O’Donovan notes 8 – Angles of approach. The Voynich calendar’s archer.

c.1150 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

Our investigation of two emblems from the Voynich calendar – those for July and for November – brought up the fact that the month-names are appropriate to a southern European dialect or language such as Occitan or Judeo-Catalan, and orthography attested in Picady, France c.1400AD.

We also found, from an Occitan-speaking region and from c.1350 a fairly well-drawn crocodile as November’s emblem in a Franciscan missal’s calendar (Bodleian, MS Douce 313).

Further, the Latin locusta could, as we saw,* be used to mean a crab, a lobster and even a locust, which equivalence had spilled over into the vernacular in parts of Britain and France by the early 12thC, this common usage explaining why Cancer should be so easily represented by a type of lobster in Latin texts, and be especially common in texts originating from that southern region of Europe.

(For historical, cultural, literary, artistic and even topographic reasons, England is classed here with France as part of ‘southern’ western Europe before c.1440).

To associate the lobster-Cancer with the month of July and Scorpius with the month of November is a practice found still earlier, in proof of which we cited a 12thC French copy of Bede’s De Temporum ratione (Brit.Lib. Royal MS 13 A XI). Bede was a monk whose life was spent in England. He lived from the late 7th -early 8thC AD.

We have not sighted any instance of a Latin European work in which July is illustrated by a pair of lobsters, as is seen in the Voynich calendar.

Overall, then, the balance of textual, linguistic and iconographic evidence strongly suggests, even at this relatively early stage and without reference to the codicological and other palaeographic evidence, a southern European provenance for this series of emblems as we now have them* and probable inclusion in the matter that would be later copied to form our manuscript, at some time from c.1350-c.1400.

*according with the conclusion earlier reached by Panofsky (1932) and by Kraus (an others) at about the time he gave the manuscript to the Beinecke library. Why the library’s website says otherwise has never been explained.

Against that conclusion is a collection of crossbowman images hunted out over the past two decades by the creators of, and by supporters of, the Prinke-Zandbergen theory of Germanic or ‘central European’ character for Beinecke MS 408. Given their wide dissemination, the emphasis continually placed on them, and assertions made about them, it only fair to consider these images, or rather those few among them that do not post-date the Voynich manuscript’s radiocarbon-14 range (1405-1438 AD).

So, setting aside all those which are dated between 1450 and 1799, we are left with three reasonable and two additional examples (4) and (5) to consider; (4) and (5) have been taken not from any form of calendar or zodiac cycle as such, but from texts describing the effect on personality of an astrological sign or planet. As Herrra has rightly said of such images,

The difficulty in treating this motif [‘Children of the Planets’] is that there are huge gaps and until the late 15thC very few [examples].

*Breanne Herrera, ‘The Children of the Planets…The Iconographic Dimensions of a Pan-European Early Modern Discourse’, thesis (M.A.), Central European University (2012).

But for argument’s sake they’re included as (4) and (5) because said to date from the late 1420s.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is german-ce-archer-sml-1.png


What we do learn from the three more appropriate comparisons (and even from those additional two) is that from c.1395 (Poland) through the 1420s (Switzerland) to the range 1430-50, the “crossbowman” type in northern manuscripts was drawn with remarkable consistency.

close-up. – detail added 20th Dec 2022.

In every case cited, one sees a figure bareheaded, clean-shaven and dressed a very short tunic that reaches to just below the buttocks – and in all these features the German figures are quite unlike the Voynich archer, who is hatted and dressed in a slightly longer than waist-length upper garment over a flounced double-skirt which descends to the knees or slightly lower. Nor is the Voynich archer clean-shaven, but is given a sparse, pointed ‘Spanish’ beard, drawn very well considering that the figure’s entire head, minus its hat, measures 5mm x 5 mm).

Because Kircher refers to an ‘Illyrican’ or ‘Illyrian’ script in connection with the Voynich text, I’ll mention here again, and as I first did in 2011, that an Albanian/Illyrian costume with such a skirt is attested from as early as the 4thC when it was worn with a ‘sidelock’ hat. (Some archaeologists hold that it is only a virtual hat, formed of bound hair). Below it, the garment now generally called the fustanella remains part of traditional dress though influenced since by Greek- and Turkish variants. As you see, there was a shorter and a longer version of this full skirt. Other and important versions are recorded on 13thC artefacts recovered from Corinth and the Morea, but I spoke of them as part of a detailed study of the Voynich archer contributed to Voynich studies some time ago and need not repeat it now.

If we were to set aside – just for the moment – the fact of the Voynich archer’s being inscribed ‘December’, and not trouble too much about precision in regard to details of dress, we might easily gather a good number of date-appropriate southern images of crossbowmen. Here, one example will do. This detail (below) comes from a manuscript made in northern France a century before the Voynich vellum’s radio-carbon range.

Already by then, as you see, this French figure is wearing a hat and his tunic is longer than any crossbowman so far cited from a northern manuscript earlier than 1450. But since this figure is also clean-shaven, and his skirt isn’t of the ‘fustanella’ type’, and he is isn’t tied to the month of December, points in common are too few to be helpful in understanding the origin and intention of the Voynich drawings – except, as it happens, his bow, but that’s for some other time.

Text-type and image

The detail labelled (4) had no other purpose but to provide an illustration for this paragraph:


The detail labelled (5) is a minor detail cut from an illustration in a German work describing ‘Children of the planets’.

Among the various other images adduced as support for the P-Z theory but which we’ve set aside as being of too late a date to be helpful one does have some interest – not so much for its crossbowman as for the calendar found elsewhere in that manuscript.

For June it had a nice-looking lobster with a three-point head. Unlike the Voynich lobsters, though, it is linked to June and not to July, just as its idea of Scorpius is tied to October and looks not remotely like the Voynich crocodile, or even like that in Douce 313, drawn in France a century before. Also interesting is that its Sagittarius, admittedly now wearing that longer sort of tunic seen a century earlier on a French crossbowman-fowler, remains traditionally bare-headed, clean-shaven and still carries a bow of the old, simple type – in 1450.

The hat.

By the fifteenth century, versions of tailed hat with folded or back-turned brim had a very long history in parts of southern Europe, as in ‘Illyria’. It is a type distinct from what came to be called, using the French, a ‘chaperon’.

  • added illustration (right) 21/12/2022.. In the new year, I’ll post a brief visual ‘history’ of the this form of headwear, showing how it developed a semi-tailored form for a while during the 15thC, but for now, here’s a very early depiction of the simplest Spanish type in a pre-Islamic (6thC.) relief in Toledo. Today, we’d describe this as a tailed beanie. 🙂

The following illustration comes from a fifteenth-century copy of Ibn Butlan’s book of health, known in Latin translation as the Tacuinum sanitatis. This verison signifies a master – and i n this case an eastern master – of his profession.

I first published this detail and comment in a post to Voynich imagery (July 2015)

So far – and despite supporters’ having laboured for two decades to find crossbowman figures that might be supportive of the P-Z theory, the balance of evidence on this point is still against it.

Not only does the Voynich archer wear a doubled skirt and a tailed hat but he is assigned to December and sports that sparse, pointed ‘Spanish beard’.

And all that is, as said above, without bringing into the equation evidence from palaeography codicology or archaeology.

[paragraph deleted 21st Dec.]

In researching an image, an effort to find support for a theory on which the researcher is already determined is a very poor angle of approach; the eyes shift from the work in question to te theory itself. Theory-induced blindness is – as I’ve said before – a very real phenomenon in the fields of art historical and archaeological research.

2 thoughts on “O’Donovan notes 8 – Angles of approach. The Voynich calendar’s archer.

  1. I feel I should repeat, under this post, a comment by Koen Gheuens which I cited some months ago. It explains why I don’t try to be more specific about the month-names, other than describing them as proper to southern Europe.

    Koen said, in part:
    ” When I asked a professor of French linguistics about this some years ago, he said that the material was simply not sufficient to determine a region. I do think determining a region should be possible, but so far the evidence is minimal. It should be possible for someone who is at home in historical French texts, regional evolutions in French dialects, and has a lot of spare time though….”


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