Notes on an Aegean connection: Ladies – archer -Despotiko- Constantinople.

– a long post but the summary may prove helpful-


I’m reasonably sure – because I was obliged to run the usual gauntlet at the time – that none had previously noticed allusions to the Aegean in this manuscript until the point cropped up, as I recall, in connection with the alum trade,  linked by reasons of trade and technology with certain dye-plants that I had just identified in the botanical section and some of which were among those imported into the medieval Mediterranean.

Bdid1dr soon took up the Aegean theme, looking in depth at Chios [Kios].

I’ve returned to it in treating various details – such as the fat-tailed sheep depicted on f.116v, or the astronomical imagery with its ‘nymphs’ who, in my opinion, are astronomical and meteorological personifications wherever they occur and  the most having, in addition to overt or tacit reference to a star, allusion to time and locus – in my opinion. I formed this view from research done before voynichimagery was begun and have said so ever since – without co-operative response for the first six years or so. Koen Gheuens’ is the first fair use of the material of which I’m aware.

It always seemed obvious to the point of banality that first enunciation of the ‘ladies’ must have occurred in the Hellenistic world, at which time their proportions would have been more Greek – but regardless of argument or evidence adduced, the information met uniform indifference until (as they do) the winds of change arrived in their appointed season.

Koen Gheuens’ latest post sensibly addresses the detail of the nymphs’ standing contrappostocharacteristic of Greek and Hellenistic works, and  imitated by artisans of Rome and of Renaissance Europe.

By the present author, and in the same context, reference to the Aegean was also made when re-considering Panofsky’s first appraisal of the manuscript in 1931. He had immediately seen it as a Jewish product [1]  from ‘Spain or somewhere southern’, dating  it (or more exactly the present appearance of the volume and its imagery) to the thirteenth or fourteenth century.

I was able to show that his then hesitating was due partly to his noting a difference between content and manufacture – that is, that certain pigments are fifteenth-century ones – but partly to his having no precedent to cite for ‘shapely ladies’ in European works before the fifteenth century.  I was able to show the second negated by images in a fourteenth-century Spanish Jewish work – an astronomical compendium formerly part of the Sassoon collection (as Sasson MS 823).  Sassoon MS 823 was unknown in 1931.

I did not differ, of course, from the opinion of those eminent scholars [2] who first studied that manuscript, observing that the imagery owes nothing to the alSufi corpus latinus – but I have added as my own opinion that the line by which it had reached the Jewish community in southern Europe was via the Aegean from the Black Sea and ultimately from the Indo-Persian tradition on which al-Sufi relied.

[1]  In a thirteenth- to fifteenth-century context, Kabbalah must be regarded as Jewish by definition; its flourishing in Iberia is generally agreed to have occurred with the publication of the Zohar in the  thirteenth century.  That a manuscript or its exemplars, taken from Iberian precedents, should also contain some evidence of Islamic modes in image-making is scarcely to be wondered at, but is no justification for misrepresenting Panofsky’s opinion as some have done and continue to do.

[2] Karl Adolf Franz Fischer; Paul Kunitzsch; Yitzhak Tzvi Langermann.

2. LATINS IN THE AEGEAN – Despot and Despotikó.

Treating the Voynich archer added to the evidence for an Aegean connection, by reference to the historical context, analysis of the archer’s costume and so forth.  The whole of that dissection and commentary – in brief but still in excruciating detail – can be read by those inclined: it appears here as a separate page. In summary:

Visually (in f.73v and in an Occitan manuscript); in archaeological finds (I cite a type known from  coins of older Tyre and an item explaining the archer’s unusual crossbow); in literature (citing Aratus and Manilius) and by proverbial connection (vide the later Cervantes) – one is guided towards a recognition of the maker’s intention: to allude to the embodiment of a once-proverbial archetype – a  despotic maritime ‘Sagittarios’, ruling amid the waters.

First citing older astronomical texts, and having also earlier traced the history and transmission of Sagittarius as a standing human figure, I found that the key concept is perfectly expressed by the simile employed in a work from sixteenth-century Spain, where the type evidently remained proverbial:

” … up until yesterday I governed [the island] at my pleasure, like a saggitarius, but … it seemed to me a dangerous trade, that of governor… ” 

Cervantes, Don Quixote (Chapter LIV)

The implied pun here relies on the etymology of  ‘governor’ and perception of parallel between the master of the ship and of the ‘ship of state’ but for our purpose the more important point is that Cervantes was almost certainly associating this type with the Aegean, and more exactly the well-known Latin Duchy of the Archipelago which was centred on Naxos, and included the island of Despotikó, seen in the map below (click to enlarge). The present form of the archer (as I have constantly said) belongs to the latest stratum of the imagery’s evolution, occasional adaptation and rare instances of re-working. Save for uncertainties about this bow’s first use, I’d ascribe the imagery in its present form to between c.1240 and 1340.

Despotikó sits not only in the ‘midst of the sea’ –  but in the exact centre of the Cyclades.

Kouros from the temple at Despotikó

This next paragraph now has a version added as comment to Koen’s ‘contrappunto’ blogpost.

The key to understanding the ‘nymphs’ is – as with all imagery – ultimately a matter of recognising the language in which the maker thought and of remaining aware that it is sound, and not orthography, which informs perception of the similar and the synonymous. In this case the chain (as I interpret it, anyway) runs Horae/[Huri]/Hora/Chora.

and so again…

Note that sites here labelled ‘Hora’ are otherwise written as ‘Chora’

A paragraph from the wiki article  ‘Despotikó’ is worth quoting:

“Currently, excavations are taking place in the northwest part of the island ..The excavations proved the existence of an important late Archaic sanctuary with abundant objects indicating links to mainland Greece, the Eastern Mediterranean and even to Northern Africa, as well as the continued use of this area in the Classical, Hellenistic, Roman and Frankish periods.”


‘The Empress of Constantinople’ in a manuscript from central France made in the 2nd quarter of the fourteenth century. The picture shows certain stylistics also found in the Voynich manuscript’s botanical section and one detail which appears (perhaps co-incidentally) in imagery of the ‘nymphs’.  see following reference in the ‘Comments’ to this post.

Most recently – just a couple of days ago –  it became  apparent to me that the map’s ‘castle’ is a token for Constantinople,  not for Laiazzo as I’d previously held.

Apart from what was included by the present author in an analytical dissection of folio 86v (Beinecke foliation ’85v-and-86r’),  connection with Constantinople came down finally to the context of this detail – not only in relation to others on the same folio, but the historical context indicated for this recension and the fact that the structure’s walls to  front and back  are  ornamented with what are popularly known as ‘swallow tail merlons’.

The  laborious process of investigation and discussion for the full map is, once again, published as separate Page. (I regret that certain claims made years later by Juergen Wastl and Danielle Feger have led to an impression – aided by avoidance on the part of those promoting the ‘Germanic’ storyline – that the map had not earlier been treated in any depth.  If you need clarity about  order of exposition, then the first part of that Page should clarify; otherwise, jump to about half-way down where a good many of the posts containing the map’s analysis, commentary and historical context are listed).

Outside western Europe, ‘swallowtails’ announce the boundary of an area administered by Latins but they imply neither political obedience to the Emperor of the west nor affiliation with the European ‘Ghibbelines’; the opposite is true if they appear on structures erected within  Europe. There , and particularly in the Italian peninsula,  they signal the builder’s preference for the Ghibbeline position  over the Guelf.

Failure to consider the possibility that the manuscript’s content was formed elsewhere than in the mind of some posited Latin Christian male ‘author’ or ‘artist’  – and in many cases failure to consider  Latin European matter other than what might make a narrative fiction (‘hypothesis’) appear more plausible – has been a recurring block to this study’s advance, but when combined with deliberate dereliction in matters of scholarly apparatus – as happened increasingly in the two decades to  2015, and was positively insisted upon by  certain Voynicheros after the death of the first mailing list – the study  began an endless and retrograde circling – which in a flash of inspiration Nick Pelling once likened to the ‘Ground-hog Day’ phenomenon.

The error was for some years compounded by scant regard – and sometimes assertive disregard – for formal study, whether of technical studies, of method in analysis, or general histories of medieval art of basic history itself beyond wiki-level. I have seen it asserted with some emphasis that the only qualification needed to assess the problematic imagery in this problematic manuscript are “two eyes and common sense”.  One doubts that any reputable keeper of manuscripts would agree.  The results of such confidence have been predictable, affected particularly by two principal errors:  an ignorance of the role which is played by stylistics and an unexamined assumption that ‘realism’ was the  aim of all image-making.

Concentration on hypotheses and a hunt post-facto for the evidence which should have been known to exist before any hypothesis was presented, led for years to nothing but reducing concentration on the prinary source.  Just as one example: there is only one other person recorded as having noticed since 1912 that the map (as a whole) has its east to the viewer’s up-left.

None attempted to identify  emblems for the cardinal points. Nor is the map’s ‘east-left’  a result of having bound a south-facing map so that it is (more or less) ‘north- up’.  The internal evidence shows an east-left and north-up orientation was accepted by the original makers, or more precisely by those, at least, who prepared the final recension. I won’t enlarge.

swallowtail from the medieval Genoese port of Caffa in Crimea ( set in the Black Sea).

So – having finally recognised that the draughtsman meant the ‘castle’ to evoke Constantinople, it was clear that the ‘swallowtails’ set an upper limit for of 1204 for this addition, that being the years in which a Latin was crowned emperor of Byzantium.

That Latin dynasty was short-lived, an initial welcome turned to determined hostility within little more than fifty years, because the Latins behaved exactly as they had done in the Levant and Syria.  Rapacious, ill-mannered, lacking in administrative or diplomatic capacity,  they proved incapable of maintaining that delicate balance which had for a thousand years enabled Byzantium to survive amid a sea of hostile peoples.

The Latin dynasty terminated in 1261 after which the throne returned to a Byzantine line. So a terminal date for those ‘swallow-tails’ could be argued 1261, although cartographers are notably and happily conservative.

It was in reaction to the Latin interlude that the Byzantines now began to identify themselves as ‘Greeks’ where before they had perceived themselves, in a general sense, ‘Romans’.


Medieval Islamic and Greek works use ‘Frank’ to mean any Christian from western Europe. It is much as if they said ‘foreigner’ or (as the Latins called others) ‘Saracen’ – a generalisation expressing at once ignorance of and indifference to the persons in question.

Thus, the ‘massacre of the Latins’ (Gk. Σφαγή των Λατίνων) in 1182 affected such Europeans as were the city. As it happened, a majority were Genoese and Pisans, the Venetians having been  expelled not long before and few as yet returned to the city. Nor was the igniting spark sectarian differences between the Byzantine and Latin church, but the perception that Latins resident in Constantinople were enemies of the invading usurper Andronicus. They were killed as he entered with other foreign troops  intent on a (successful) coup d’état.[3]

An image alleged to show the massacre of the Latins in 1182. I have not located the original picture. I am rather inclined to doubt the description –  the banner which hangs before the king might – if one could look into the lions’ mouths, be described as “Gules, three lions passant guardant in pale or armed and langued azure”. 😀

Byzantium was never subsumed into the Holy Roman Empire, and in searching for any specifically Germanic element in Constantinople I find not  even a mention of the Teutonic knights in Johnathan Harris’ recent history of the city.  A highly laudatory account of the knights authored by  F.C. Woodhouse for a popular history-based website used by school-students is the most positive I can find, and even then it says little except that except that after Baldwin’s coronation, as payment for their earlier military actions while in the Levant, the order received some land on which they themselves then built:

The Teutonic Knights received considerable possessions… a preceptory was founded in Achaia. Some time afterward another was established in Armenia, where also the order had obtained property and territory in return for service rendered in the field.  The order also received the distinction of adding to their bearings the Cross of Jerusalem.

  • Woodhouse, F.C. ‘Teutonic Knights: Their Organization And History’ (web article), International World History Project. Web. 6 Nov. 2014.
  • About that  website  ‘History World’, some information is offered here. Initiative and direction ascribed to  Robert A. Guisepi in whose biography it is prominent: “his history related [sic] website receives one million hits per month and is considered a major resource for students all over the world.”

[3] Earlier historians, including an early Byzantine author, suspected Venice of using  this means to take revenge for the recent expulsion. Others argue that Dandolo, Doge of Venice, sought by destroying Byzantium to secure Venetian control of the eastern trade. On these matters see e.g. Madden, who writes (p.730) “The massacre of Pisans and Genoese was a stroke of good fortune for Venice, as it obliged Andronicus I (1183-5) to turn to Venice during his short reign for military support against the Normans, Genoese, and Pisans.” Thomas F. Madden, ‘Outside and Inside the Fourth Crusade’, The International History Review, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Nov., 1995), pp. 726-743.  This feud affects the pattern of dissemination for certain forms and motifs appearing in Latin Europe during the period from c.1250-1400 and subsequently in Beinecke MS 408..

See also posts entitled  ‘The rise of the Greek in Voynich Studies’.



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