Tyre), Malchus’ philosophy was that which anciently flourished in the south of Magna Graecia: neo-Platonism. Porphyry lived in the mid- to late third century AD.

Averroes and porphyry Manfredus f2r

With its medicine referring to eastern materia medica, this learning which now spread into the Latin world came from the Greek, Jewish, Saracenic and north African.  Its masters were  Asiatic Greeks and Semites, Muslims and Neo-platonists, and a Nestorian who, though apparently abjured by the early fourteenth century among the people with whom Manfredus was associated, had not been dismissed by everyone.

A copy of the Articella was being made in Paris close to when Manfredus was at work on his compilation, and the Paris manuscript show no aversion to Johannites. BL Ms Harley 3140 consists of excerpts from:

A) Johannitius, Isagoge (ff. 2-7); –
B) Galen, Tegni (ff. 7v-21); –
C) Hippocrates, Aphorisms (ff. 21-29); –
D) Hippocrates, Prognostics (ff. 29-32v); –
E) Theophilus, Urines (ff. 32v-37v); –
F) Philaretus, Pulses (ff. 37v-39); –
G) Hippocrates, De regimine acutorum (ff. 39-43v); –
H) Isaac, Urines (ff. 44-67v); –
I) Isaac, Universal Diets (ff. 68-110v); –
J) Isaac, Particular Diets (ff. 110v-137); –
K) Isaac, Fevers (ff. 137-195v); –
L) Constantine, Viaticum (ff. 196-254v); –
M) Nicholas, Antidotary (ff. 255-272v); –
N) Giles of Corbeil, Urines (ff. 273-274v); –
O) Giles of Corbeil, Pulses (ff. 274v-276v).

~ among them are, I should think, those three unnamed figures in Manfredus’ frontispiece.[5]

In the next post, I’ll revisit some of the plant-ids I’ve offered, and demonstrate their having been traded into the south before the Normans ruled there.  To argue that MS Beinecke 408 consists of matter gained and first disseminated in connection with that trade does not require any late date for the content, and the radiocarbon range for the vellum (1405-1438) is, from what we know at present, sufficient as terminus ante quem.


[1] Monica H. Green, ‘The Antidotarium magnum: A Short Description’ revised draft:2 June 2015.

[2] Oldfield offers details on reverence for Becket in southern Italy, also noting the role of France which continued the ‘Norman’ theme under Angevin rule. Paul Paul Oldfield, Sanctity and Pilgrimage in medieval Southern Italy, 1000-1200, p.82. Becket had also sought sanctuary among the canons of Agnani, a papal seat southeast of Rome.

[3] by Becket’s time and even before it.

[4] “Schemes of this type had been widely used and often repeated, as is testified, for instance, by the manuscript of Solinus’s Collectanea rerum memorabilium from the first half of the 14th century (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, MS C. 246 inf., fol. 51v), in which the busts of as many as seventeen antique writers and scholars are shown in pairs.” Marek Walczak, ‘The Figures on the Sides of the Tomb-Chest of King Casimir the Great: A Reassessment of the Iconography of the Polish Kingdom Reborn’, Transactions of the British Archaeological Association [BAA Trans.], Vol. xxxvii (2014), pp. 48–75. The author of that article also mentions Ewa Sniezynska-Stolotowa, she being one of a number who have offered a theory about the figures around Casimir’s tomb. Rene Zandbergen asked has often referred to a comment by Sniezynska-Stolotowa for comment on about the Voynich calendar’s central emblems and was, like Cicero, expresses himself satisfied: pro me satis testium est dictum.  The comment was reported by Rafael Prinke, writing to the Voynich mailing list (here) on 09 Jan 2001.  The way Prinke represents Irwin Panofsky’s opinions could mislead those unaware of the context or of Panofsky’s more detailed comments made in 1931 as reported by Anne Nill – the letter transcribed and reported by Rich Santacoloma (here). With Rich’s  personal views about the manuscript I am unable to agree, but we surely owe him thanks for having done that work of accessing and transcribing Nill’s letter.

[5] Other manuscript copies at the Brit.Lib.  That page describes Isaac as “Abū Ya’qūb Ishāq ibn Sulaymān al-Isrā’īlī (fl. c.855-932), known to the West as Isaac Judaeus or Isaac Israeli, [sometimes Isaac Isra’ili ben Solomon] a Jewish doctor and philosopher, born in Egypt, migrated to Tunisia and served as physician of the Fatimid caliph ‘Ubayd Allāh al-Mahdī of Kairouan (909-934)”. The name al-Isrā’īlī signifies a connection to Jews who had emigrated from the holy land before the Roman destruction of the Temple and designation of the land as “Judaea”.  From that time, natives of the new Roman province were called “Jews” but the word remained unknown to certain Eastern Jews, who continued to refer to themselves (as had apparently been the norm in the pre-Roman period) as Beni Isroel.  Veit says that Isaac is known as the father of Jewish neo-Platonism.  Raphaela Veit, ‘Isaac Judeus’ in Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine: An Encyclopedia, edited by Thomas F. Glick, Steven Livesey, Faith Wallis (2014) pp.275-6.







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