Black Sea -Treaty of Milan 1b



(detail) Beinecke MS 408, f.73v. Crossbowman as central emblem in one of the calendar roundels.


The aim of this introductory post is to demonstrate consonance between the later elements in the manuscript’s imagery and events from 1285 to the 1330s. Details shown from Beinecke MS 408 have had detailed discussion in earlier posts.

The ‘Clear vision’ series ended at 1290 AD, with the abrupt termination of Genoese involvement in a projected naval attack via Aden against Mamluk Egypt. The  plan had been initiated, and Latins’ involvement sought, by the Mongol ruler of Baghdad, the ilkhan Arghun, and had seen a thousand or more Genoese [1]  enter Mesopotamia the previous year.  Certain details of the Voynich botanical folios show close similarity to a style recorded in upper Mesopotamia during the previous, twelfth, century.


Preacher fleur partizan

(detail) from a diagram occupying the first of a series of three panels on the back of the Voynich map’s upper half..   The figure is depicted in the stance conventional for the type of an orator-preacher, and wears precisely-drawn Mongol costume, including the otherwise unusual ‘horn’ headband. To use a  ‘lily’ as emblem for East  is a custom seen in Jewish art as early as the 6thC AD, but foreign to Latin practice.  In this case the ‘lily’  has its form by reference to an ornate version of a Mongol tamgha,(see right).       NOTE: the diagram containing this figure, with the two adjacent  panels were previously numbered  ’85v-1, 85v-2′ and ’85v-3′, but the Beinecke now describes the first as ‘folio 85v (part)’, the second as, ’86v (part)’ and the third as  ‘part of 85-86 foldout’.  Readers hoping to research the history of this manuscript’s study are advised to have handy a comparative list of foliations.

As merchants and as mariners, navigators and crossbowmen, the Genoese were renowned even in the near east, and had been from the time of the first Crusade.

GENOA’s enthusiastic response to Arghun’s invitation is explained partly by the impact of Mar Sawma’s embassy of 1287-8 [2] but more (as one might expect)  by Genoa’s own interests. For those Genoese, war against Cairo as a ‘Crusade’ was attractive, but the prospect of unhindered access to the Indian Ocean and, through Tabriz, to the road called ‘the spine of Eurasian trade’ counted heavily, as did a love for their city, as was soon made clear.


"In Pars,[i.e. Fars] the imperial tamgha was artfully  drawn to resemble a graceful fleur de lys" .."..from mid-665H" [= 1247 AD].  Judith Kolbas, The Mongols in Iran: Chingiz Khan to Uljaytu (1220–1309) pp.149-50.

“In Pars,[i.e. Fars] the imperial tamgha was artfully  drawn to resemble a graceful fleur de lys” ..”..from mid-665H” [= from 1247 AD].  Judith Kolbas, The Mongols in Iran: Chingiz Khan to Uljaytu (1220–1309) pp.149-50.






The pepper trade from southern India had been the foundation of Genoa’s prosperity and together with trade in other eastern goods was still its economic lifeblood. In 1285 it had several active markets in termini of  the ‘silk- and ‘spice’-‘ routes:   in Egypt, Cairo and/or Alexandria; in the Levant, Acre and Levantine Tripoli (the most Genoese of all the Crusader towns) and finally the port of Laiazzo in the south-east corner of Asia Minor. Latins called it ‘Ayas’.

fol 86v minimap castle

A small vignette of the Mediterranean, added to the manuscript’s map in at some time before the current fifteenth-century copy was made. Concerning the map’s correct alignment see post entitled ‘A curious orientation’.  I identify the ‘castle’ with Ayas/Laiazzo, but an argument could be made for Pera and with Constantinople – supposing the great tower the Galata, and those responsible for the addition more flexible about placement relative to the cardinal points.

Genoa lost its vital ‘terminus’ markets suddenly, one after another, in the space of six disastrous years:  1285 – 1291, leaving them only one: a small unprotected settlement in the Black Sea, at a site they called ‘Caffa’. In  1285 it saw so little transit trade from the east that the profits barely supported its few resident traders.


Caffa would remain without defensive walls until the fourteenth century, but when built they were topped by ‘imperial’ merlons which signified – beyond Europe – a Latin enclave of civil and/or military foundation, theoretically entitled to western diplomatic and military protection – not necessarily the protection of the current Holy Roman emperor.

‘Imperial’ merlons.

swallowtail from the medieval Genoese port of Caffa

Caffa’s  ‘imperial’ or  ‘swallowtail’ battlements. Some have argued the fourteenth-century  walls Venetian work, but the plan compares closely to that of Galata/Pera,  Genoa’s ‘quarter’ or trading ghetto in Constantinople.  [3]


Fortifications of Pera/Galata in Constantinople, in a sixteenth-century woodcut panorama.












The Genoese had been expelled from Acre in 1285 at the instigation of Venice and its allies. Friction with Egypt and an attempt by Genoa to blockade Egypt by sea is presumed to have prevented access to Alexandria and Cairo.  Thus, Arghun’s patronage was potentially a way to regain direct access to the eastern sea trade and also to Tabriz on the ‘silk highway’, it being the Mongol capital in Persia and a city whose wealth and markets astonished contemporary writers, both Islamic and Latin.


attitudes to depicting the human face. (top register) from a 14thC manuscript made in Mongol Persia (posited Tabriz). (centre and lower registers) details from Beinecke MS 408.

Levantine Tripoli fell to the Mamluks in 1289, while those thousand Genoese ship-builders, marines and navigators were yet at work in Mesopotamia. A contemporary Latin image shows ships carrying the Genoese flag active in the battle.


seige of Tripoli (1289) Brit.Lib. MS Add.27695, f.5.

Perhaps it was this event, however, which prompted the consuls of Genoa to  reverse their policy towards Cairo and to Baghdad virtually overnight. Representatives of the city went to Cairo to beg the Mamluk Sultan for peace, and they went under the aegis of the Volga Khans who were, themselves, at odds with Arghun.

The conditions imposed stipulated that no Genoese interfere further with the activities of the Sultan –  including military activity in Syria. That Genoa agreed shows the measure of its desperation and one can imagine what a furore ensued in Mosul and Baghdad when news of that pact, and orders to desist, were delivered to them.  If, as we are told, all thousand of them died to the last man in a Guelf-Ghibelline dispute, it is not difficult to understand. The Pope still supported crusade against Egypt, but the Republic demanded otherwise.

The Republic proved the stronger.  Almost immediately, the  Mamluk Sultan attacked Acre (1291). Genoese took no part in its defence, neither bringing relief to the besieged nor assisting their defence. Genoa also refused to ratify an agreement negotiated earlier with Henry II of England, by which he should have had use of Cyprus as staging post for actions in the Levant.  The same treaty may even explain why, three decades later, no help was provided the Christian king of Cilician Armenia when the Mamluks again invaded that country and this time not only took, but kept Laizzo.

In a sense, Laiazzo then counted by then as a ‘Frankish’ port, for  the king (Leo IV) had married the daughter of Eleanor of Anjou and Frederick III of Sicily [4]  So strongly pro-Latin were Leo’s policies that he had proposed another union: between the Armenian and Latin churches, but none of it availed him, neither bonds of blood, nor marriage, nor religion and he died in prison at the hands of his barons while still waiting on that Latin help which never came. Ayas was now closed to western traders for once and all. [5]

… continued..



[1] sources differ, but most number them between 900 and 1200.

[2] I can find no mention of Rabban Mar Sawma in connection with Beinecke MS 408 before my own comment to Nick Pelling’s blog. Since then I’ve had reason to mention it several times, usually referring too to Wallis Budge’s translation from the Syriac. The first mention at voynichimagery is dated September 2012, in a post entitled ‘Trade Routes and Scripts’ which proved so popular I have made it a separate Page (see side-bar for list of Pages).

[3] on debate over whether Venetians or Genoese fortified Caffa,  Ciocîltan cites archaeology and earlier studies in support of his view that Caffa’s fortifications (in place by 1347 and which survived to the nineteenth century)  “were strikingly similar to those of Pera, completed no longer ago than [not later than] 1303.”

‘Pera’ is Galata, from the ancient Greek Peran en Sykais. It was granted to the Genoese in 1267 by Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus. The exact boundaries were stipulated in 1303 and the Genoese were specifically prohibited from fortifying the quarter, but they not only did so; they appropriated more land as they wished and modified the walls to suit.

See Virgil Ciocîltan, The Mongols and the Black Sea Trade in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, Brill (2012).

To represent the opposite view, Josanu may stand for all, “.. during the first decades of the 14th century, … the Republic of Saint Mark initiated an extensive project for strengthening the colonies in the Black Sea area. The first walls were built around Caffa, which was followed, one by one, by the rest of the communities, so that in 1347 they were capable of defying the fury of Janybek Khan.” Vitalie Josanu, ‘A Monument of Romanian Medieval Civilization by the Great Sea*: Cetatea Alba – Moncastro’ (Ph.D. dissertation, National University of Bucharest (2013) p.11.

*By the present author, the term ‘ great sea’ is used for all the ocean to the east of the Persian Gulf and Red Sea and as far as China, which usage was evidently common during the medieval period, and is so employed by a fifteenth-century mariner named Ibn Majid.

[4]  “Frederick III… ” An incident in the reign of Frederick III of Sicily shows Occitan might be used at that time in delicate diplomatic situations, where we might now expect cipher.

The incident is often mentioned, but here as quoted in a wiki article ‘Frederick III of Sicily’ from Martín de Riquer, Los trovadores: historia literaria y textos. 3 vol. Barcelona: Planeta, 1975:

“When Frederick heard that James was preparing to go to war with him, he sent a messenger, Mountainer Pérez de Sosa, to Catalonia in an effort to stir up the barons and cities against James in 1298.  Mountainer carried with him an Occitan poem, Ges per guerra no.m chal aver consir, intended as a communication with his supporters in Catalonia. ..  This poetic transaction is usually dated to January–March, Spring, or August 1296, but Gerónimo Zurita in the seventeenth century specifically dated the embassy of Mountainer to 1298.”

Leo IV’s marriage to Constance was his second, contracted on December 29th., 1331.  Unfortunately, in trying by this and other means to assure the Latins of his allegiance and to secure  his kingdom, Leo alienated his own barons and roused general antipathy so great it affected Latins residing in his kingdom. Leo came to his unhappy end imprisoned, and still hoping for Latin support which never came.

[5] Ayas was taken and re-taken so often – by Mongol, Seljuk and Mamluk – that to determine whether it was, or wasn’t available to Latins in a given year (and if so, which Latins) is a matter for specialists more deeply versed in the fragmentary source material. I have relied chiefly on Virgil Ciocîltan’s masterly study.

Note – I have concluded that the ‘castle’ is certainly meant for Constantinople/Galata.  I believe this result may concur with the opinion of an earlier researcher, and I should be glad if any reader could help me find and name the earlier source. 10/04/2017


    • Koen,
      One of the prime indications of cultural origin for imagery is the attitude shown to depiction of the human face. Comparing the faces in the Voynich ‘bathy-‘ pages and calendar with those from the various possible sources has been a neat ‘sieve’.

      Those in the Voynich mss show some drawn in a style acceptable to Latins – but for those few, we have to consider that the fifteenth century copyists were quite likely habituated to Latin custom.

      Others show the combination of exaggerated cheekbone and very tiny, pointed chin.. so characteristic of Persian and Mongol-Persian, and even found in some Mughal art.

      In the Vms, though, we also have to consider the fact that the single most noticeable characteristic is that the female faces and figures are generally deprived of any beauty: ‘marred’ is the word I’ve often used.

      Now, that very unusual practice greatly limits possibilities … and is a good example of why in dealing with a problematic body of imagery, one has to carefully distinguish successive layers of cultural (including religious) affect. Because the ‘layers’ accumulation is normally tied to periods of cultural transmission, we can speak of them as chronological strata, and the process of distinguishing them as chronological stratification.

      Those images are there to provide food for thought. I object pretty vehemently to a practice sometimes seen in this study of just putting a couple of selected images side by side, without any historical or art-analytical commentary at all, and relying on the viewer’s inclination to imagine a causal relationship between the two … a sort of ‘guilt by association’. If I want to make an argument, I make an argument and do it in the usual way. 🙂


      • Yes, I see what you mean. However, I keep having some problems with what you call facial marring. Maybe this is because you have spent most time studying the nymphs in quire 13b. There I would agree that there is something going on with the face of the majority of the women. They have a misshapen forehead or weird cheeks or a lumpy chin….. BUT in quire 13a and the “zodiac” section, the marred faces are actually a minority. Some of the nymphs there are actually “pretty”, and most of their faces look kind of normal. So in quire 13b (pool pages) I think we’d get a majority of marred faces, while in the other nymphy folios this is not the case.

        What really puzzels me then, is what happened, because there are so many options:

        – the nymphs looked different in various source folios and those differences are reflected in the copy.
        – Only one copyist, the one who did the “pool pages” consistently copied the marred faces.
        – The marred faces are the result of sloppy copying or a cultural tendency of the copyist.

        I take it that the first and second option are the most likely. But in that case I wonder why one copyist took the effort to add these (for him) strange details while the others didn’t…


      • Koen,
        Now we’re verging on impressions gained from impressions, and I tend to shy away from hypotheses. I think it is generally agreed that there were several copyists, and the hand of one appears so briefly that I think he was sacked – his pages are the ones in the ‘bathy-‘ folios where instead of drawing curved and free-hand lines, we see use of the ruler and what appears to me to be an effort to draw his *interpretation* of the imagery rather than what was in front of him. He makes a pool into a bath, for instance.

        So, if it is generally accepted that there are a number of copyists, and that some are better at reproducing source material ‘facsimile’, while others tend to re-draw according to their own expectations of what *ought* to be there in terms of their own background and habits, then it is only to be expected that we find some variation in degree.
        However, if our default expectation of the fifteenth-century scribe(s) is that they were Latins of Europe -though given the anomalous binding style that may be open to dispute – then we can fairly assume that what we see is a “making nice” in the usual habit of Mediterranean Christian, Islamic and Persian custom of a “not pretty” precedent. That is, a copyist has in mind what a thing should look like and will constantly incline (unless *very* good) to set down on the page less what is actually before him than the thing he interprets the original to be, and he will set it down then in the way he is used to thinking that such a thing should appear.

        (As example of what I mean, have a look at the frontispiece to Kircher’s Oedipus…).

        Another example of this natural inclination in copyists… from the Vms. Take the figure with a sort-of roundish object in one hand and a sort of plant-like thing in the other. Those who (today) suppose the image a product of a medieval Latin Christian culture will hunt through their personal repertoire, and manuscripts from that cultural environment and might come up with the idea that e.g. the plant is a Yule tree and the roundish thing a snowball. If they were copying the Vms, then that’s probably what they would draw in copying that diagram. The dots on the tips of the leaves would just ‘become’ snow…etc. But someone else might see the roundish thing as a ball of perfume and the plant as a palm tree.. For them the dots on the tips are the spiny bits of a palm branch.. and that’s how they’d draw it, consciously or not. A really good copyist – or typist – doesn’t think too much or anticipate anything. 🙂
        A third person might see the roundish thing as a citron and the leafy thing as the lulav..

        Being reminded of something is ok, but it’s the rare person who doesn’t let it affect them. (That’s why for the first 18 months I read nothing but the Vms and scholarly works; nothing at all by Voynich writers.. and I think it was -JKP-? who said he had done the same.

        So – the ladies.

        Medieval Europeans expected the image of a female to have a pretty face and body unless meant for an old crone or evil witch or something of that sort. Beauty was supposed to be either a temptation sent by the devil or a reflection of the soul. Given that (as I’ve explained in detail) there’s no question of incompetent drawing, so we find that if some faces are ‘pretty’ in the calendar tiers, their bodies are not pretty. If the torso is fairly nicely drawn, as some are in the ‘bathy-‘ sections, the faces and limbs are again marred. The female figure on f.116v actually has a foot formed like a ruminant’s!

        But balancing this are those pre-Christian tuche-style battlement head-dresses – and when you came to consider those, I think you agreed with my judgement that these accord best with pre-Christian customs.

        So altogether, the image offers indication of (a) first enunciation in the pre-Christian – Hellenistic/Roman world; (b) retention of the imagery in a cultural environment which apparently had some type of tabu against forming a realistic image of living creatures (any, including animals);and a last stage (c) which saw acquisition and copying of that material by persons accustomed rather to the default of pretty female faces and bodies. It must have grieved some to have to copy verbatim such ugly images – ugly in terms of Latin, Islamic, Persian and Indian custom – especially when they surely knew they could make much nicer pictures if left to it. 🙂

        And some just gave way to their habits and expectations to a greater degree than others did. That’s how I see it, anyway.

        A comment to a comment really isn’t the way to summarise all this – which emerged only after the three years’ detailed research from 2008-2011. Given the three years’ work needed to make any of this clear at all, I don’t expect to do it here, now. But those were – and remain – my conclusions.


  1. Diane

    No, your comment to a comment is very clear, thanks 🙂 It’s important to know what exactly we are talking about.

    I do if course agree that there seems to have beenna division of folios between various copyists, though I have noticed that even this is not generally accepted.

    The only examples I can think of of cultures that draw unattractive people are the Coptic and Jewish ones, though neither would be inclined to turn a Hellenistic original into the kind of thing we see in the pool pages. The examples I’ve seen show a large degree of abstraction, but no intentional marring of the face.

    It’s remarkable that all copyists throughout its history seem to have been forced to place truthfulness to the original before their own expectations. Otherwise there would have been more corruptions. This does seem to imply a certain permanent usefulness of the material, as you say.


    • Koen,
      I haven’t seen deformed figures of humans in any Jewish art, myself; more that they are accomplished in being able to depict male and female figures without investing those figures with sexual overtones; Latin imagery of the 13thC until after our manuscript was made constantly expresses a figure in terms of sexuality and stereotyped sexuality at that. One can hardly imagine 15thC western Christian art depicting a female unclothed and yet without projecting sexuality. Jewish art of the medieval west certainly can, and does. So too some of the older Latin works, mainly before the 11thC. But again, I’ve not seen any deliberate deformation, or depiction of limbs as boneless and so on. We do find some textual support for the ‘boneless limbs’ though of course it refers to the powerlessness of stars – which imo all these ‘ladies’ represent, and not the powerlessness of living women. 🙂

      The anti-iconic and the iconoclastic traditions which are found in the older world (pre 3rdC AD) – in the near east, in India and to some extent revived in early medieval Constantinople are all fascinating subjects – and very probably inter-related. Scholarly investigation is long overdue.


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