fol 73v: Past conversations…Pt 2 (starting from scratch 12d/2)

A bird-shblog standing archer 2 NthAfricaooter with crossbow becomes a stock figure in western medieval art from the type in the  Tacuinum sanitatis, where it begins as a hunter of cranes (usually but not always pictured as Grus grus). Interestingly, this was also the activity associated with the ‘bird-shooter’ in the old north African mosaic.



In the Tacuinum the text tells the reader that the crane should be caught in winter (i.e. from Sagittarius’ month of November), and “should be caught using the falconer’s art, although it is often brought down in the fields with a bolt from a crossbow”. (p.119)

crossbow Tacuinum Cerutti crossbow Tacuinum bird hunter











Of our remaining Latin copies, that in the Codex Vindobonensis Series Nova 2644 (fol.70v), housed in the Oesterreichischen National Bibliotek, Vienna, might be truest to the original now lost. A detail is shown as the header picture; the rest can be seen here.  I illustrate above two other examples, showing how closely they follow a common exemplar, presumably the original. The earliest translations were made by Jewish translators, and I think it important to note that in every case the figure is dressed partly or entirely in very dark blue, while in the Cod.Vind., which some believe the earliest, it is entirely so.[4]

The cranes pictured in these copies are not all the same species. In Cod.Vind. it is certainly the Eurasian Crane (Grus grus), but see what you think about others. The International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin provides photographs of all fifteen species here, and a map of their range is here. Grus grus arrives from the north to breed and spend the winter across the range from China to Spain.

But this is why I am struck by the fact that as long ago as July 2000, Brian Eric Farnell had observed,

… I would assume whoever chose to draw a crossbow in the hands of the archer thought it quite a normal type of bow. Maybe the MS originated in the Holy land…. That might explain the Middle Eastern flavor to the script .. (4 July 2000)

Which is precisely the point.  When Ibn Botlan set down his memorised notes in Antioch, they represented matter committed to memory and already traditional. They take the form of a rigidly ordered set of aphorisms under the same seven heads for each item and their content does not refer to European modes and practice, but to those native to the style of medicine in which Ibn Botlan had been trained in the tenth century.

In other words, nothing in it came from further west than Antioch, and much of it probably from Nisibis, lower Mesopotamia and Jundishapur.

The ‘bird-shooter’ Sagittarius, as we’ve seen, was first enunciated in northern Israel at much the same time as the ‘standing archer’ Sagittarius, both to replace the Roman zodiac’s centaur.  They were evidently created and used by Jews; we have no evidence that either form for the constellation was known in Europe – or at least to Latin Europe – for another six hundred years.  The ‘standing archer’ type as form for Sagittarius emerges into Latin art around Picardy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, being then disseminated northwards in association with Opus Francigenum. The ‘bird-shooter’ may never have been used as a means to depict Sagittarius in Europe, and even the bird-shooting figure in Ibn Botlan’s text, though translated in Spain and France during the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, would not make an impact on astronomical or calendrical imagery for another century and more.

However, it is in copies of his Tacuinum sanitatis that we first encounter the type – the bird-shooter with turban and crossbow (in itself an indication of derivation from outside the Latin world).  There is no argument over who made the translations first, the two earliest being made by Jews multilingual in Latin, Arabic and Hebrew (at least) in addition to their regional language.  This alone should be enough to disprove – as if any disproof of such a silly notion were needed – that a written text’s being inscribed left to write is no proof whatever that the content will have a Latin cultural origin. Believe it or not, it has been asserted that the unread text of the Voynich manuscript is “obviously” a product of western Christian culture because the text is inscribed left to right.  Quite an extraordinary notion.

It does not seem unreasonable to suggest that Ibn Botlan’s text first reached the western Mediterranean and Europe though Jewish sources. Jews were apparently the first in Europe to have copies of the original text, written in a language accessible to them, though not to the majority in Europe. All the more probable given the position held by Jewish doctors in Islamic regions as in Europe of the time: Ibn Botlan’s text is a book of health.

The Spanish translation is formally credited to Gerard of Cremona but like so many others issued under his name, is more likely to reflect the labour of scholars in the Toledo school, of which several generations of the ibn Tibbon family provided translations and management.[3] The translation produced for the Neapolitan court  of Charles d’Anjou about the end of the thirteenth century is, according to Judith Spencer, “perhaps the first” and was made by Faradj ben Salem (in Latin Ferragutus) who was at the court  at that time. Thus we know that the original was likely owned, and the first two translations certainly made, by Jews.

The manuscript in which Farragutus’ original translation is contained was formerly part of the Pavia libary of the Viscontis and has a secure history. It is now in the Bib.Nat. Paris, and “establishes a link between the Arabic[-literate] doctor from Baghdad and the region of the Po valley”. It also provides a connection to the sort of manuscripts from which de Predis developed his ‘Planetary children’ imagery.

The region around Venice, the Veneto and the Po valley is that to which our earlier codicological evidence apparently points. Milan, to which Pelling attributed MS Beinecke 408, lies in the same plain in northern Italy.

As regards the type for the crossbow-bearing “Saggitarian“, turbaned or hatted, it appears as the bird-shooter but not (so far as I can discover) as an astronomical figure. That is, it does not appear as Sagittarius, but only as the human character  informed by the constellation’s influence and that of Jupiter.

It must now be considered less certain than has been presumed until now that the figure in folio 73v represents the constellation or that any such figure represented Sagittarius until a century or more after our manuscript was made.

If, instead, it is meant for a ‘Sagittarian’ then it may be evidence that the manuscript does indeed relate in some way to astrology and fortune-telling, something for which I’ve seen no other evidence in the manuscript.

Stephen Bax has drawn attention to another example in our fold-out series, the so-called ‘Gemini‘, which does not conform to any representation of that constellation within the medieval Latin corpus, so far as I know.

Note: As ever, if you know of examples offering contradiction or better examples and within an appropriate time-frame (c.1200-1438 or so) do feel free to leave a note.


NOTES (cont.)

3. It wasn’t only in the Christian domains that Jews were prevented from recognition in this way. In eleventh-century Andalus (Moorish Spain), Ibn Abdun (1050- 1135) had declared that “it is forbidden to sell Jews and Christians books about science, unless it is the science of their own law. Actually, they translate scientific books and attribute them to their co-religionists or their bishops.. [and] it would also be preferable not to allow Jews or Christians to establish themselves as physicians, who might then treat Muslims… let them treat their fellows [only].” After the Reconquista, it must have seemed a change for the better for the Jews of Spain, at least at first, for they were positively encouraged to continue the work of their Toledo school, and to continue producing translations of practical texts, now also into Latin. To permit those translations to appear under the name of a Christian religious figure would not have been a new idea.

4. In the late 12th century, Almohad ruler Abu Yusuf, a North African of Zenata Berber descent, had his capital in Marrakesh from 1163-1184, during which time he invaded Iberia, conquered al-Andalus, and ravaged Valencia and Catalonia, establishing himself in Seville in 1170. He “ordered the Jews of the Maghreb to wear dark blue (or ‘blue-black’) garments with long sleeves and saddle-like caps”, which ruling remained in place for two generations, after which his grandson altered the colour of both clothing and turbans to yellow, after appeals from the Jews themselves. I have the basic details from Bat Yeʼor, The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude, Seventh to Twentieth CenturyFairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1996 (p.342). What the ‘saddle cap’ looked like is uncertain. Some think it like the traditional cap of Berber women; others argue that it’s being called a ‘saddle’-cap indicates a kind of pommel. A very early version of Sagittarius found in the zodiac of San Miniato (11thC) shows Sagittarius with a curious cap, which may be the type intended. We simply don’t know.



  1. Marco Ponzi recently drew attention to a copy of the Aratea which Rene Zandbergen had earlier thought significant: St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek / Cod. Sang. 902. It is an interesting manuscript, chiefly for its evidence of using a variety of exemplars which are reproduced without any noticeable effort at standardisation. Versions of Sagittarius range from the stock form of the Roman centaur to a horned, but smooth-skinned “pan” after the form of the Hercules in the north African mosaic (Volubilis). The mosaic is dated to the “early centuries AD”. Adoption and adaptation of the figure to make it fully-human, non-pagan and part of the Roman zodiac seems still to occur first in Huseifa, although the common influence from Semitic culture and belief may have seen still earlier versions in either place. As to the horns given one version of Sagittarius in that manuscript – I have a couple of posts aleady written on the idea of Sagittarius as ‘evil’. In every case, though, the bow given the figure is an ordinary bow.


  2. Rene,
    My memory has not failed me, but my note is a little ambiguous. In my research log for April 16th., 2011 I find .. after notes about conversations on the mailing list… “Cod.Sang. 902 – details query Rene.” I took it to mean that you had mentioned the MS and that for further details you were the person to ask. Perhaps I meant that you were most likely to know it well, since the St.Gall manuscripts have been a focus of your study for so long.

    Anyway, it seems the manuscript was mentioned so early. Pity I didn’t make a more detailed note. 😦


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