A few days ago, when discussing the way that the Sagittarius crossbowman appears in similar fifteenth century manuscripts, I wrote that it was clear to methat we are looking at a family of manuscripts with many similar features“, and that I suspected “the real historical heavy lifting – building a complete list of these fifteenth century manuscripts, and then deriving a cladistic tree linking them all together – must have been done already“.

With some initial help from Jürgen W. in Cambridge (thank you very much!), and then a little further assistance from (the now-retired) Professor Francis B. Brévart himself, I believe I now have the basic literature framework in place that forms the backdrop to what we seem to be looking at. It will take a lot more work to fill out the picture more satisfactorily, but what follows should bring anyone interested in what I’m writing about up to speed.

German Volkskalender

There are a large number of (largely fifteenth century) manuscripts and incunabula that cover broadly the same set of material: tables of Saints days, tables for calculating the position of the moon over its 19-year Metonic cycle, tables showing unlucky days (e.g. when not to undergo bloodletting, cupping, etc), lucky days (e.g. “guldin zal”), days to take baths, days to avoid hot baths, etc. Some also have extensive sections on the signs of the zodiac and the planets: many are bound along with similar documents. As a genre, this is almost exclusively German, though a handful of Old French versions have survived.

The first person to try to properly catalogue these documents was Ernst Zinner, in his (1925) “Verzeichnis der astronomischen Handschriften des deutschen Kulturgebietes” (though with three later addenda in 1952, 1962, 1964). Their contents were often copied one from the other (though with frequent differences), but as I understand it Zinner was more interested in collating the raw bibliographical data rather than trying to offer a cladistic synthesis of them all.

The specific name Zinner gave to these fifteenth century texts was “Volkskalender“, as a loose analogy to a separate series of much later (mainly 18th century) calendars. Despite the many substantial differences between the two series of documents (and the protests from other historians, who rightly point out that these calendars were necessarily expensive, and so probably had little to do with ordinary volks at all), the name has stuck.

All the same, the bibliographic references for individual documents may well refer to them as “Iatromathematisches Hausbuch”, or “Hausbuch”, or any number of different names. Brévart (1996) is fairly scathing about the definitional hole some historians have dug themselves into here: but all that needs to be said is that they’re all essentially talking about the same group.

Brévart’s two families

Professor Francis B. Brévart spent many years looking at these specific manuscripts. From our point of view, his two most significant publications were:

* “The German Volkskalender of the Fifteenth Century” [via JSTOR], in Speculum 63 (1988), pp.312-342.
* “Chronology and Cosmology. A German Volkskalender of the Fifteenth Century,” The Princeton Library Chronicle (1996), pp.225-265.

While Brévart 1988 discusses the contents of the manuscripts and introduces the two main families these fall into, Brévart 1996 includes a substantial list of the manuscripts in the two families. You really need to read both papers to get a clear picture of these manuscripts. Thankfully they combine erudition, attention to detail, and clarity of expression: very highly recommended.

The single document from which all the others ultimately derived was an extended Kalendarium compiled by Johannes Wissbier of Gmund between 1404 and 1405. Brévart refers to the more than thirty manuscripts directly descended from this as his “Volkskalender A” family. However, Brévart 1988 continues:

“During the third decade of the fifteenth century a totally different version of the Volkskalender came into being. In addition to the Kalendarium and the treatises on cosmology, the signs, and the planets found in Wissbier’s work, it included various other texts- for example, on the labors of the months, the four temperaments, phlebotomy, bathing, purging, and the unlucky days.”

This separate set, comprising more than twenty documents, is what Brévart calls the “Volkskalender B” family. This is the family we should be most interested in.

Brévart’s “Volkskalender B” family

Brévart 1996 lists (pp.250-254) twenty-six Volkskalender B documents (though also giving a useful mini-bibliography on each one, which I have not reproduced here):

* Berlin: Staatsbibliothek Ms. germ. 2° 1069 [link]
* Berlin: Staatsbibliothek Ms. germ. 4° 20 [link?]
* Berlin: Staatsbibliothek Hdschr. 319 [link]
* Edinburgh: The Library of the Royal Observatory, Ms. Crawford 4.6. (olim 9.14-5.14) [1478]
* Einsiedeln: Stiftsbibliothek Hs. 297 [1498] [link]
* Erlangen: Universitätsbibliothek Cod. B 27 (olim Irm. 1365) [link]
* Frankfurt: Stadt- und Universitätsbibliothek Ms germ, qu. 17 [link]
* Heidelberg: Universitätsbibliothek Cpg 291
* Heidelberg: Universitätsbibliothek Cpg 298 (“and 831” [?])
* Heidelberg: Universitätsbibliothek Cpg 557
* Karlsruhe: Badische Landesbibliothek Cod. 494 (olim Donaüschingen, Fürstlich-Fürstenbergische Hofbibliothek) [1443]
* London: British Library Ms. Add. 17987 [Warburg lo-res photos] [1446] [link]
* London: University College Ms germ. 1 [1471] [link] [UCL description]
* Munich: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Cgm 28 [c.1440] [link]
* Munich: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Cgm 349 [c.1480] [link]
* Munich: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Cgm 730 [c.1500] [link]
* Munich: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Cgm 736 [c.1465] [link]
* Munich: Universitätsbibliothek 2° Cod. ms. 578 [1474] [link]
* Nuremberg: Staatsarchiv Hs. 426 [1430] [link]
* Prag: Narodni Muzeum Schlossbibliothek Krivoklat Cod. Ie7 (51.996)
* St. Gallen: Stiftsbibliothek Cod. 760
* Tübingen: Evangelisches Stift Msc. 17 [1462]
* Vienna: Oesterrichische Nationalbibliothek Cod. 3085
* Wolfenbüttel: Herzog August Bibliothek Cod. 264.5 Extravagantes [1491] [link]
* Würzburg: Universitätsbibliothek Cod. M.p.med.f.5 [c.1450] [link]
* Zurich: Zentralbibliothek Ms. C 54 [c.1465] [link]

It’s possible that there are several more manuscripts in this family that escaped Brévart’s roving eye, e.g. this one as mentioned by René Zandbergen (though Brévart categorises it as a Volkskalender A family member):

* Planeten-Buch – BSB Cgm 7269, Konstanz, [BSB-Hss Cgm 7269] [1463]

The Sagittarius Crossbowman link

Why should anyone be interested in this family of documents? Simply because these contain almost all the roundel images of Sagittarius-the-zodiac-sign where what is normally depicted as an archer is instead depicted as a crossbowman.

Personally, I’m very much convinced by the previously-made suggestion that the crossbowman image in some of these documents was accidentally copied from a roundel of Sagittarius-the-constellation: and so it seems to be a very strong possibility that the Sagittarius crossbowman depicted in the Voynich Manuscript was copied from a member of the Volkskalender B family.

Moving forward, the idea would be to try to work out the relationships between these 26+ documents, and then see how the Voynich Manuscript’s section fits in to that tree. There are bound to be copies missing from the tree, for sure: but it seems to me that just about the surest way we will ever have to understand the Voynich Manuscript’s “zodiac” section is by carefully placing it in the context of Brévart’s “Volkskalender B” family, and seeing what we learn.

28 thoughts on “Brévart’s “Volkskalender B” family of manuscripts…

  1. I like what you’re doing here, Nick. This is the kind of careful and comprehensive groundwork we need. What I don’t understand though, is your conclusion that “it seems to be a very strong possibility that the Sagittarius crossbowman depicted in the Voynich Manuscript was copied from a member of the Volkskalender B family.”

    Don’t we have several indications of a French/Spanish region scribal milieu? Like the Romance dialect month names and the scribal habits found in French legal documents? Then why favor a typically German genre?

    You indicate yourself that the original Hausbuch Sagittarius must have been copied from another source, so it was surely not the only source of crossbow Sagittarii 🙂

  2. Koen: please don’t scale up my argument beyond its direct and obvious limits – what I’m exploring here isn’t about languages or scribes or even location, but about the systematic source of the Voynich’s zodiac roundels. This is what’s known as Intellectual History, tracing the transmission of ideas.

  3. Koen: you may have misunderstood my point about copying, which is that the Sagittarius crossbowman seems to have arisen as part of the copying within the Volkskalender B family. So we shouldn’t need to look any further than that. 🙂

  4. Nick could you clarify –
    You say that you think the Voynich ‘archer’ figure is descended from the “B” calendars, but also that this ‘B’ group ‘came into being… during the third decade of the fifteenth century’. – so a generation or two after the later end of the radiocarbon range, and perhaps 75 years later, given that the raw date for one folio was 1400.

    Do you feel that range insignificant, or able to be ignored due to factors affecting radiocarbon dating, or are you arguing that – because it has a crossbowman as emblem of Sagittarius – the Voynich manuscript is some form of prototype for the 1475-and-later type?

    Two more questions – perhaps worth a separate post.

    1. Have you found any encoded German words in the Voynich calendar section – or indeed as part of the main text in any section?
    2. Have you found other medico-calendrical compilations dating to between c.1400-1438, and if so how did they compare with the look of (a) the Voynich ms on the one hand and (b) the somewhat later-emerging ‘B’ hausbooks on the other?

  5. Diane: a decade is ten years, not twenty five years.

    Your other questions:
    1. No. This is because I’m not looking for German, I’m looking for the source of the ideas.
    2. Yes. (a) Not really the same. (b) Different enough that Brévart places them into two families.

  6. xplor on August 6, 2017 at 1:55 pm said:

    Good work ! It is important to know what you are looking at.
    Kind of like finding weather report in the first sentence.

  7. Hi Nick,

    thanks, that’s a very useful addition to the several discussions about the crossbow Sagittarius image.
    I wasn’t sure from your description whether the list of manuscripts includes primarily illustrated ones, or if there are also text-only manuscripts.

    I have a link for Vienna Codex 3085 (which is illustrated):


    If it works, clicking on the small picture (alt text = “Digitalisat”) goes to the images.

  8. A very interesting post and set of references! I do hope to contribute in some fashion at a later date.

  9. Rene: I believe that most of the Volkskalender B family are illustrated, though at least one has blank roundel-shaped spaces where the zodiac drawings were never quite added. 🙂 However, (unlike Professor Brévart) I’ve still only seen a small number of these manuscripts, so please leave comments here if you find a direct link to scans of any of the manuscripts, and I’ll update the list accordingly. 🙂

    I’ve already added [link]s to the Handschriftcensus wherever I could, but actual scans are very much more scattered and can be hard to locate. 🙁

  10. Thomas: thanks for dropping by, long time no see! It’s still early days as far as this Volkskalender B family notion goes, because even once we manage to gain online access to scans of (say) half of the documents, we will still then have to build up a synthetic view of how they all linked together (i.e. via copying) so that we can start to work out where in that larger picture the Voynich fits.

    It’s not going to be an easy task, but I think this will be worthwhile collaborating on.

  11. Whether or not it’s relevant for the VM, it seems like an interesting project. Isn’t there some way a collaborative platform can be set up? I’m thinking of a google drive document with invite-to-edit for those interested? And a template to be filled in for each manuscript (location, year, Sagittarius image…)

  12. Koen: I tried setting up a one-page wiki for precisely that, but it didn’t really work out satisfactorily. All the same, I am actively thinking about ways to specifically achieve this, and will very probably find a workable route over the next few days.

  13. James R. Pannozzi on August 7, 2017 at 2:56 pm said:

    Terrific research and quite possibly very useful.

    But…. I still get the feeling that you have made excessive focus on Europe while ignoring the possible effects of the new world discoveries.

    Look at the herbals. New herbs, new animals, new discoveries…it was causing a sensation in Europe. Tobacco as a “wonder” drug, etc.. So the question arises, could the Voynich have actually originated in Mesoamerica notwithstanding strong European influence ?

    If so, then for reasons of personal survival, might Mesoamerican designers of the Voynich have wanted to make it look as European as possible, and not just to fool you hundreds of years in the future.

  14. I would hesitate to discard the “Volkskalender A” family just yet.

    In fact, the MS you listed under my name (Munich CGM 7269) is included in it.

    A curious piece of trivia: Prof. Brevart’s second paper is primarily dedicated to a MS preserved in Princeton, namely Kane MS 52.
    There is a reasonable chance (but it is still to be proven) that Kane MS 51 is one of the MSs that Voynich obtained from the Jesuits of Villa Mondragone, and sold to Grenville Kane.

  15. Rene: I slightly glossed over the difficulties Professor Brévart encountered when trying to separate the A and B families, particularly as the 15th century developed – many documents (such as the Planetbuchen) seem to have been influenced by both families (in my opinion). But all the same, my basic point and initial research direction – that we should first seek to understand the specific evolution of the B family as our first staging point – remains intact. 🙂

  16. James: I’m just trying to produce detail-oriented accounts of things such as the Sagittarius crossbowman that genuinely move everyone forward. Where that will ultimately lead I cannot yet say.

  17. As Rene pointed out the Vienna Codex 3085 has ladies in a barrel , image 17.

  18. References to the “Volkskalender B” family of documents keep coming up, with preference over the “A” family.

    Now clearly, the work of Prof. Brévart stands, but how does the Voynich MS link to it? As far as I understand, you prefer the B family because this set of manuscripts includes several other topics that seem relevant to the contents of the Voynich MS.
    At the same time, the A family manuscripts are commonly bound together with other works discussing these topics.

    What I think is even more important is, that the illustrations in the Voynich MS do not appear to be calendar-related, but are strictly astronomical. The exact repetition of 30 star-nymph-label items can only refer to the degrees of the zodiac signs, and not to days of the month.

    Now we do have the opinion of Prof. Stolot that the drawings of the zodiac signs in the centres of these illustrations derive from a calendar-type MS, based on the fact that the rams (or whatever they are) and bulls in Aries and Taurus are eating from mangers. I see no reason to contest that. Either A or B type Volkskalender could have served this purpose.

    As Marco Ponzi and Darren Worley have shown, and JK Petersen as well, Sagittarius depicted as a human with a crossbow appear in german calender manuscripts throughout the 15th Century, and not only in the second half.

    In my opinion, and for the reasons stated above, the zodiac illustrations in the Voynich MS are astronomical, and the zodiac emblems fit a german style, or were copied from a german MS, from any time in the 15th Century.

  19. Rene: our opinions really aren’t so far apart. The difference is that I’m taking a very specific hypothesis – the Volkskalender B hypothesis – and running with it as far as I can.

    Whether it’s right or wrong doesn’t actually matter: focusing on specific manuscripts and their contents forces me to engage with their world and internal logic far more directly than if I were to spend my time just looking for zodiac roundels.

    For example, the Cisiojanus hypothesis isn’t directly linked to Volkskalender B mss, but is linked to their worldview and to the mss often bound to them.

  20. john sanders on September 3, 2017 at 9:24 am said:

    James R. Pannozzi: To we, the many VM micro minnows, it makes perfect sense but unfortunately the ‘talent’ are not going to take this logically perceived American common sense alternative to that quaint little isolated and gated hamlet in the lower steppes near Lichtenstein or thereabouts..

  21. Question:
    Compared to other books where I’ve already seen, the parchment in the VM seems quite white (bright).
    Is this really so, or is it because of the scan so bright?
    The brightness would tell me why you used to think it was a fake.

  22. Peter the manuscript is far from a fake.
    The problem is it is hard to tell what is original and what has been obscured by latter folks.

  23. I know it is not a fake. I find it astonishing that the parchment has not stained after such a long time. I also know that it is a white tanning (lime).
    But is the original still so bright? Or is it because of scanning?

  24. Nick,
    ‘a decade’ .. Quite right. Knowing that the majority of those calendars mentioned since 2008 had been dated between the 1460s-80s, I’m afraid I supposed your ‘third decade’ to be a mistake for ‘third quarter’.

    May I ask whether either of the people who offered advice and assistance were able to give you a date for the earliest example of (i) a crossbowman for Sagittarius (ii) a figure drawn in a way similar to the Voynich crossbowman? or (iii) a crossbowman for November? or (iiii) plants drawn in those calendars as they are in the Vms?

    btw – there is a way to explain a November for the Sagittarius and one I rather like since it does not require either an alteration of the radiocarbon dates in the absence of duplicating the tests, and it does not require positing so late a date for the inscriptions, either. Also accords better, I think, with the Voynich manuscript’s materials and other internal evidence.

    which reminds me – have you noticed in those calendars the use of ‘star-flowers’, or any example of two distinctly different animals pictured with a single head? Otherwise it is so exciting to think that the Voynich plaintext is going to be enciphered German, if the luxury-German-calendar theory proves a good one.

  25. Diane: your comment seems to be asking questions I have no obvious interest in and alluding to explanations I haven’t asked for. A lot of what you are writing now seems to be playing to a gallery that is as good as invisible to my eyes. Sorry, but this all makes no sense to me. 🙁

  26. Nick,
    The basic question is fairly simple and fairly obvious. How much of what is in the Vms do these calendars explain, from what you’ve seen and learned? So they explain the style of drawing, or the content in sections other than the Vms’ calendar? Within the Vms’ calendar, do they explain its assignment to December rather than November? Please do avoid the common habit of answering technical questions about the manuscript with personal comments about me. The questions are impersonal, objective and hardly unreasonable. I’d really appreciate answers in the same vein.

  27. Diane: why you summarise four unanswerable questions and a hint at an invisible explanation of your own with three completely different questions quite escapes me.

    I think it’s a little early to classify things as explanations, but what we can say is that there was a good number of German manuscript calendars that were illustrated with circular zodiac signs: and these sequences are primarily where we see Sagittarius crossbowmen (manuscripts with a Sagittarius crossbowman facing out of the page form a separate group).

    The month assignments were done in a different, far more provincial hand, so probably a later owner: if you accept the cedilla in “Marc”, this was probably done in Southern France.

  28. Nick, Many thanks. Now all that’s needed is for someone to trace the antecedents for material included in those German books, and perhaps to say more about calendars with calendar signs in miniature roundels. The last would be a study worth reading, but the research a hefty assignment even for a professional in the field. I’d estimate at least three years’ work even if not all the mss were inspected.

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