f.73v: The word – thank you, Sancho Panza (s-f-s #12e/5)

Summary: Option (d): All the above.

…. 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)[a]

“One group of crossbowmen, known as the “noble crossbowmen” were recruited from the aristocracy and served aboard both galleys and armed merchantmen from the late fourteenth century onwards, having the privilege of living in the captain’s cabin.”

GUBERNIO: The helmsman, also known as the gubernator … because his prudence restrains … the winters (ibernum i.e. hibernum), that is, the storms of the sea. …

Isidore, Etymologiae  Book XIX.i.4.

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Notes for a paper..

1. ‘Arcum Sagitarii’ ~ from BOW TO CROSSBOW.

Latin arcus “bow”+ ballista” machine for throwing projectiles”; Late Latin arcuballista “catapult”; vulgar Latin arbalista; Old French arbaleste “large crossbow with a crank” (12thC);    Crossbow (c.1300).[12]

“…whatever are the safest places in a city are called citadels from their holding off (arcere) the enemy. Also from this term are ‘bow’ (arcus) and ‘strongbox’ (arca)…”  Isidore.

The same word used for the bow (arca) described Noah’s protective ‘ark’, commonly envisaged as sea-chest or box. Ibn Majid tells us that an ancient arca as ship is formed from stars in our Ursa Major, but even if the Voynich archer had once been in the northern ship, here it can be supposed a form for Sagittarius, already envisaged as a ‘lion of the seas’ , in an early fourteenth century Occitan manuscript (see below).

arcipelagos (13thC) Greek ἀρχιπέλαγος, from classical Greek ‘Aigaion pelagos‘ chief [of the] seas; from archon ‘chief’ + pelagos ‘sea’, ‘high sea’.

In classical times, the Greek ‘archon’ was generally used to denote a provincial governor, or a religious or secular authority. In Gnostic texts, where the reference is to spiritual hierarchies, the word ‘archons’ is translated as ‘authorities’. The sense is normally a negative one in those writings.

In 1207, Marco Sanudo, nephew of a former doge of Venice had taken several of the Aegean islands and created the duchy of the ‘Arcipelago’  [Ducato dell’arcipelago, Gk: Δουκάτον Αρχιπελάγους], over which he ruled in person from 1207 to 1227. In 1317 the Catalan Company raided the already reduced Duchy, the Crispo family becoming the next line of Dukes of the Archipelago, by force, in 1383 . Their dynasty was more interested in piracy than stable government or general prosperity. The Occitan MS was made contemporary with the Duchy’s first period, MS Beinecke 408 with the second.

Sagittarius Scorpius detail Occitan MS Royal 19  C  I  fol 37

(detail) B.L. MS Royal 19 C I fol 37 (Occitan). First quarter of the 14thC. a Maritime Sagittarius with Scorpius

2. Greek returns to the Latin world. (inc. Oxford Bibliographies e.g. Herren’s ~ online)

3. Crossbowmen in the 13thC ~ Genoese, Catalan, Greek.

Late in the thirteenth century, Catalan crossbowmen[13] were among the first to be hired as Venetian mercenaries.


In the naval engagement near Sluys, in Holland, where Edward III defeated the French.. the latter had as many as 20,000 Genoese crossbowmen on their ships.[14]

 (in Venice ..)

“The defensive equipment carried by each [Venetian] ship was closely regulated by the goveFustanella 12thC Corinthrnment. In 1255 a small vessel carried five assorted crossbows, a large ship at least eight.. Skilled sailors were recruited in Venice, Dalmatia[15] and Greece.[16] ..[By the early fourteenth century] crossbows were now the  main long-distance weapon. In 1303, the government now decreed that each galley carry 30 such crossbowmen…

One group of crossbowmen, known as the “noble crossbowmen” were recruited from the aristocracy and served aboard both galleys and armed merchantmen from the late fourteenth century onwards, having the privilege of living in the captain’s cabin.”

Martin Windrow, The Venetian Empire 1200-1670, Osprey  (pp.6-7)

.. all the above explaining nicely why our crossbowman wears a wealthy man’s full sleeved jacket above a regional version of the Byzantine military dress and a hat like that on the Byzantine ‘governor’ depicted by Fra Angelico in c.1437/8. (Other sources date it to 1447-48). Fra Angelico lived 1395- 1455.

That otherwise incongruous combination of clothing, appearance and accoutrements tells us that the Voynich archer is a “crossbowman noble”, very possibly Venetian, though not necessarily so.  Legislation passed by Venice in the later fifteenth century formalises for Venetians a system which had always marked the Balestrieri genovesi. No matter to whom Genoa’s crossbowmen were lent or hired out,  commanders of the units normally came from the city’s noble families and Genoese crossbowmen remained formally in service to their Republic, even from the time of the first crusade.

It seems to me that the maker of the posited thirteenth century exemplar did not admire the type.

Nobles inevitably had higher rank than a mere ship’s captain and with little to do (one expects) between naval engagements, the behaviour of such ship-board “sagittari” can be imagined easily enough, especially from the ordinary seamen’s point of view. So too the attitude informing Sancho’s equation – apparently already proverbial – whereby the ‘sagittarius’ signifies an arriviste immune from the laws affecting everyone else.

4. Explaining the form of the Voynich archer:

And so, at last, I think we are properly equipped to understand how this fifteenth-century figure was intended to be read. It is not Sagittarius as master hunter on land, but a maritime figure, a non-classical ‘Sagittarius’ related distantly to the type which saw it as auxiliary of Apollyon, ‘ruling over the deeps’. The scarf may be read as another mark of status, rather than as ornament (cf. image of Saladin etc.) A Venetian, a Genoese, or a Catalan crossbowman ‘governor’ within the Greek-speaking Aegean, would appear to inform the figure as we have it.

Voynich archer new scan

The long face with its pointed beard but no moustache, suggests (in the custom of Latin painting), a Spaniard, a non-Latin, or someone affected by ‘foreign habits’. So again this hat and skirt.

Tuscany, Celtica, and Spain, are connected with Sagittarius

Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, Bk 3.

His jacket with its excess cloth tells of his wealth and social status.

His ‘skirt’ is martial costume of regional Greek type, in my opinion, but a case might be made for the courtier’s dress.

Our examples of maritime crossbows are few, by the nature of things, but one of Spanish design shows an innovation enabling the bolt to be fixed after priming, to reduce accidental discharge.  In this example (made c.1510) the object protruding from the side is the lock-plate. When that innovation was made is not known.[17]

crossbow maritime wreck 1510

reconstruction of maritime crossbow from a Spanish wreck. bow dated c.1510.

73v hands largeWe may now fairly see the Voynich archer as being, most unusually, both the astronomical ‘Sagittarius’ and a ‘Sagittarian’ character, though the latter less in terms of astrology than in that colloquial sense recorded in Spain.

If we consider how many other folios in the manuscript include, or presume, the world of maritime trade and culture, our figure’s independence from the forms observed in Latin scriptoria for representing constellations becomes intelligible. So too does what I take to be reference in parallel to astronomy, geography and populations, if my analysis of f.86v is accepted with its later chronological layer connecting to the rise of rhumb-gridded cartes marine.

The makers saw Sagittarius not as a hunter of swine or birds, but as a cold character (and month) [18] which might switch in a moment from being the defense and saviour of a ship (or island) to being its oppressor. The lightning-bolts of Sagittarius strike as they will, impossible to predict. So too with Sancho Panza’s “saggittarius’ who inflicts harm, or wards it off, however he pleases in his ‘island world’.


6. Regional influences

We have evidence that Sagittarius was being envisioned as a ‘lion of the seas’ at least in Occitan-speaking regions during the early fourteenth century, the time of the Avignon papacy. Early in the fifteenth, the Boucicault master painted in a French manuscript a villanous martial figure with a lion’s body though no bow.

Like the Occitan figure, ours apparently aims towards the scorpion ‘below’, the difference being that the Voynich archer is entirely human and his bolt is not yet loosed. It is prepared, and apparently locked for prudence’ sake.  His hand’s turning nonetheless reminds the viewer that the defender can also threaten.  His entirely human appearance shows this figure descends from that devised in the near east under Byzantine rule, by Jews in northern Palestine in the sixth century – and this remains so regardless of what character is accorded the figure by Latins in later medieval Europe.

Beth Alpha Sagittarius and Scorpio

Beth Alpha mosaic. Sagittarius and Scorpius. Fully human archer.

And that, I think, is the centre of folio 73v fairly well sorted.

Now for those working on the written text – what about words, and languages?.. Can we discern the languages in which the draughtsman thought?  .. next post.


Say to the prince of Tyre: .”.. your heart is proud and you have said:…’I am enthroned in the middle of the seas’.”

Ezekiel 28:2.

sea lord

Names for the 12 constellations of the zodiac in many languages (omniglot).


Breton: ar Saezhataer

Danish: Skytten



[a] “Dígote, Ricote amigo, que esta mañana me partí della, y ayer estuve en ella gobernando a mi placer, como un sagitario; pero, con todo eso, la he dejado, por parecerme oficio peligroso el de los gobernadores”.

12. Payne-Gallwey gives a list of terms used for crossbow and for crossbowmen in medieval Europe. His Book of the Crossbow is available online through the internet archive.  The list of terms is on page 2.

13. David Nicolle, Christopher Rothero, The Venetian Empire 1200-1670, Osprey Publishing, 1989(p.18)

14. Payne-Gallwey, op.cit., p.2.

15. Dalmatia… Crossbows as military weapon is evidently an idea brought to Dalmatia by the Genoese in the late fourteenth century. “Despite being short-lived, the Genoese stay in Trogir [in Dalmatia] from 1378 to 1381 could have had a strong influence on the acceptance of the crossbow in that city.”   Ivan Alduk, ‘Contribution to understanding the Crossbow in Medieval Dalmatia’, Starohrvatska prosvjeta, Vol.III No.34 (December 2007) pp.379-387. (online.) Two illustrations shown that paper strongly suggest that the type of crossbow pictured on f.73v is not that used in Dalmatia and that when in action, Dalmatian crossbowmen wore ordinary European military costume.

16. Greece… We do not hear of the crossbow as weapon of the Byzantine before they began hiring Genoese and Venetian crossbowmen, the great majority Genoese. Following the first crusade, territories  in Greece and the Aegean had also been granted the Genoese and the Venetians. On which see Peter Lock, The Franks in the Aegean: 1204-1500, Routledge (2014).

17. J. Barto Arnold III et.al., ‘The Padre Island Crossbows’, Historical Archaeology, Vol. 29, No. 2 (1995), pp. 4-19

18. Sagittarius’ month is November or December in the medieval series. In MS Beinecke 408 is associated with December by reference to the late(?) inscription; it is also December in the Cathedral of Otranto mosaic and numerous medieval works. In classical times it dominated the night sky in December, and properly in November during medieval times, but reliance on classical authors sees it variously November or December in the Latin manuscripts. Month-name inscriptions from MS Beinecke 408 are shown together, in order, in a post by Thomas Sauvaget ‘About Month Names..’ (March 25th., 2012) here. The proposal that their language was Occitan we owe to Jorge Stolfi, who in 1997 “asked some Occitan researchers if they had any 15th-16th century texts with month names in” as Nick Pelling noted in a post to ciphermysteries.com (August 29th., 2009). Pelling’s book Curse of the Voynich (2006) set them out with additional discussion of the palaeography. Thomas Sauvaget took a different line.



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AFTERWORD. ‘Unfettered’..

4. Inscription:

I cannot help but wonder whether the hand which deteriorates so rapidly while adding month-names to this series – to the point where this last in the series is all but illegible –  wasn’t yet trying to suggest a ‘fettering’ of sorts here.

f73v inscription

detail (enlarged).MS Beinecke 408, fol.73

One cannot wave away that sudden deterioration, which sees a perfectly legible hand descend to the almost meaningless within half a dozen words.  The usual habit has been to waive away such problematic items, not rarely by imagining some technical or personal flaw for the draughtsman or scribe, but such a habit will not do, for it leads to systematic and cumulative error. Thus, our inability to explain why the archer’s hand was drawn as it is was explained away and not addressed, but is less likely due to his incompetence than to our being ignorant, until recently, of certain technical differences between the landsmen’s crossbow and that used at sea. I’ll show an example in the next post – the maritime crossbow had a protruding lock-plate on one side.

Similarly, our default position with regard to this deterioration in the script.  I have seen it waved off by imagining the  scribe swept by a sudden feeling of rage, or by an (unexplained) impatience, and so ‘scribbling’ the last few names.

But that is no more than novel-writing, and in any case here the evidence is of something more than ‘hasty writing’; the hand is quite broken up, to the point of being scarcely writing at all; so bad that we are only half reading and largely inferring that the inscription means ‘Decembre’. All we know is that whatever affected the writer’s hand did so suddenly, the legible script becoming near-unreadable within less than half a dozen words.  Whatever affected the writer, its onset appears to have been rapid and its result disastrous.. at least for legibility.

I can find no sensible reason for making a first presumption of  haste, mood or character-flaw when any number of conditions might cause such an effect – one might as easily suppose a sudden movement as if, say, the writer were in a carriage or on board ship; or being bothered by his cat, or affected by illness (including motion-sickness); it might be that the writer was stricken by plague, shot by an arrow, encouraged to swallow a double shot of spirits at once; or it might be a result of torture to make sure the translation was true. We just don’t know.

To accept that we have not enough information to judge is sometimes better than to create a story which may suit a preferred hypothesis, just as in other cases, it is better to abandon an hypothesis than to pretend ignorance of evidence which disproves it.



2 thoughts on “f.73v: The word – thank you, Sancho Panza (s-f-s #12e/5)

  1. I note that Filocalo Navigajoso (yes, it is a real name) “was a nobleman of Venetian (or possibly of mixed Greek and Venetian) descent” and was given rule over Lemnos when Byzantine rule in the Aegean was broken up into various duchies after the fourth crusade. The family’s rule lasted three generations, ending in 1278.


  2. Postscript 2
    “Use of the crossbow was held in higher regard in Iberia than in England and France, even being used by noblemen during the era of the ‘reconquest’ quoted from Adrian R. Bell, Anne Curry, Andy King, David Simpkin (eds.), The Soldier in Later Medieval England, OUP (2013) page 191.

    In records of payment made in late fourteenth century England, we find the pay-rate of crossbowmen classed with hobelars ( lightly armed men on horses of a lower grade) “… tam hobelarios quam sagittarios” op.cit., p.180


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