This post is not intended to find manuscript traditions related to the VM Zodiac figures, as the last few were. Rather, it is an attempt to come to a better understanding of the human figures themselves. What are they? What is their type? These are two distinct, complementary activities. One tries to match the VM illustrations to similar drawings, the other aims to find out what exactly it is we are looking at. Using the archer’s hat as a focus point, I will argue that he conforms to an international European image of the rich elite.
What’s in a hat?
Headgear is a crucial cultural marker, conveying information like geographical origin, ethnicity, occupation and social status of the wearer. In order to get the most out of the Voynich Zodiac illustrations, it is therefore important to understand the hats as well as possible. On Rene’s site, we find Ewa Sniezynska-Stolot’s opinion on the clothing of both Zodiac men.
Garments: the jopulas of men with a belt suggest the 14th/15th c. but headdresses of men (Gemini, Sagittarius) definitively indicate the 15th c. This was common fashion in Europe at that time. The Sagittarius’ cap with fox tail points to Germany – but they were also worn in Poland. I believe that the manuscript can be dated to mid-15th c.
Judging the clothes to belong to the 14th-15th centuries is safe, since it is indeed within this period that we see this type of garment. Before, people are depicted wearing looser, simpler clothes. It’s also hard to point to any specific region based on this aspect alone, since they are seen all over Europe. So far so good.
Sniezynska-Stolot then goes on to say that the cap is one with a fox tail (this refers to the shape, not the actual material). From her confident phrasing I take it that she believes this type of hat is characteristic for Germany and Poland, at least to the extent that we can safely use it as a cultural marker. So if we find the occasional example outside of this region, it just means the figure is wearing a German-style hat.
On the one hand, I think it is right to stress the fact that the hat has only a tail hanging from it rather than the “tail+comb” of the standard chaperon. Of course it is always possible that a tiny “comb” is hidden due to the perspective, but we’ve got to work with what we’re given. Fact is, if there is a comb, it is so reduced that it does not show up in the drawing.
Now on the other hand, it is a strange claim that hats with just a tail points unambiguously to Germany and Poland. Even though I believe it’s not unlikely the MS was made in a German speaking region, I’ll argue that the classification as a “German fox tail cap” is overly limiting. More importantly still, the German type may not even be the best match for what we see in the VM.
Because yes, there is a German type (the sock-hat), which I believe is what Sniezynska-Stolot has in mind. Below, German examples from Pal.lat.1806 (which JKP wrote about recently) and “Schachzabel”, both early 15th century German.
As seen above, there is a typical German type of sock hat – although its appearance varies and it can also be found abroad, it is mostly associated with German speaking regions. It is generally more short, and thick than the VM archer’s tail. It looks more puffy. For a different perspective on the sock hat, here’s a guy with a purse from a 15th century MS held at the BNE who has it slung over his shoulder.
And another one:
And for a change of medium, here’s the epitaph of Martin von Seinsheim, made 1434 Marienkapelle, Würzburg.
If you come across an image of such a hat, check the source. Chances are it is German, like this example from the Grillinger bible, and many others.
So in general we can say that the tail on the German hat type:
- is relatively short varying from just below the brim to touching the shoulders
- is relatively wide, not much narrower than the brim itself
However, such hats can be found in other countries as well. For example, the following clips are from three French manuscripts all produced between 1410 and 1430: Bedford Hours (right); Morgan MS M.396 (left); Morgan M.453 (bottom middle).
Apart from the example on the left, these look like somewhat longer versions of the German cap, with wide tail and often modest brim.
This is not what the VM hat looks like. In our crossbowman, the width of the tail-head-brim are drawn approximately at a 1:2:4 ratio, while in German manuscripts these values tend to lie much closer to each other. In this sense, the VM hat is more like the traditional chaperon.
It is my opinion that closer relatives of the crossbowman’s hat are found outside of the strict confines of German-style manuscripts. Below are some clips from the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries Bear and Boar Hunt, made in the Southern Netherlands in the 1420’s. They reveal not only gloriously large brims with the right kind of tail, but also other relevant aspects of the garment like baggy sleeves with narrow wrists (bottom detail).
The Victoria and Albert Museum notes on the clothing:
The figures have the languid pose of the International Gothic style – personified by the lady to the right of the couple on the bridge, still emphasising the vertical – and fashionable costume of the courtiers in the tapestry is shown in minute detail, being the fashion of the Burgundian court of the latter half of the 1420s, of which very little survive in terms of real dress; the women in high-waisted gowns with collars wider than their shoulders and wearing heart-shaped headdresses, while the men are in bulky garments with large drooping sleeves and low-slung belts. Bagpipe sleeves seen in the tapestry went out of fashion around 1430.
Unfortunately there are no crossbows in the tapestry since this is a boar- and bear hunt, and all men are using boar spears, specifically designed to stop a charging boar in its tracks. I especially like this guy dragging a boar at the bottom left of the scene. Note the way the plump brim sits on the head and the long tail hanging along his arm.
I have tried to demonstrate that Ewa Sniezynska-Stolot’s assessment that the “Sagittarius’ cap with fox tail points to Germany” is not supported by the evidence. In my opinion, the German-style cap in its standard form does not explain what we see in the VM. I have put forward examples of the international gothic style which have more explanatory power.
I have also argued that the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries could hold the key to the type of figure we’re looking at here: a nonchalant upper class dandy who likes to go hunting in his best clothes. Tapestries like this were common once, but because they were later seen as space consuming and old fashioned, almost none survived. At one point, such decorations must have contributed to a pan-European ideal of what the courtly hunter looks like. It is my opinion that one of these fellows ended up in our manuscript. But through what way? This knowledge might help us in our hunt for other relevant manuscript sources.
Finally, most relevant sources I encountered were made in a rather limited time frame, between 1410 and 1430. Additionally, according to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s curators, the type of baggy sleeves we see on the VM archer would have been considered old-fashioned in the 1430’s. All of this coincides well with the VM’s carbon-dating to 1404–1438 and adds to the pile of evidence against certain theories which claim the VM was written after the 15th century.