In my previous post, I flagged a specific location as possibly relevant for Voynich studies: the Prodromos monastery in Petra (part of Constantinople). I will refer to it as the Prodromos Petra monastery to avoid confusion with other similarly named sites – Prodromos was a title for John the Baptist and hence quite a popular name. This monastery is now gone, but it survives in the manuscripts it produced or otherwise left its mark on. Two of those were the subject of the previous post:
- The Juliana Anicia Codex (JAC): the text in Voynich-like layout was added to this ancient manuscript in or before 1406, when its restoration was finished by John Chortasmenos.
- Padova, Biblioteca del Seminario, 194: a faithful copy of the plant images of the JAC, with text in Voynich-like layout. It was produced at Prodromos Petra between 1339 and 1406. It has been attributed to the scribe called Neophytos, but this is uncertain.
Cataldi Palau (2000, p.203-5) writes on these figures:
With [Neophytos] who was a monk, a philosopher, a medical doctor, we note a change in the manuscript production of the Prodromos Petra monastery. From the fourteenth century, we notice that manuscripts originating from it do not contain religious texts as before; [they] are mostly scientific, medical, philosophical manuscripts. There is a reason for this. We do not know precisely when or how, but the Prodromos Petra monastery became attached to a Xenon, or hospital, precisely to the Xenon of the Kral. […]
In the fourteenth century a school was also attached to the Prodromos Petra monastery and to the Xenon of the Kral; it was called kaqolikòn mouseîon, and there professors used to hold their lessons.
We have a precise note about this from a famous manuscript, the richly illustrated Vienna Dioscorides, Vindob. med. 1, datable to the VI century (after 512), which was restored and rebound by John Chortasmenos in 1406. From the note written by Chortasmenos on the manuscript, we learn that the monk Nathanael, of the Prodromos Petra monastery, who directed the Xenon of the Kral, had ordered the restoration of the codex and paid for it, which means that it belonged to the monastery.
For those who don’t like to read long quotes: in the early 14th century, a hospital was attached to the monastery, and later in the same century, this was expanded with a school. This meant that now there was a demand for medical and scientific manuscripts, a change which is reflected in the manuscripts written by Neophytos and later scribes.
Neophytos was “a 14th century monk and scribe of Albanian origin in the circle of Manuel II Paleologus. He wrote a compendium of Aristotelean logic, also on the 24 letters of the alphabet and on Indian numbers, as well as theological works, and works on medicine.” He is also known for his lexicon of Arabic plant names and their transliteration into the Greek alphabet, which Touwaide calls the best example of this type.
Indeed, Touwaide (in Wallis & Wisnovsky (2016), p27) notes that by the mid-fourteenth century, thanks to Neophytos, the interest in Arabic medicine had concentrated around one place in Constantinople: the Prodromos Petra monastery. This went together with a revived interest in the Greek traditions. Touwaide sees the Prodromos monastery as “a center for reorganisation of previously translated works, so as to create a unified body out of pieces of different origins.”
Cataldi Palau lists three manuscripts signed by Neophytos with his own name. Unfortunately, these are text-only while we are interested in the interaction between image and text. Vat Gr. 1018 for example is a standard manuscript full of nicely justified text blocks in Greek minuscule. The only exciting thing happening visually are these triangles someone drew in the margin.
Neophytos was almost certainly responsible for the layout of the 14th century Dioscorides now kept in Padua. As I noted in the previous post, the images were faithfully copied from the JAC, but the text was transcribed from the original Greek uncial script to Greek minuscule. In doing so, it was also combined with the plant on the same page, where the luxurious JAC had space for text on a separate page.
Mioni (1959, p. 349) writes (in my attempt at translating Italian):
It is not possible to say whether the scribe and the painter were the same person. What is certain is that Neophytos first painted the plants himself, or had them painted, and then he added the Dioscorides text in his own hand, inserting it, when he ran out of space, between the leaves and flowers of the images.
The second person of interest is John (Ιωάννης) Chortasmenos, who has his own Wikipedia entry. Like Neophytos, Chortasmenos was a learned monk, interested in mathematics and astronomy. Of his hand is “perhaps the most widely known scholium to a Greek mathematical work ” in which he wishes Diophantus’ soul is with Satan because of the difficulty of his theorems. In 1410, four years after his restoration of the JAC, he became a monk, and later metropolitan bishop under the name Ignatius of Selymbria.
It is certain that Chortasmenos finished the restoration of the Juliana Anicia Codex in 1406. However, in all sources I consulted, there was ambiguity about whether or not Chortasmenos had also written the new (Voynich-like) text in Greek minuscule, and what exactly this text contained. That is why I contacted prof. Gaincarlo Prato, who has written about Chortasmenos’ handwriting. He confirmed that it was Chortasmenos who wroth the close-fitting minuscule. Additionally, these are not new scholia, as claimed in some publications, but rather transliterations of the original text in Greek uncial script.
Mioni studied the Padua Dioscorides in 1959, and he concluded that it must have been copied from the JAC some time before Chortasmenos’ rebound the 6th century tome: the Padua MS includes some images which were no longer present in the 1406 restoration. This leaves us with the following timeline:
- The JAC was made in the early 6th century
- It was copied by Neophytos in the 14th century. The text for the copy was transcribed and converted to “Voynich-layout”. This MS is now in Padua.
- Chortasmenos restored the JAC in 1406 and transcribed the text. On many pages, the text he added creates a Voynich-like layout.
This means that in both cases, the relevant layout was the result of a transcription. Did Chortasmenos perhaps consult Neophytos’ copy during his work on the JAC? I’d think this very likely, since both manuscripts were at that time housed somewhere in the Prodromos Petra complex. Additionally, the Padua MS, which for our purpose can be called the earlier example, is a bit more consistent in its Voynich-like layout.
It’s interesting to put some of the plants side by side. Below the 14thC MS on the left, and the JAC (6thC image, 15thC text) on the RIGHT.
And again for a different plant. In this case, Chortasmenos did not transcribe any paragraph.
This is why I suggest that further research should primarily focus on the Padua MS and the figure of Neophytos Prodromenos.
Bonus: the Juliana Anicia Complication
Just when I was about ready to publish this post, I found a single image from the JAC which doesn’t sit too comfortably in my narrative. I shall post it here in the name of science, and see if an attentive reader will be able to tell me what’s wrong with it 😉
 See Acerbi, 2013: http://grbs.library.duke.edu/article/view/14647
Faith Wallis & Robert Wisnovsky (eds), Medieval Textual Cultures: Agents of Transmission, Translation and Transformation (de Gruyter, 2016)
Thanks to Diane O’Donovan for her input on this matter, and to prof. Giancarlo Prato for information on Chortasmenos’ writing.