The Archer in Cod. 1842

Discussions about the Earliest Crossbow Sagittarius

There is currently an interesting (and lively) discussion about Voynich Manuscript history on K. Gheuen’s VoynichTemple site. I tried to post a long comment, but I’m not sure if it got through (maybe it was too long—several error messages popped up), so I’ve decided to expand it and post it with images as a blog instead.

This blog was inspired by the following comment:

“Nick: On Stephen’s site, Marco and Darren discuss a number of examples and the earliest crossbow-sagi-roundel is from Poland…

This is an easy mistake to make, even by good researchers like those mentioned. Political borders are constantly changing and sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of where they were at any particular point in history, but Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Cod. 1842, the earliest manuscript so far that depicts Sagittarius with legs and a crossbow, is not from Poland. It originates in Bohemia, in the Holy Roman Empire.

Some Background

The zodiac-symbol roundels are perhaps the most recognizable series of images in the VMS next to the plants, and I have always been interested in the history of astrology, so in 2014 and 2015, I was independently researching every Sagittarius with legs that I could find because I was used to seeing centaurs with longbows, not people with crossbows (I had also researched the other symbols but have posted them as separate articles).

In 2015, I superimposed my findings on a map of the Holy Roman Empire because that is where the majority of images originated. I searched far outside these borders (including Russia, Persia, India, north Africa, and the far-east because I am interested in zodiac imagery from around the world, but was not able to find anything similar to the VMS zodiacs outside of western Europe and the Levant.

The crossbow-Sagittarius map can be seen here.

The crossbow-Sagittarius mentioned by researchers on Bax’s site is listed by the Österreichichische Akademie der Wissenshaften as Cod. 1842, originating from Prague and Breslau (now known as Wroclaw). From 1335, Breslau was in the Kingdom of Bohemia. Even in 1386, the Kingdom of Bohemia stretched just beyond Olesnica, and Breslau was still well within its borders (the Bohemian Kingdom is sometimes also called Królestwo Czech—the Czech Kingdom).

For the half century that is most relevant to the creation of the Voynich Manuscript, Breslau/Wroclaw (300 km NE of Prague) was within the borders of the Bohemian/Czech Kingdom ruled by a German-born Bohemian King who also served as Holy Roman Emperor. [Underlying map detail courtesy of Wikipedia.]

The Bohemia/Czech Kingdom was part of the Holy Roman Empire in the late 14th and early 15th century, reigned at the time by Wenceslaus IV, who was both King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor. Wenceslaus was German, born in Nuremberg. Prague is about midpoint between Nuremberg and Breslau.

During the search for crossbow-Sagittarius, and while gathering several hundred historic zodiac cycles, I found

  • about eight Sagittarius with legs and a longbow (all within the Holy Roman Empire, with the exception of the Beit Alpha mosaic), and
  • a dozen Sagittarius with legs and a crossbow, all within the Holy Roman Empire, and all except one (Cod. 1842 from Bohemia) were from Germany or very near the border between what we now call Switzerland and Germany.

Although I tried to locate crossbow-Sagittarius from a wider geographic distribution, I was not able to find any from Scandinavia, the Baltic, the British Isles, Italy, Russia, Georgia, Persia, Greece, Africa, Spain (I did have difficulty accessing some of the Spanish image browsers, so I don’t know whether I missed any Spanish zodiacs due to technical problems), or Asia. This is an ongoing project. If I see additional examples, I will update the map.

Political borders change. Other than the usual local skirmishes, there wasn’t much distinction between Bohemia and Germany during the long reign of Wenceslaus, HRE and King of Bohemia, so it’s difficult to argue that any of the crossbow-Sagittarius images found so far come from outside Germanic culture.

Crossbow-Sagittarius Details

In my opinion, the crossbow itself is not drawn well enough to determine its origin. The only truly distinctive part is the long trigger (and maybe the recurved ends of the lath) and it’s hard to know whether the length of the trigger is literal, or a convenient way to draw it so it connects to the hand. It might be literal (the illustrator took time to draw the laces on the boots, a faint goatee, and the lacy edge on the sleeves of the Gemini female), but it’s a very tiny drawing, and the illustrator has difficulty with detailed structures like hands and rotating connections between body joints, so… even though all the basic parts are there, one has to wonder whether the finer details are accurate.

When I tried to find tunics and hats that matched as closely as possible to the archer’s garb, I also searched worldwide. After almost three years of keeping my eyes open, I had very few examples.

Nothing outside of Europe bore a close resemblance, but I found six manuscripts with similar tunics in the Holy Roman Empire, two in France, and two in England (one of which was a series of tapestries rather than a manuscript). Thus, more than half of this small sample originated within germanic cultures. Most illustrations of medieval tunics differ from the VMS archer. Some are gathered, rather than pleated, many have high or wide collars rather than a simple collar. Many are wide at the wrist, or have split sleeves, whereas the VMS tunic is narrow at the wrist and wider at the elbows. If the VMS tunic is intended to represent a specific garment (which is difficult to determine), it’s not a common style.


I haven’t stopped looking for examples of zodiac symbols (I’ve added about 200 zodiac cycles to my database since the Sagittarius map was posted), but additional crossbow-Sagittarius symbols are exceedingly difficult to find. Maybe some will show up as more manuscripts are digitized. And as I keep repeating in blog after blog, if there is an exemplar for the VMS archer, it’s not necessarily a zodiac, it could be inspired by a hunting scene, a tournament, or a book on archery, or perhaps a zodiac with a longbow that was given a crossbow instead.

What I have observed, so far, is that manuscripts with crossbow-Sagittarius are primarily from the Holy Roman Empire between c. 1395 and c. 1496, and tunics that are similar originate in the HRE, France, and England, and range from c. 1400 to c. 1433.

By the way, I don’t have any germanic or central European theories. I have almost no theories about the VMS—I am still at the information-gathering stage—but I think it’s clear from what has been observed so far, that influences from within the Holy Roman Empire appear in the Voynich Manuscript.


J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

13 thoughts on “The Archer in Cod. 1842

  1. Koen Gheuens

    Great post, JKP. Well, about Poland, I was just quoting my sources 😉 The point was that Nick asked for one outside of Germany and not belonging to the Hausbuch tradition.

    On HRE influences, it’s surely possible and I have nothing against the proposal. One thing though. It seems clear that the Crossbow Sagittarius in Germany originated with a single source, since the MSS are from the same tradition. So it’s not like German culture suddenly generated a lot of independent examples. Rather, we just have a large amount of MSS left of the same tradition.

    It is clear that the Hausbuchs didn’t invent the type because one appears, earlier, in another region. And this one, in turn, where did it cime from? Answering that question is likely impossible. But my point is, it’s not because we have a crossbowman here and one in the VM, that there is necessarily a direct link between them.

    Additionally, the VM archer just looks different than the German ones. A better parallel, in my opinion, is one of the figures in the image in Le Canarien.
    A assume this represents a nobleman, possibly Jean de Béthencourt, who actually looked like this with beard and all.

    So if this appearance represents fashion at the time, it’s possible that the archer or its exemplar was drawn as a reference to a contemporary type rather than copied from a German book.

  2. D.N. O'Donovan

    I think it is a valid thing, if you’re solely concerned with tracking the transmission of certain texts, or even certain fashions in art, to follow them through nothing but the manuscript traditions – the stemmae.

    It’s rather a different problem to provenance a difficult set of images, such as the set presented by Beinecke MS 408.

    With the Voynich archer there are several distinct questions to be addressed:
    1. Where did the practice originate of alluding to crossbowmen as ‘Saggitario’ – or some closely related term? The importance of this research question is that until a linguistic connection occurs, the imagery cannot embody it. The other classical name for Sagittarius was Arcitenans, but neither of those terms are found before 1405 as a description for crossbowmen in any language other than Anglo-French – to my knowledge. and it is also from the region of strongest Anglo-and-French presence at that time that we have the closest match for the inscriptions’ orthography.

    2. Do we find closely (and I mean *closely*) similar figures OUTSIDE the manuscript tradition in those regions where we also find (a) similar orthography and (b) linguistic usage which has the crossbowman termed a ‘sagittario’? The reason for asking this research question is that we know the manuscript and non-manuscript expressions constantly interacted and intersected. People who illuminated and illustrated manuscripts found models in the plastic arts, in old stained glass windows and so forth. In tracking the origin and transmission of the Beit Alpha type: that is, the completely human, clothed, standing archer I found its earliest Latin reflection in France, and mapped its transmission in tandem with the spread of the Opus Francigenum through Europe. The Opus Francigenum was later, pejoratively, called ‘Gothic’ style, which has mislead some into thinking it German.

    So in tracing the evolution of the figure we find as the Voynich archer, the line led from the region of Lake Tiberius, through France, via the English presence in which the Rolls first mention crossbowmen as Sagittario at about the same time we find similar orthography for the month names on astrolabes ascribed to Picardy. So far, so good.

    Still in the south, we find as late as Cervantes, a habit of associating the ‘sagittario’ with a certain type of character, and that character (as you’ll find from reading Manilius etc.) is precisely that traditional for the constellation of Sagittarius: it connects to the sea, and Sag’s traditional role as governor of ships. When he raises his bow, one stays in port. Now, this ‘raising of the bow’ is an important element in the imagery. The stance on the Voynich archer is that of the older (non-crossbow holding) figures of the Opus Francigenum, as I illustrated in treating the Voynich bowman. All the later imagery does not have the figure take this stance: they all show him in the old way of Centaur-sagittarius, aiming his bow horizontally or, alternatively, in the post of the occasional ‘hercules’ sort of figure from Late Roman moasics, shooting at birds or at the sky. Most of the Latin manuscripts also have imagery of that type, and so too the crossbowman in the Cervera Bible, despite the fact that in the last-named work we find other details indisputably related to those in the Voynich botanical section.

    But these Anglo-French, Occitan (or Judeo-Catalan) and Spanish threads are not mutually exclusive – something easily demonstrated … as I have done… by works produced during the 1440s.

    However, the point is one has to be quite clear about whether the aim is to track the first emergence and later dissemination of the crossbowman Sagittarius in certain manuscripts, or to rightly assign the image in the Voynich manuscript to its time and place of enunciation.

    1. J.K. Petersen Post author

      I don’t know how other researchers search (and it will depend on their focus and goals for any particular topic), but when looking for zodiac imagery, I search sculptures, mosaics, stained glass, manuscripts, weavings & embroideries, paintings, church domes, friezes, fabric designs, clocks, embellishments on weapons and metal implements, and ceramics. I always go back as far as Egyptian times when possible because I am interested in when certain imagery emerges (or re-emerges).

      In the past, I have included various media such as sculpture, ceramics, mosaics, tapestries, and stained glass in my astrology related articles. Church friezes are particularly interesting, as I have previously noted, because zodiacs often show up over church portals before they make their way into manuscript illustrations for that region.

      Your comment on stance caught my attention and I have some imagery specifically related to the crossbowman’s stance. I’ll upload it when I can.

  3. Rene Zandbergen

    It’s not so easy to find out much about this MS. It does not seem to have been fully digitised.
    A printed catalogue from 1864-1899 says: “Horae Canonicae, ut Denisius putat in Polonia scriptae”.

    “Denisius” refers to this description by one Michael Denis, from 1794:
    under item DCCCLIII.
    He writes: “alicubi in Polonia scriptum arbitror, idque vel anno 1407, vel 1418, vel 1429”

    One modern catalogue ( ) says:
    Prague und Breslau, um 1390/1395

    Another ( ) :
    Schlesien (Breslau?) 1300-1399. This one again quotes the “in Polonia scriptae” without the doubt that was inlcuded earlier.

    1. J.K. Petersen Post author

      Thank you for your comments, Rene, and for calling my attention to the 18th-century catalog entry (which I hadn’t seen).

      It’s my understanding that the Duke of Breslau/Wroclaw sided with the Kingdom of Germany in the 13th century and that the Duchy of Schlesien/Silesia (with Breslau/Wroclaw being geographically central) was absorbed into the Kingdom of Bohemia in 1327, when the King of Poland officially renounced rights to it in the Treaty of Trentschin. Thus, if Breslau is the place of origin, it was in Bohemia.

      One thing that confuses me, however (and you may be more familiar with this catalog format than I) is the disconnect between the Denis catalog index and the actual entries. The index (on the left) lists the manuscripts on this page as Cod. 1842, 1967, 1843, which I assumed would correspond to DCCCLII, DCCCLIII, and DCCCLIV.

      The first entry (DCCCLII) is a 14th-century Bohemian calendar, which would fit fairly well with what we know about Cod. 1842. The second is a 15th-century Polish book of hours which doesn’t seem to fit quite as well, EXCEPT that the page count for the second entry matches more closely to the ÖAW bibliographic entry (I don’t trust entries by other repositories because they often copy each other and replicate mistakes, but the ÖAW page count should be correct, one would think). So either I am misreading the way the digital index matches to the catalog entries, or the Cod. 1842 entry refers to DCCLII.

      Assuming the index is a mismatch to the catalog order, and DCCCLIII does correspond to Cod. 1842, then is it possible Michael Denis was referring to contemporary political borders when he listed it as Polish?

      At the time the Denis entry was made (1794), Silesia was under Prussian rule, but that was not the case at the time the codex was created, when Prague and Breslau were in Bohemia. So even if the second entry is the one that refers to Cod. 1842, could Denis have been using a contemporary designation for the origin?

      I’m not trying to shoehorn Cod. 1842 into a Bohemian context, I’m simply trying to understand where the Polish designation originated since it seems at odds with other information about the codex.

    2. Marco Ponzi

      Here is my tentative translation of what seems the most relevant passage in Denis’ description:

      Cum Stanislai M. Festum VIII. Id. Maj. inter Triplicia numeretur, alicubi in Polonia scriptum arbitror, idque vel anno 1407, vel 1418, vel 1429, hisce enim annis Resurrection Domini sive Pascha in VI. Kal. Apr. seu 27 Martii incidit, cui diei in Calendario nostro adsignatur.

      Since the feast day of Stanislaus Martyr, on the 8th day of the Ides of May, is numbered among the major feasts (Triplicia), I judge it was written somewhere in Poland. And it was in 1407, or 1418, or 1429, because in those years the Resurrection of the Lord or Easter fell in the 6th day of the kalends of April, i.e. the 27th of March, as stated in our calendar.

  4. Rene Zandbergen

    It’s all very confusing, since the four catalogues all say slightly different things about the origin and the approx. year of composition.

    The link between Cod. 1842 and DCCCLIII comes from the first catalogue:

    The MS was in Schloss Ambras before (in Habsburg hands, and Rudolf acquired a number of MSS from it). Later it was in the Vienna library as MS “Theol. 422” to become Cod. 1842 Han.
    The Roman number seems to be Denis’ invention (?)

  5. J.K. Petersen Post author

    Thank you both Marco and René for this additional information.

    I do find the mismatches between catalog entries to be confusing, but I will follow up the link you posted, René.

    Also, Marco, I don’t know if you can spare the time, but if you could offer a translation of the preceding Denis catalog entry as well (DCCCLII), it would be appreciated.

    1. Marco Ponzi

      These are my rough translations. I am sorry, but I am not familiar with liturgical details.

      842 DCCCLII. Latin parchment codex. XIV Century. 282 folios. 8 [in octavo?], written in small characters, sorted by and index, it contains the Office of the Sacred Heart commonly called Breviarium. It begins with a Calendar with the addition of diaitetikois [medical??? a Greek word] verses, in which the 5th of the Ides of March is marked in red “the Keys [?] of Easter” [Claves Pasche], the 16th of the Kalends of May [is marked] “Claves Rogagionum”. In the same color the 3rd of the Kalends of October is marked “Wencezslay martiris”, from which the codex can be attributed to Bohemia. It is organized in this way: firstly the Ferial Service, then the sacred holidays during the year, lastly the holidays of the saints also according to the year.

      422 DCCCLIII. Latin parchment codes. XV Century. 404 folios. 4 [in quarto?], written on two columns, with many additions of illustrations in gold and various colors. The holy Psalmody, i.e. Horae, which is called “Canonic” is included. First there is a Calendar, in which double and triple services and the lectures of several services are noted. Since the feast day of Stanislaus Martyr, on the 8th day of the Ides of May, is numbered among the major feasts (Triplicia), I judge it was written somewhere in Poland. And it was in 1407, or 1418, or 1429, because in those years the Resurrection of the Lord or Easter fell in the 6th day of the kalends of April, i.e. the 27th of March, as stated in our calendar. The Codex follows this order: Sunday and Ferial Service, in which each Psalm is preceded by a short text; the Litanies of All Saints [?]; the Vigil of the Dead; a collection of Hymns, Antiphons and Lectures for all the Sundays of the year; the same for the holidays of each Saint and for those [saints or holidays?] that are called “common”.

  6. Rene Zandbergen

    As regards the Easter date, there is a calculator at the bottom of this page:

    My confidence in this tool was established by the fact that for all three years quoted by Denis (1407, 1418, 1429) it returned Easter Sunday as falling on March 27.

    Now it could be that Denis was wrong in the first place about March 27, but if not, it is easy to verify that the next earlier case of Easter Sunday falling on 27 March is in 1345.


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