While none of the examples I attributed were particularly new or shocking to Voynich research, the exercise did change my personal views on the fashion in the “Zodiac section” considerably. What surprised me was that the human Zodiac figures wear clothing which can be confidently classified under a specific style: Courtly International Gothic:
Artists and portable works, such as illuminated manuscripts, travelled widely around the continent, leading to a common aesthetic among the royalty and higher nobility and considerably reducing the variation in national styles among works produced for the courtly elites. The main influences were northern France, the Netherlands, the Duchy of Burgundy, the Imperial court in Prague, and Italy. Royal marriages such as that between Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia helped to spread the style.
Part of the reason of the style’s international success and homogeneity was the fact that it was popular in art forms which could be moved around, like manuscripts and tapestries, as opposed to for example carvings on churches. Although of course there are famous examples in architectural decoration as well, like various series of North Italian frescos.
From a research point of view, I was captivated by the following sentence from the holding museum’s description:
Bagpipe sleeves seen in the tapestry went out of fashion around 1430.
The sleeves meant are ones with baggy “pipes” but close-fitting cuffs (at the wrists) of which a number are depicted on the tapestry.
The Voynich archer is well known for sporting a similar style of sleeves:
This appeared to me as an exceptional opportunity. Dress and fashion are usually decent indicators of period, and we have an example here of clothing which can – if it can be confirmed – be dated to specific decades.
No Hulks allowed
Being a Voynich researcher for a few years has sharpened my sense of skepticism, so I was not just going to take the curator’s word for it. Besides, I’d also want to know when and where these sleeves became popular. So I formulated a research question:
- When and where was it fashionable for men in similar tunics to wear baggy-elbowed sleeves?
The rules for the sleeves are the following:
- tight at the wrist
- baggy at the elbow/pipe
- no exuberant padding at the shoulders
The final point, about shoulder padding, is necessary to distinguish our style from later trends which puff up the sleeve entirely, giving the men a “hulkish” appearance. This is not what we see in the VM archer.
Above an example of a fresco (1405-1410) in the International Gothic style, no puffy shoulders. Under that a figure from a manuscript dated to the second half of the 15th century. The horizontal line and top-heavy block created by the widened shoulders would have been atrocious to Gothic eyes.
The hulk-look became the norm after bag-pipes went out of style. It’s easy to recognize and was avoided for this study.
In search of sleeves
Next, I created a thread at the Voynich Ninja forum inviting members to share examples of such particular sleeves. A sizable basis was offered by JKP, who has previously written about this topic, and then expanded upon.
Only examples were included which unambiguously matched the VM archer’s “bat wing” sleeves in style and which could be dated confidently down to a few decades. A general dating like “15th century” is useless for our purpose. We ended up with almost forty entries, which was more than I expected. Over a month has passed now so it’s time to look at the results. A selection (many of which have been shared by JKP before):
The garment was certainly international European. Most examples were found in the regions of France, Southern Germany, Northern Italy, England and the Netherlands, a spread which overlaps that of the courtly gothic style.
In other words, the archer’s dress won’t help us narrow down a region; but we’re after a date range, so how about that?
Date range: results
Since we are interested in a specific date range, it was essential to find accurate datings of as many manuscripts as possible. This was not always easy, since holding libraries don’t always provide this information, and we found a few cases where an obsolete dating was used. I only included those cases where a relatively reliable date could be found.
Starting date: when did bag pipe / bat wing sleeves become fashionable?
With the Victoria and Albert Museum’s description we have a tentative end date of 1430 (which we can test later) but no starting date was mentioned. As it turned out, it was hard to find any examples before 1400. Only one workshop provided exceptions: that of Giovannino de’ Grassi, who produced a number of relevant manuscripts at the end of the 14th century. His Tacuinum Sanitatis manuscripts contain the only examples of our sleeve type which can be confidently dated to slightly before 1400.
JKP has also noticed that the style is especially popular by people using a tool or weapon. I would speculate that in these early examples, they were wide, open sleeves which were somehow tied around the wrist when engaging in manual labor (shaking a tree in this case). The look then became a thing of its own.
End date: when did bag pipe / bat wing sleeves fall out of fashion?
Our findings largely confirm the V&A museum’s end date of 1430. Almost all post-1430 examples we found were outside of manuscript art: a handful of frescos and paintings.
There are without a doubt a few later examples in manuscripts as well, but those are hard to find. The prime examples is – it needn’t cause surprise – Diebold Lauber, who made a living recycling a stock of old imagery for his mass production of paper manuscripts.
Putting all results together, there are three clear periods:
- Before 1400: a few highly original, avant garde, high quality manuscripts by de’ Grassi.
- 1400-1430: explosion of the style all over European manuscript illumination
- After 1430: some remnants in non-manuscript art and only the most old-fashioned/unoriginal manuscript producer (Lauber)
Within the 1400-1430 period and focusing on manuscript art, the division looks as follows (only manuscripts which could be dated to a specific decade were included). There’s a strong onset in the first decade, after de’ Grassi’s pioneering work. By 1421-1430, bag sleeves are already less popular in manuscript art.
Example: Livre de Chasse
The Livre de Chasse was a hunting manual written by master huntsman count Gaston Phébus in 1387-1389. The work was hugely influential and survives in dozens of manuscripts. Two of the earliest manuscripts deserve our attention in the context of men’s sleeves.
Have a good look at the two images below. They illustrate the same passage: three hunters, a dog, a boar.
The top image is from BNF MS fr. 619, illustrated by Jean de Toulouse in Avignon under supervision of Fébus himself, 1390 ca. There is no trace yet of baggy sleeves: the men either have tight sleeves or roll up the sleeves of their overgarment. The colour image is from BNF MS fr. 616. It was modeled in Paris after an older manuscript like MS fr. 619. around 1407.
In 1390 the Gothic style we’re after was budding in Italy, only making an appearance in the most innovative illustrative projects (de’ Grassi). Seventeen years later it has exploded over Europe, and Parisian illustrators feel compelled to dress Phebus’ huntsmen after this fashion. That is how we move from the hunter on the left (1390) to the one on the right (1407). The VM archer’s dress belongs to the latter type (right).
Archer’s sleeves: conclusion
The Voynich manuscript’s vellum has been carbon dated to 1404–1438. The study of one of its most standout fashion aspects has confirmed this date range, with a slight preference for the earlier part.
This has strong implications for researchers who wish to argue that the manuscript was written at a certain time. If you want the manuscript to have been produced somewhat before 1400, then you must argue that it was as groundbreaking as de’ Grassi’s highly original illustrative programme. Any dating of its production before 1380 would be at odds not only with the carbon dating, but also with the figures’ dress.
If you want it to have been made after 1430, then this also implies that the Archer figure was copied without much thought, in an extremely specific dress type which would have been obsolete and old fashioned by then. Anything after 1438 would ignore the results of the carbon dating and the fact that the baggy-elbow fad had been forgotten for a decade by then.
In short, the archer’s dress appears to confirm the estimation of the vellum to 1404-1438 and, if taken strictly, would refine this range to 1404-1430. According to our extensive search for the relatively rare phenomenon of bat-wing sleeves, it was especially popular during the first decade of the 15th century, and gradually declined during the 1420’s.
And the ladies? Let’s cross-check.
The crossbowman isn’t the only one in this section with characteristic sleeves. Both women (Virgo and the female of Gemini) wear a similar dress with dagged sleeves. I created a similar thread on the Voynich ninja forum, asking members whether they knew any parallels, but good examples proved difficult to find. Still, both JKP and VViews managed to find a few candidates.
One justified remark that was made about some of my proposals was: is this really a sleeve or more like a cape or the edge of the dress? The Voynich women wear sleeves that are clearly separated from the dress; they don’t touch the ground and aren’t folded back. This eliminates a large amount of my initial contributions, but we are left with the most certain parallels.
- Various examples from Tacuina, Norhern Italy, c. 1390-1400
- Buonconsiglio Castle frescos, Northern Italy, c. 1400
- Ameto’s Discovery of the Nymphs, Florence, c. 1410
- BNF fr. 805, France, 1400-1415
- BNF fr. 118, France, 1400-1425
- Reg. Lat. 1290, Northern Italy (Padua?), c. 1420
Even though this sample is more limited, it still presents a strikingly similar image to that of the men’s sleeves: early attestation in de’ Grassi’s work, then a surge in popularity from ca. 1400-1420. The examples we found were mostly North Italian and French.
The clothing worn by the crossbowman, Virgo and female Gemini belong to the style of (courtly) International Gothic. Focusing on the sleeves allowed us to determine that this style was most popular in the first two decades of the 15th century, with a decline in use during the 1420’s. Later examples are relatively rare and mostly found outside of manuscript art. The most notable exception might be Diebold Lauber, who was known for mass-copying old stock images.
These results can be seen as a confirmation of the carbon dating of the manuscript’s parchment to 1404–1438, with a preference for the earlier half of this range. As always, exceptions are possible, but venturing outside of the 1400-1430 range has consequences for one’s claims.