The Voynich ‘archer’ figure.


  • realising that I could improve the sequence in which the information was offered and illustrated, include less historical background and save space by deleting  a few snark-ish comments, I have reworked this page.  I assume that most casual readers may have no prior knowledge of medieval history, culture or art.  For all my efforts to reduce it, the essay is still an essay – 4550 words.

I cannot not be as brief as Jens Sensfelder was when he wrote on this topic in 2003; not only because I must refer to every element in the drawing, where he was able to concentrate on one, but because to use iconographic analysis to provenance an artefact requires placing each detail in historical, literary and cultural context:  form, style, content and implications.


NOTE – all indications to date are that the manuscript was most likely made in northern Italy, during the first decades of the fifteenth century.  What follows describes the evolution of the archer image, and the constant significance seen in it, not least because the constellation of Sagittarius was seen in the same character as a dangerous ‘tyrant of the sea’.


In 2003, Jens Sensfelder wrote an article about the bow pictured on f.73v.

He began by accepting assumptions then general, viz:

  • that the manuscript’s content had originated in the mainstream, Latin Christian culture of mainland Europe.
  • That the draughtsman’s interest was focused on the crossbow (rather than, for example, the religious view of crossbow-use or of the astrological ‘Sagittarian’ character).
  • that the draughtsman’s aim was to represent the crossbow as an object – as distinct from an element in a pattern or as a formalised symbol –  and with such precision that the drawing might be supposed to scale.

From  assumptions which, I must add, were ubiquitous in Voynich-related writings in 2003, Jens developed his description and adopted the once-common habit of attributing to some imagined fault in the draughtsman any detail which defeated him.  In Jens’ case that detail was the movement given the archer’s right hand.

73v hands large

Of this he said:

The archer is not holding the crossbow properly: one hand has been drawn on the trigger bar and the other above the stock. The inept way in which the hands have been drawn lets us conclude that the artist had problems with this detail.

Jens was not a ‘Voynichero’, but by 2003, Voynich studies had seen a habit develop over decades, by which writers would explain away such details as left them at a loss by  inventing flaws in the draughtsman himself: technical, moral or mental. To Sensfelder it must have seemed as if that idea had, at some time, been a conclusion drawn from careful study, one formally demonstrated, argued, tested and proven.  It wasn’t.

Thus,  Jens described the bow, conscientiously noting that the bow was pictured as if made of wood but that,

Wooden bows of this shape are not known to me. Steel bows of this shape are known only from the 16th Century onwards..

He also notes that part of the stock is obscured, and that it is not possible exactly to determine the length of the original.

Nevertheless, he concluded that the figure was a hunter and the bow was a German type. Within the operating limits in 2003, the conclusion was  justifiable but it is difficult to imagine how a draughtsman could draw a bow so precisely in miniature scale while still  “having difficulty’ with the hands. Even if he had never used or seen a crossbow in his life, the draughtsman surely had any number of images to copy.

Crossbow Spain or Portugal 12thC
crossbowmen. From a manuscript made in Spain or in Portugal. 12thC.
crossbowman Yates Thompson Ps109 first verses
detail) B.L. MS Yates Thompson 8, folio 61. Breviary, Use of Verdun, Winter portion (‘The Breviary of Renaud de Bar’ or ‘The Breviary of Marguerite de Bar’) France, E. (Metz); between 1302 and 1303.












Explanation: the Spanish (?) lock.

As it happens there is a  reasonable explanation for that movement of the archer’s hand.

A type of bow made in Spain was recovered and reconstructed, and was discovered to have had a hitherto-unknown feature: an additional locking device which required a notched nut’s being inserted into the topside of the stock, about halfway down its length.  The paper was published with diagrams and reconstruction in 1995, and since no earlier examples survived, the date of invention for that new type – which the authors believed unique to naval crossbows – was given an end-date c.1510.  To quote the authors of that article,  “The first step in cocking [the bow] is to roll the nut upright…”. And these bows did have a wooden stock, rather block-y looking.

73v hands large

Padre island crossbow lock plate

crossbow Padre island lock and wedge

crossbow maritime wreck 1510

NB. These images are for study on this site only.  From the article by J. Barto Arnold, III, David R. Watson and Donald H. Keith, ‘The Padre Island Crossbows’, Historical Archaeology, Vol. 29, No. 2 (1995), pp. 4-19.

Since the first version of this page went up, I have had a reader suggest that the bow illustrated in BL MS Yates Thompson 8  f.61 is another bow of this sort.  This manuscript was made in the early fourteenth century, in Metz in north-eastern France. I should have no difficulty accepting this possibility, but I cannot tell either way from the detail online.  If anyone would care to inspect the original drawing with a magnifying glass, they’d be doing a service not only to Voynich studies, but to archaeology and the history of weaponry.

Bl Yates Thompson 8 f61 plain and markedIn any case, I do not think there can be much reason now to continue supposing the Voynich archer’s bow a German hunting bow.  If the Metz example is another of the same sort, it would appear to be a bow in use in southern Europe by the opening years of the fourteenth century, used perhaps in northern France, but certainly being used by Spanish naval forces in the first decade of the sixteenth century.  Reason suggests it had been used there  for some time.

Whoever ‘modernised’ the image for the Voynich archer – in the fourteenth or the fifteenth century –  added that detail for the archer’s right hand knowing that his audience would immediately recognise this bow as peculiar to a certain sort of person: I’d suggest the type of mercenary known in fourteenth century Calais (then part of England’s territory) as a ‘sagittarios’, and later in Spain as the ‘saggitario’.

It forms another item adding weight to the first opinions, given by Wilfrid Voynich and by Irwin Panofsky respectively, that the manuscript presented (at first) as one made in the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries in England (Wilfrid) or in ‘Spain or somewhere southern” (Panofsky).

“Spain or somewhere southern” – the evidence in relation to folio 73v.

  • The later, Spanish, examples of that more sophisticated crossbow were intended as naval weapons, and as I’ve shown, this was a primary use for the crossbowman – the other being as auxiliaries in seige.  Unless we find evidence to the contrary, it seems reasonable to suppose that the type was known chiefly in the south, and probably most used onboard ship.  Arnold, Watson and Keith proposed that the reason for this additional lock was to prevent premature discharge in the turbulent conditions at sea.
  • It is undoubtedly true that the major centres of crossbow use and -manufacture were seaboard cities whose citizens were hired by their own city-state and led by their own nobles, the class of “crossbowman noble” being separately registered in the Venetian records and implied by Cervantes’ associating the governor of a ‘little island in the sea’ with a type described as a ‘sagittario’.I’ve quoted the passage before, but here it is again:

 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”.

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

Cervantes, Don Quixote (Chapter LIV)

  • Further support for  southern provenance for the present manuscript or its immediate exemplars is offered  by the month-names inscribed over each centre, in what is generally agreed Judeo-Catalan or an Occitan dialect.
  • We also have that first evaluation by Irwin Panofsky, as Anne Nill reported it, though in a coming post I shall look at his altering his assignment of it from the thirteenth- to the fifteenth centuries.

sea lord

  • That the constellation of Sagittarius had a maritime character in ancient times is known well enough.  From each end of the Mediterranean and each end of our spectrum, one example.  In the first we see the character of the archer riding high above a sea-scorpion (-in this case; alternatives show a dolphin) on a coin of Tyre dated c. 400-360 BC.
  • In the second, from a fourteenth century Occitan manuscript, we see Sagittarius as  bowman and “lion of the seas” , with a plainly marine Scorpius. ( BL MS Royal 19 C I fol 37)

(If any reader recalls who first drew attention to the Occitan manuscript in relation to MS Beinecke 408, I’d be grateful to know, and offer proper acknowledgements).

Sagittarius Scorpius detail Occitan MS Royal 19 C I fol 37

  • An astrolabe ascribed to fourteenth century Picardy has recently been noted by Don Hoffmann, who finds month names with orthography in some cases closely similar, and others identical to those in MS Beinecke 408.  I have since learned that in Rene Zandbergen’s view, Don’s discovery is not original, but having looked in vain for any earlier mention of this, I will continue to reference Don’s research for the meantime. I also note some uncertainty about which fourteenth century astrolabe he meant. A footnote added to one of my earlier posts is repeated here:

The earlier [example, the ‘geared astrolabe’] is referenced and described in Gunther, Astrolabes of the World, Vol.II, (1932) p.347. The second (the Picard astrolabe) was first treated by David A. King in his Ciphers of the Monks, (Franz Steiner Verlag, (2001) Appendix L, pp.406-420. See also David A. King, World Maps for Finding the Direction and Distance of Mecca: Examples of Innovation and Tradition in Islamic Science, Brill (1999), p.367 note 4.

  • Calais, adjacent to Flanders and with close ties at the time to Picardy, was part of England’s territory during the thirteenth and fourteenth century.

In the Rolls, we find that crossbowmen were not only those mercenaries who described themselves in that way, but experienced archers who might be called upon to take up the mechanical bow as circumstances dictated.  Since the usual term for the archer, as well as for the constellation was ‘sagittarios’, the image of the one might easily translate to the other, though ‘sagittarios’ for a crossbowman is unusual.

{See also my references to the ship known variously as the Sageta or Sagitta, and correspondence between the months indicated by the Voynich calendar and those of the sailing season).

NOTE: I regret having mis-read my source in the first instance – see Andy King, ‘Gunners, Aides and Archers: The Personnel of the English Ordnance Companies in Normandy in the Fifteenth Century’, in Anne Curry and Adrian R. Bell (eds.), Journal of Medieval Military History IX: Soldiers, Weapons and Armies in the Fifteenth Century. (Woodbridge, 2011) pp.65-75.

political divisions in 1477 AD

  • Again from Picardy we have our earliest-known examples of Sagittarius’ depiction in Latin imagery in the form of a fully human standing archer, a type which originated as far as extant examples show, in the eastern Mediterranean, near the region of Lake Tiberius.  The version below shows it in the same stance as that on f.73v, and note that in this case, and in many of the earlier ones, the arrow is pointed towards something below the archer – implicitly, towards Scorpius.
  • [update 16th May 2016. Thanks to JKPetersen’s mentioning Soissons, I checked again whether its archer came from the windows of the 12thC Abbey of Braine (Braisne)  – as some sources say.  I see that the Cathedral’s own site now says otherwise – so that example is removed – and the point is made perfectly by the Lausanne window.]
Sagittarius Lausanne South Rose Window
from Lausanne. Sth. Rose window. Opus Francigenum. This form Sagittarius was evidently transmitted more widely through Latin Europe with adoption of that new architectural style.

So the archaeological record, iconographic analysis, comparative historical examples, art history, literary history, and opinions offered by even the earliest competent appraisers, not to mention the inscriptions over the month-roundels, together with the otherwise curious costume, cheek-roses, beard without moustache and so on, all  direct our attention south of the alps for this evolution of the archer figure and his unusual crossbow.

The Voynich archer’s clothing indicates a ‘modernisation’ during the fourteenth or fifteenth century recension, its purpose (it hardly needs explaining) to convey to the viewer more exactly the association with types of people noted for use of the crossbow.  As we’ll see further, there is an additional association to be discerned here to the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean – within which again territories were held through the twelfth-to-fifteenth centuries by  Catalonia, Genoa and Venice.


Offerings to Stephen Bax’ site include a great many images of men holding a crossbow, usually without any commentary or analysis. I do not think it unjust to say that the great majority are offered with no purpose other than to suggest an accumulation of evidence for a ‘central-European’ theory-narrative.  Few are other than from German-speaking regions, and there is often an unspoken expectation that, therefore, the content of crossbowman images is a unique expression of German culture.

Not a few of the examples being proffered belong to the period post-1440; some have been presented from printed books and wood-blocks. Many which appear as recent finds are ones already brought to notice by Rene Zandbergen, either on his own website or through the second Voynich mailing list. Apart from showing a man holding a crossbow, very few have anything in common with the image constructed for  f.73r.  These are typical examples:

crossbow block book detailGaston Phoebus Book of the Hunt 1405 Bibliotheque nationale France crossbows boar hunt small


Both are from Latin works. That on the left is from a German wood-block, the image reprising ideas found first in texts from Renaissance Italy.

The other is from an illuminated manuscript in very highest French ‘high style’.

Neither shows the slightest resemblance in form or stylistics, in attitude, details or palette to anything in MS Beinecke 408.

I have yet to see any supposedly ‘similar’ images presented by close attention to the Voynich archer’s stance, costume, presentation (e.g. its figure’s being shown with reddened cheeks, beard but no moustache).

“Likeness” is a relative term, of course, but the uncomfortable fact is that when images such as those are offered, and accepted as being ‘like’ that in f.73v, with their tacit (and never argued) implication of demonstrating provenance, then it is clear that many Voynich researchers are quite unable to discern which sort of differences affect provenancing a manuscript that has always proven difficult to place.  Some formal training – or at the very least, guided experience – is usually required to know further which differences are telling, and which superficial.  Whether the Madonna holds her infant to her left side, or her right, does not in itself help provenance a figure. Whether her robe is plain blue, or a velvet cloak embroidered with golden fleur-de-lys certainly does.

“Likeness” – can you see it?

The Voynich  figure was likened recently to that shown below.

(detail) MS Beinecke 408 f.73v
crossbowman german printed text on paper
see Darren Worley’s post to Stephen Bax’ site November 6, 2015 – 9:14 pm

On my protesting that there was no substantive similarity, Rene Zandbergen commented to the effect that it was  ‘funny’ I should think the Voynich archer’s costume not characteristic of fifteenth-century Latins, with that German figure wearing one “the same”.

(If you, yourself, see no real difference either,  you are not in the minority in Voynich studies).

If such images were presented with analysis and discussion, pointing to exactly where the supposed ‘likeness’ is perceived then one might hope for resolution of the problems in provenancing the Voynich imagery.  However, such discussion is actively discouraged, in practice. Imagery is supposed self-evident, entirely pragmatic portraiture, and so forth.  A man with a crossbow is a man with a crossbow, and if you can produce more ‘men with crossbow’ images, then that is taken as proof of provenance.  In short, it is extremely rare  to see any effort being taken to discover the manuscript’s provenance, rather than just to assert it.

Were this not so, one would see the usual scholarly discussions and debates – about details and about palette and stylistics. In the wider world, such discussions about an unprovenanced content will necessarily range across different times, places, languages and cultures as the research seeks that appropriate for the internal evidence.

For some incomprehensible reason, it has become a dictum adopted by a good many Voynicheros that no source should be considered save Latin works; that within Latin works none save manuscript art shall be invoked; and worse yet (with positively peculiar pre-emption) that only Latin manuscripts of the fifteenth century, from German- or French- speaking regions are relevant.

How anyone could possibly hope by this means to establish what origin, lineage or transmission lies behind the Voynich manuscript’s overwhelmingly non-Latin forms and style, I simply cannot imagine.

Given the various writers, largely ignored, who have spoken of Iberian and/or Jewish influences in the work, let me contrast the usual approach with one just a little wider.  A manuscript made by Catalonian Jews, not in the fifteenth but in the thirteenth century.  Here’s a crossbowman from that manuscript compared with that which Worley recently offered.

crossbow Cervera bible 13thC
crossbow Cervera Bible 13thC

crossbowman german printed text on paper









What both these images have in common is the depiction of a man with a crossbow, wearing leggings of some sort and a round-necked garment belted at the waist. The garments are different; the type of crossbow is different; their hair is different; only one has ‘roses’ in its cheeks. The German image depicts the sun unlike any representation in the Voynich manuscript; it employs a pink tone which – to the best of my knowledge – is not employed in the Voynich manuscript’s palette. It is on paper. Whether the Voynich archer is barefoot is arguable, but I think not. On the other figure, we again see that the garment is unlike that on the Voynich archer. It is made of one piece.

On the other hand, the Catalonian image shows those small towers topped by a ball which are not uncommon in medieval manuscripts and charts, and which are seen in folio 86v of MS Beinecke 408.

If we look a little further in to the  Catalonian Jewish manuscript, more points of similarity to MS Beinecke 408 emerge, but at the same time it soon becomes clear that the two are not produced from an identical source.  The page-layout is a two-column format; attitudes to the positioning of image and text are not commensurate, and so forth.  So what these other details are speaking to are some common antecedent environment which has affected both.

For example:

An item in the Catalonian manuscript provides a tree with roots  that have been formed the same soft, twining way – almost plaited – as one finds in the Voynich botanical section, and whose common lineage is discovered by reference – not to any  Latin herbal  –  but a twelfth-century copy of Dioscorides made in Rai in upper Mesopotamia by a Yemeni Christian for one of the newly dominant Turkish rulers.

folio 50r roots
(detail) fol.50r MS Beinecke 408. 15thC
Balsam roots XII ms Ray
detail from a 12thC copy of Dioscorides  made in Rai by a Yemeni Christian.
tree roots Cervera Bible 539 detail
(detail) Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, Lisbon, Ms. IL. 72. Cervera Bible. Catalonia, Jewish. 1299-1300 AD p539
f28r detail blog
detail from MS Beinecke 408 f.28r










As you see, the roots on f. 50r are more like those in the copy of Dioscorides made in the previous century, whereas those on f.28r find a nearer echo in the Cervera Bible.

This does NOT prove that the text or imagery in MS Beinecke 408 can be supposed the text of Dioscorides’ Materia Medica, but that we see here evidence of a transmission from the eastern side of the Mediterranean to the western, after about the twelfth century, and a probability that the western end of that line lay in southern, rather than northern Europe. There seems good reason, so far as these examples go, to explore the possibility that the agents of transmission were not Latins, but Jews.

The style of production which resulted in the Cervera Bible is plainly not that which produced MS Beinecke 408, but these several points of comparison show that here, in the south, we may find more material which sheds light on the Voynich manuscript’s posited exemplars.

Again, the Voynich archer is given a long face, pointed beard, but apparently no moustache.  This is another convention found earlier in the Cervera Bible. With this we also see that the men are given rosy cheeks.  Putting ‘roses’ in the cheeks may be a habit gained from Byzantine precedents, for it is found there as in earlier Spanish manuscripts, both Jewish and Latin.

archer fol 73v detail headbeard no moustache Cervera Bible detail









Might MS Beinecke 408 be a home-made copy of some work made in thirteenth or fourteenth century Catalonia, perhaps?  Panofsky evidently thought so, dating it at first sight to the same period as that Bible – the thirteenth century. (What caused him to alter that immediate opinion was partly not knowing certain works discovered since, partly from evaluating the current work’s palette, and partly from believing that the current manuscript must have been produced after 1492.  Only the second consideration remains valid).

The same sort of moustache without beard is found on a character who represents a Byzantine factor, travelling on a grain-ship between Egypt and Constantinople.  Stopping en route, he finds the town starving, and though initially unwilling to stay his course, or show any generosity to the people of the city, he is persuaded to do so.  Swift-moving, cold and inconstant: the style appears to have become a metaphor for the ‘moon-like’ character.  This version was painted by Fra Angelico in 1437, quite possibly the very year in which MS Beinecke 408 was made.

grain ship captain fra Angelico 14thC Miracle of StNicholas

In an unflattering portrait of the French king, Philippe Augustus, the swirling forms tell us of a maritime journey through the Mediterranean. Exactly the same inference is to be taken from the similar design at the centre of the north roundel in f.86v, as I have explained.  But here Philip’s face is made so, I should think, to portray him a ‘moon-character’ – swift to depart, cold and changeable.   His portraits show him clean-shaven, or with a spade-shaped beard.


That this is the character perceived by contemporaries is clear. Writing thirty years after the events depicted, the author of the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi wrote:

When it became known.. that it was the inflexible wish of the French King to leave [the Holy Land] and that he would not yield either to lamentations or to tearful supplications, the French renounced, if they could, their costly subjection to him and repudiated their lord. They called down upon the man who was now about to depart, every adversity or misfortune which could happen to any mortal man in this miserable life. The King nonetheless hurried up his journey as speedily as he could. He left behind as his replacement in the Holy Land the Duke of Burgundy with many men. He asked King Richard to put some galleys at his disposal and Richard graciously ordered two of the best to be given to him. Philip’s ingratitude for this offer was later sufficiently apparent. ..

Relations between France and England – indeed between France and everyone – were not happy at that time. A desire to gain wealth while avoiding discomfort explains most of Philip’s actions, and though mean in themselves they led to a larger and wealthier demesne

In 1190,  Philip had expelled the Jews as a way to obtain their property, and it is probable therefore that painter’s having giving Philip such a ‘moon’-face represents irony, not portraiture.  Images of Philip’s coronation show him clean-shaven or with a small spade-shaped beard. None show him with the Byzantine-Spanish beard sans moustache.

It isn’t too difficult to place the last elements in the Sagittarius image on f.73v

Despite the best efforts of Worley or Zandbergen to argue that the Voynich archer’s costume is the “same” as the peasant’s costume worn in fifteenth century Germany, there is no mistaking for any other this  kind of double skirt, with a top layer scalloped, and hanging well below the knee.

The skirt is so full that it positively flounces behind him.

73v skirt only enlarged

Since there are elements in the image on f.73v which, as we’ve seen refer to Catalonia and to France and perhaps to those other notable crossbow users and fleet traders, Genoa or Venice – all of whom some time held interests in parts of Greece and the Aegean – it is not unexpected to find that sherds found in Corinth and dated between the 11th and 13th centuries show a skirt formed in just that way. As I read the Voynich image, the doublet is a separate garment.

The sherds show just such  ‘flouncing’ skirts, their top layer drawn with a scalloped edge, and plainly worn as a garment separate from the upper-.

With them we see worn a form of headwear having a back-folded brim, and either a long tail or a crown stiffened to a point. The illustrated example has a tie under the chin, but the equivalent  form is found in Spain from the time Byzantine rule ended in eastern Iberia and the Balearics.

Fustanella and pointed hat

Here’s another version of the hat, a relief carving made while Toledo while still under Byzantine rule (6thC AD). The figure is meant for a Jew (Christ) or for a Samaritan.

hat Sobre este relieve no tengo información, pero parece ser Cristo y la Samaritana Ella llevaría manto o toca sobre la cabeza y peinado romano VI Relief de la Vega Baja ToledoVI
Christ (or the Samaritan). Spain, 6thC AD. Toledo.

[paragraph and following picture added 2/11/2016]

The figure of the mounted archer was originally an image of the ‘Persian death’ – Perseus – but the hat given the standing archer derives more exactly from Babylonia, home of the Talmudic tradition, while Sagittarius was the better known “bowman” in the western tradition.  This is the original Babylonian form for that tailed hat. One need only roll the brim to get the form seen in sixth century Spain and later.


As late as the sixteenth century, a Flemish painter shows it – now with the back-turned brim. The ‘tail’ is not the same design as the Corinthian here.  The figure represents Japheth, a son of Noah and thus a Jew, but  the face is shown typically Spanish or perhaps ‘Arab’, and  is made with a long jaw, pointed beard and bare (or barely covered) upper lip.

Japtheth's hat Master of the Manna GatheringDoublet

The archer’s doublet itself, I should think, has little  purpose but to signify social and economic rank. In medieval imagery as in medieval life, fabric used in excess of the bare minimum served to signal a grade of social importance.

Altogether I should describe the Voynich archer as a “crossbowman noble”: reflecting the type of the thirteenth and fourteenth century Catalan, Genovese, Venetian or – possibly – Anconan. I expect the maker was aware of Sagittarius’ old association with the sea and knew well the type of crossbow which he wanted us – or more exactly his contemporaries – to recognise here.

If he was thinking of astrology in particular, no doubt he also knew that the constellation was associated in geographic (chorographic) astrology  with Spain, Tuscany and Celtica.

fol 73v newscan archers clothing

The Morea, and the Duchy of the Arcipelago too may reward further study.



  • 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 but with Venetian support . 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 and MS Beinecke 408 with the second.
  • Calais was English territory between 1346 and 1588.
  • England became an ally of Portugal in 1386. Portugal took Ceuta on August 21st., 1415.

political divisions in 1477 AD

  • The ‘Catalan’ company was established in the first years of the fourteenth century, and its mercenaries were the unemployed soldiers of southern Europe, from Iberia to Sicily.
  • Genoa has three times lain under French rule: the first time for fifteen years (1394 to 1409); the second only briefly (May 1625), and the third for six years (1805-1814).
  • Genoese ships were sailing in the eastern seas beyond the Arabian peninsula two centuries, at least, before the arrival of the Portuguese.
  • A thousand Genoese crossbowmen-and-mariners were invited to Baghdad while part of the Iberian peninsula was still a Caliphate.
  • In Genoa, Occitan was spoken, too, though the ordinary vernacular was Ligurian or ‘Genoese’.

If you like the look of the Padre Island crossbows, you can have a copy (here) made by the same expert who provided the reconstruction for the Museum curators, and who is referenced in that article.



7 Replies to “The Voynich ‘archer’ figure.”

  1. Despite his denying any such obligation, I wish especially to thank my former colleague, J.L., for having first drawn my attention to reports of the Padre island crossbow, and for explaining how its “safety-lock” worked. Maritime archaeology is a fascinating area, as is the history of weaponry, but neither is one in which I claim expertise.


  2. Two relevant quotations:
    First, a reference to geographical astrology:

    Tuscany, Celtica, and Spain, are connected with Sagittarius …
    Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, Bk 3

    second, a sweet comment on the Catalan company (whose members weren’t particularly ‘Catalan’)

    The Catalan Grand Company had a habit of making enemies of its friends and friends of its enemies.
    from an article by David Kuijt and Chris Brantley, ‘Catalan Company (1302-1388 AD) (online)


  3. For more detail on the history and activities of the ‘Catalan company’ see
    Kelly DeVries, Infantry Warfare in the Early Fourteenth Century: Discipline, Tactics, and Technology, Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 1996. (Chapters 5 and


  4. Marco Ponzi and his group have recently produced a paper in which the centres of the Voynich calendar roundels are compared with imagery in a range of zodiacs. The study is flawed by its chief assumption – which is that the series in the Vms was designed with an intention to represent the 12 figures of the Roman zodiac, which is extremely problematic even if generally supposed. In general, though, it is good to see this sort of response after the criticisms made here about the more usual approach in Voynich studies to the issue of “comparative imagery”.


  5. Diane

    I understand that you focus here on the present image, and why it should be considered a late addition. Does that mean that the image was originally something else entirely though? (You know my thoughts on the animals) And if so, is there any way to find out what it may have been?

    (I’ll try to aim this comment as far away from the trash folder as possible ;))


    1. Koen,
      Congratulations, you managed to elude my excessively-vigilant spam-muncher!

      I think I’ve explained that all the central emblems have their counterpart in coins made for particular places – which seems to me to mean that originally each marked the point at which that place was either reached by an annual trading circuit or when, for example, it celebrated its city-festival or something of that sort.

      A city’s emblem didn’t only appear on its coins of course, but the coins have survived. If we accept the opinion of one writer who explained at length how the constellation-city emblem-coin system was based on a ‘zodiac compass’, then the calendar could have been so from the beginning.

      I expect that the archer didn’t originally have a crossbow, but was probably always a ‘Sagittario’ i.e. as master of the seas and a piratical figure possibly first the emblem for Tyre (to judge from correspondence between the Tyrian emblem and a later image in a 14thC Occitan ms).

      The present figure’s costume is close to that once worn by Dalmatian pirates who, during the earlier medieval period, were such a power in the Adriatic and western seas from there to the Black Sea that they could require a toll paid them to permit ships of Ancona and other towns to pass through the Adriatic. They were a substantial power from about the 10th-11thC, though by the fourteenth century or so, the Voynich archer figure seems to have been identified instead with the Genoese or Venetians, or the masters of the Aegean Frankish territories.

      I’ve seen no evidence for the older Dalmatians’ having had the crossbow, though they might have done. I suppose it added when the reference altered to the Genoese or Venetians, since those were the cities chiefly associated with crossbowmen. They also adopted the Dalmatians’ classic swift pirate ship was known as the ‘Sageta’ though they tended to call it, equally, a ‘Sagitta’ – and thus the crossbowmen natually fitted the idea of the ‘Sagitario’ – as indeed we know they were called to as late as Cervantes’ time. It’s not surprising to find that our only remaining examples of a crossbow having all the features indicated by the image – including that roll-lock – are ones meant for use on board ship. It’s a pity that the only surviving examples are much later than the picture in the Vms, but at least two examples did survive, or we’d never have been able to interpret it correctly and would still be looking at landlocked regional boar-hunting bows or something.

      As I hope I’ve managed to explain, the origin of the Voynich calendar is not from the inventive mind of any fifteenth century Latin, but some of the central emblems were evidently updated quite late, and overall that section is relatively comfortable for people used only to thinking in European terms. Not too ‘foreign’. 🙂


  6. A correspondent has reminded me that in Sparta, and according to hadiths of the Prophet, it was said one should keep the beard but shave the moustaches. One of the latter explains that it was said so that the followers of the Prophet should be clearly distinguished from the Magi.


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