Crossbow article

(This is René Zandbergen’s translation of Jens Sensfelder’s (2003) short article on the crossbowman in the Voynich Manuscript.)

* * * * * * * *

The crossbow archer in the Voynich Manuscript: a tentative dating

(Author: Jens Sensfelder, 21st December 2003)
(Converted to HTML by Nick Pelling, 30th December 2003)
(Translated by René Zandbergen, 2 January 2004)
(Translation checked by Elmar Vogt and Nick Pelling)
(Note: diagrams to follow!)

The following presents a tentative dating of the above-mentioned illustration, which shows a man holding a cocked crossbow in his hands. The analysis is (for the most part) restricted to the crossbow itself.


An illustration of an archer holding a crossbow, in the so-called “Voynich Manuscript” (Beinecke MS 408), fol 73v (Annex 1).
A walking archer is holding in his hands a cocked crossbow, charged with a bolt and ready to be shot, at about waist height. An analysis of the garments of the man would certainly add valuable information for dating the illustration. For this I refer to the relevant experts in that field.


  • The illustration of the crossbow is a line drawing. Only the bow and the stock have been filled in with colour (though only a monochrome reproduction was available for study).

  • The stock is a straight shaft, tapering down towards the archer. It is not possible to determine whether its cross-section is rectangular, round or oval.

  • The archer’s right arm partly covers the end of the stock and it is therefore not possible to determine its total length exactly. The important [distance from bow to latch : distance from latch to end] ratio can be determined fairly accurately as 1 : 1.3 (though if longer, the ratio might be larger).

  • The release mechanism is a long straight trigger bar with a (90°) right angle.

  • The bow has been drawn in two lines and shows the typical recurve shape. It becomes narrower towards the extremes. At the ends its thickness is only that of the nib used to draw the figure.

  • The bowstring has not been attached to the ends of the bow, but to a point in the concave part of the bow. The bowstring has no visible loops or knots.

  • The stirrup of the crossbow has an oval shape.

  • The bolt is drawn as a thick line and has a triangular tip as well as an increased diameter towards the rear.


On the basis of the stock length and the trigger bar, one can exclude an Asian (4.; p. 15), African (4.; p. 214ff) or Indian (4.; p. 216) origin of the crossbow. The crossbow will therefore only be compared against the European tradition.

a) Archer

The archer is most probably a hunter, because he is neither carrying any other weapons nor wearing any protective armour.
His head gear appears to me to be a long rolled-up cowl (which was quite popular in the 14th Century (3.; p. 20)), because of its turban shape and the rolled-up part hanging down behind it.
The archer is not holding the crossbow properly: one hand has been drawn on the trigger bar and the other above the stock. The inept way in which the hands have been drawn lets us conclude that the artist had problems with this detail. He has just drawn the hands in such a way as to show that the archer is holding the weapon in his hands.

b) Bow

The bow in the illustration is most probably a composite bow. There are several reasons for this:

  • The bowstring is not attached to the end of the bow. Known composite bows have a second string notch outside the bow which helps in attaching the bowstring to the bow (cf. 4.; p. 131ff.).

  • Wooden bows of this shape are not known to me. Steel bows of this shape are known only from the 16th Century onwards; these, however, can be excluded from the analysis due to their very different characteristics. In this respect it is worth mentioning specifically that the ends of steel bows are forged as “Thumbs”, and this very characteristic shape would not escape even a layman’s attention.

The use of horn in bows was copied from the Saracens during the crusades, and from then on widely used (especially in Central Europe) for crossbows. The shape of the Turkish bow was introduced at about the same time, which would explain the recurve bow shape of the early crossbows (cf. 5.). Only after the mid-14th Century were horn bows made more solid and compact, and changed into the ‘simple’ circle-arc shape. Quite probably there would have been a transition phase during which both types of bows would have coexisted (Annex 2, cf. Figures 21 and 24: Lutrell Psalter 1340).

c) Stock, release mechanism

The latching mechanism is hidden by the bolt, which is not represented correctly. From the presence of a trigger bar, one may conclude that the latch is a ‘nut latch’. The latch is located relatively far back (i.e. towards the rear of the stock). One may assume that this is the case only for very early types of crossbows. The Roman crossbow, for example, placed the latch at the very end of the stock. The gothic crossbow placed it at two fifths from the front of the stock, and in the Renaissance it was at one third from the front. The right angle in the trigger bar is quite characteristic and belongs strictly to the 14th Century. Following Harmuth (4.; p. 109), this form developed from the obtuse angle that can be observed in many illustrations (cf. 6, also annex 6). Later trigger bars are not straight but always slightly curved. The crossbow in the illustration lacks a bridle, and no alternative attachment of the bow to the stock is evident.

Comparable illustrations/originals:

I am not aware of any crossbow illustrations in connection with the zodiac figure Sagittarius. I also don’t know any illustrations of crossbowmen in calendars. Below, some comparable crossbows and illustrations of crossbows will be compared to the one being studied. Already in 1235 Villard de Honnecourt showed a crossbow trap in his treatise on the ‘Bauhuettenwesen’ [masonic guilds during the construction of cathedrals] (see also Annex 3). This illustration is similar to ours in many respects, even though Honnecourt has drawn it far more accurately. Eschenbach’s epic poem Willehalm (1320) shows crossbows very similar to ours (see also Annex 4). The soldiers are using horn bows with a recurve shape and straight stocks. Similarly, the attachment of bows to the stocks are not drawn. Furthermore, the important [distance from bow to latch : distance from latch to end]ratio is similar to our crossbow. An original Gothic era crossbow is kept in the Stadtmuseum of Cologne (Inv.Nr. W 1109, 5., see also Annex 2). This crossbow, which Harmuth dates to the 14th Century, also has a right-angled trigger bar. (It is worth noting that in the attached illustration the stirrup is missing, and the bow should be attached to the stock rotated by 180°. Cocking the bow would cause it to take on the familiar recurve shape.) However, this piece does already have a curved stock, typical for a Central European weapon, which ours evidently does not. A crossbow of this type is show in Wenzel’s bible of around 1390 (see also Annex 5), where, unfortunately, the trigger bar is not visible.


Based on the above analysis I would date the crossbow as drawn in the illustration to the first half of the 14th Century. A more precise dating is not possible in my opinion, since at any time, also regionally, several types of crossbows would be used (and drawn).
As already indicated in the beginning, the crossbow belongs to the European tradition, but a more precise geographical identification is unfortunately not possible for reasons which will be explained below.

Undoubtedly, the illustrator has drawn the shape of the bow very accurately. Its back-and-forth curves are recognised easily also by the layman and drawing it doesn’t require any great dexterity whatsoever. Looking at the bow (and taking into account the analysis presented above), the influence of the Saracen bow is easily recognisable.

The straight stock is typical for the early 14th Century. Taking into account that the illustrator has observed the shape of the bow and represented it accurately, he would have surely done the same with the stock.
The differentiation between the Central and Western European crossbow types occurred in the course of the 14th Century. At that time, both types already show the characteristic shape of the stock. Hence, the straight stock clearly belongs to the era before this development and one cannot therefore decide whether the crossbow belongs to the Central or Western European tradition.

The right-angled trigger bar is already common at this time; earlier crossbows’ trigger bars all have an obtuse angle. The right angle appears to have been noticed specifically by the illustrator, as he depicts it quite accurately. The (previously-mentioned) fact that the trigger bars of later crossbows are all curved, as in the Hunting books of Gaston Phebus, speaks against a later origin of this crossbow.


1. Boeheim, Wendelin Handbuch der Waffenkunde, Leipzig 1890
2. Credland, Arthur G The Crossbow in Britain, in: The Royal Armouries
Yearbook, 6/2001
3. Embleton, Gerry Ritter und Söldner im Mittelalter, Herne 2002
4. Harmuth, Egon Die Armbrust, Graz 1986
5. Harmuth, Egon Eine Einfußarmbrust der Hochgotik, ZfHWKK 1978
6. Harmuth, Egon Die Armbrustdarstellungen des Haimo von Auxerre, ZfHWKK

Source of Annexes:

All Annexes from 4.


Bridle The ropes/cords binding the stock and the bow together
Cock To pull the bowstring back into the latched position, so that it can be released (thus shooting away the bolt or arrow)
Composite bow Bow made of several materials (typically one would use horn, wood and string). This also explains the term “horn bow”
Latch Mechanism for holding the bowstring in cocked position and for releasing the bowstring when the trigger bar is squeezed
Nut latch Cylindrical latch, usually made of ivory or antler
Recurve Shape of the bow which has a double curvature (when cocked)
Stirrup Ring at the front of the crossbow, into which the archer would insert his foot while cocking the bow
Stock The shaft of the crossbow

22 thoughts on “Crossbow article

  1. Pingback: Welcome to the whacky world of Wilfrid Voynich… « Thoughts about the Voynich Manuscript

  2. Jordão on May 14, 2013 at 1:03 pm said:

    Please post a photo or reproduction.

  3. Diane on May 14, 2013 at 2:26 pm said:

    A very good analysis given the assumed parameters, and the literalness with which it has been assumed the image may be read.

    I wonder – to be trivial for a moment – what ratio the archer’s nose may have to his hands?

  4. xplor on May 16, 2013 at 6:30 pm said:

    Can. 29 of the Second Lateran Council under Pope Innocent II in 1139 banned the use of crossbows, as well as slings and bows, against Christians

  5. bdid1dr on November 7, 2013 at 4:07 pm said:

    Trivia aside, Diane, with a “usual” long-bow, the archer’s arm length (and strength) would be the determining factor for accuracy in hitting whatever “target” the archer was aiming for.

    I am still trying to find my reference book which discusses the Ottoman archers, on horseback, being able to release six bolts a minute.

  6. thomas spande on November 7, 2013 at 7:35 pm said:

    Dear all, One punctillio. The crossbow while very accurate had a huge drawback versus the long bow. The bowstring of the long bow could be removed and carried in the pocket during inclement weather while the cross bow became useless in rainy weather due to the stretching of the bow string. Eventually, the long bow won out. An arrow could be fired with such force (as at Agincourt) that it would punch through the best armor. Long bowmen were allowed by the English to practise on the sabbath. No need to ban the crossbow by papal edict; it was supplanted by technology.

  7. I hve just tried to post this to Elmar Vogt’s blogpost but I guess after all this time, comments are closed to older posts there. Hope you don’t mind, Nick, if I set my immensely valuable insights down here instead. ( What’s a girl to do? 🙂

    We keep thinking what’s enciphered (or not) is language, and that accessing the language is essential, the only avenue to the Voynich text’s meaning/information.

    But considering the level of intelligence, competence and skill informing the ‘encoded’ imagery (an opinion on which I will not be moved), and that imagery of that quality occupies more of this manuscript than does the written text, so I see no necessity to suppose language should have been supposed by the compiler(s) as any essential intermediary stage between information’s setting down and retrieval.
    The essence of imagery as shared language is that its information/data is transmitted direct, the informing culture (being common to both parties) permitting either to express that data in their preferred language and vocabulary.

    This isn’t a high-falutin’ way of saying ‘a sun is a sun in any language’ but of saying that the picture of a fish can be a fish, or symbol for Pisces, or of Christ and it is context and style of drawing which tells informed viewers how to radd their unwritten ‘text’ to the picture. Labels aren’t then required.
    As Michel points out on Elmar’s blog:
    “It looks like the author stopped after each word, sometimes after each letter. Only a few letters are connected with ligatures. This is not typical for a natural language and a very inefficient way to write” – if the aim is to encipher ordinary or poetic speech.

    But I myself should think it a natural way to record data, directly. Think how often we pause when transferring by hand numerical data from one source to another.

    When I hear people frustrated by the oddities of the Voynich written text discussing it, I’m so often reminded of form-filling.
    There are other types of grids, beside Cardan’s.

  8. The crossbow took less training. It took years to make a longbow archer. That why the wars lasted 100 years.

  9. D.N. O'Donovan on August 2, 2015 at 10:05 pm said:

    I’ve found that there is a type of crossbow which had a rather clever method for locking a cocked bow.

    On this type, the lock-plate protrudes from the bow’s inner side, which would explain the action of the archer’s right hand quite well.

    The type is known from a couple of Spanish maritime bows, but since writing the post, I’ve also found what appears to be another example on an enamelled glass made in 1250-60, in Syria under Mamluk rule.

    Those who undertaken the Atlas-like burden of reading my investigation of this manuscript might recall my view that the manuscript shows strong affinities in the way the botanical section’s roots are drawn and the work of a Yemeni Christian in the third quarter of the twelfth century, in the Mashad Dioscorides.

    Since the ‘standing archer’ for Sagittarius also arises in that general region (around Lake Tiberius, in the 5th and 6th centuries), I have argued for a late transmission for many sections in MS Beinecke 408 – about the mid-12thC or so.

    Also of interest is that the technique for enamelling glass does not originate in medieval Syria, but was evidently introduced by immigrants from the old Greco-Bactrian region, where the method was known by the 1stC AD.

    Since the crossbow is also attested in central Asia by that time (as far west as territories of the western Han), it is not impossible that the innovative sort of crossbow, which came to be used as a maritime weapon by the Spaniards, had travelled much the same route.


  10. D.N. O'Donovan on November 28, 2015 at 10:01 am said:

    This crossbow article might be revisited in the light of some more recent research – yes, mine I’m afraid. Thinking that there were a few too many of the usual efforts to blame what wasn’t understood on some failure in the draughtsman, I took another look at the figure, its stance, costume, ‘twiddling’ hand, all in the context of the traditional association made between Sagittarius the constellation, and the image of a ‘lord of the sea’ – not Neptune.

    This conception of Sagittarius is explicable not only in terms of the older traditions, but contemporary Latin and Spanish usage. The Latin term described the crossbowman, the Spanish version carried implications of the ‘lordly’ figure, and on checking the archaeological record, I found a particular kind of maritime crossbow which had an additional lock – one protruding from the side – which was designed especially to prevent accidental release in the more turbulent conditions at sea. Our remaining examples happen to be dated 1510, but our image would suggest that the type existed a century earlier. IMO

    Crossbowmen were generally Spanish, Genoese or Venetian to the early fifteenth century. So, still more evidence in favour of that ‘Spain or somewhere southern’.

  11. D.N. O'Donovan on November 28, 2015 at 10:23 am said:

    The later popularity of the type in ‘central Europe’ is easily explained – not by any direct connection to our manuscript, but simply a fad for taking the earlier medieval Latin – which we find in e.g. fourteenth century records of English hire of Genoese crossbowmen – ‘sagittarios’ as ?witty equivalent for Sagittarius.
    and/or the Spanish implication (which we see for example in Cervantes) that the type was a lordly governor.
    “Dígote, Ricote amigo, que esta mañana me partí della, y ayer estuve en ella gobernando a mi placer, como un sagitario; pero, con todo eso, la he dejado, por parecerme oficio peligroso el de los gobernadores”.

    So our Voynich archer is a lordly and maritime governor, wearing the clothes which refer the reader to both that lordly, and that maritime character. A very nice version of the maritime figure is seen in an Occitan manuscript, though he retains the traditional bow. Unlike the version one finds in conventional central European calendar figures, that in the Vms wears a kind of pleated skirt which seems to me closest to contemporary figures for the Genoese as Roman-style conquers, or more exactly like a type of skirt worn by Greeks of the islands from at least the eleventh century. I’ve already written up most of the exploration, analysis and conclusions, though some references will appear in coming posts. e.g. the fourteenth century English rolls – if anyone’s in a hurry, they can consult one of my footnoted sources in a post I’ve not published yet

    “… tam hobelarios quam sagittarios” see Chapter 5 in Adrian R. Bell, Anne Curry, Andy King, David Simpkin (eds.), The Soldier in Later Medieval England, OUP (2013) pp.179-215

  12. Diane: “sagitta” means not only “arrow” but “crossbow bolt”, so “sagittarios” seems a perfectly rational word-choice to me for that period. As to the rest… you do seem to be running a long way with a very small baton indeed.

  13. D.N. O'Donovan on November 28, 2015 at 2:05 pm said:

    You miss the point entirely; I daresay you also missed the relevant posts.

    I haven’t been “running” with a baton. What I have done is address the image in all its details, including those which Jens’ mis-read, neglected, or simply waved away by first imagining some flaw in the draughtsman’s ability or intellect, and then attributing what he could not explain to that imagined incapacity… so typical of ye Voynichero that I cannot help but wonder if the idea was handed him on a plate.

    I was puzzled as to why he should think the draughtsman “had difficulty” drawing hands in the correct position while simultaneously believing the draughtsman capable of such precision that the half-hidden bow could be treated as if it were a technical drawing, created to scale.

    Jens’ couldn’t be expected to read an image in terms of art history, stylistics, or indicators of origin. He hadn’t that sort of training.

    What I’m saying is that if the whole image can be explained, in every detail, then perhaps it’s time to update your ‘Crossbow’ page.

  14. D.N. O'Donovan on November 28, 2015 at 2:20 pm said:

    The critical issue, I might add, is that alteration of the traditional figures for the constellations did not happen without direct stimulus. The majority remained static, and I have traced and explained every variant version of Sagittarius in the Latin tradition to the early fifteenth century: the maritime figure (which is attested in some pre-Roman traditions as in a later Occitan mss); the Centaur of classical Roman form; that gained from Greek-speakers of Asia minor (the ‘Pan’ or ‘Satyr’ type); the fully human standing archer (from around Lake Tiberius c.5th-6thC – Jewish), and finally I have traced the form given the archer in MS Beinecke 408 – not only its fully human form, but the costume given it, as well as its bow.

    On the last, Jens’ was mistaken, but his fault was only to adopt the “oh well, I can’t explain that, so it’s the draughtsman’s fault” habit. He couldn’t be blamed for not recognising the maritime crossbow’s lock; the archaeological examples hadn’t been written about eleven years ago.

  15. Diane: what I’m saying is that I simply don’t believe that you have explained everything about this figure simultaneously. To my eyes, you leap from one source to yield you a presumed lordship, from another to give you a Genoese background, from another to give you a little-known maritime crossbow, and so forth.

    However, each of these individual leaps is no more than a guess, backed up by little more than what to nearly everyone else is a vague visual similarity: and add to that your crowning notion that you can, by combining them all into a single “lordly maritime governor” narrative, syncretically explain the whole thing.

    I really don’t think so: hence it would make no sense to me to judge this as anything stronger than a mere historical fancy: which is why I’m not planning to update this page.

  16. D.N. O'Donovan on November 29, 2015 at 12:22 am said:

    I’m sure you’ve read enough medieval history to know that in provenancing imagery and artefacts one has to begin by establishing both range and occurrence – for a given form and for its informing idea.

    I’m fairly sure that you wouldn’t complain should the figure of Zeus in a fifteenth century Italian mural be explained in terms of its history – by reference to ancient Greece – its particular stance elucidated by reference to comparative images across a fair geographic and temporal range – and then within that context, its present enunciation clarified by considering other works of the fourteenth and fifteenth century – whether or not in the same medium, or of the same ‘nationality’.

    Most intelligent discussions of art do this sort of thing routinely.

    I have difficulty understanding why it is not only rare in Voynich studies, but actively opposed.

    The point, however, is not about me; it’s about letting readers continue to believe that Jens’ interpretation is not flawed – by what he did not know, as much as by what he was unable to address.

  17. Diane: Jens’ paper was written back in 2003, and I think – contrary to your opinion – it has stood up to the tests of time remarkably well. You have your own paricular view of this drawing, and I’ve never yet stopped you expressing it in comments here: and perhaps that’s as much balance as is necessary for the moment.

    For me, though, the much greater picture is that the zodiac roundel drawings are barely integrated at all with the rest of the drawings, either in terms of subject matter, technically, or stylistically, to the point that I have said for donkeys’ years that I thought they were probably copied (or trivially adapted) from a pre-existing source. So I would fairly surprised if any great revelation about the rest of the manuscript were to come from these specific drawings.

  18. boyfriend , Champollion,,. :-) on November 29, 2015 at 11:41 am said:

    Hi Nick and Friend.
    Analysic crossbow. It is a long pointless. Across Europe, there vere a lot. The Lord of the roses they also had enough. It is important therefore. What is written on the page. Otherwise Z. not get anywhere. Only what was right Z. ( Zandbergen). It cinematograph. On this page is described. How to make simple moving pictures. The entire manual is written in the Czech language. As the entire manuscript.
    If you would be interested, so you can write. Czech and also in English.

    Champallion .

  19. I should point out that the “cinema” idea of a moving puppet by rotating the zodiac illustrations and taking snapshots (which one may see in the 2009 ProOmnia documentary) was an original idea of the producer Andreas Sulzer. I had nothing to do with it, and I am far from sure that this was indeed the intention of the original author/scribe/artist/draughtsman.

  20. D.N. O'Donovan on November 29, 2015 at 3:30 pm said:

    I appreciate your saying that you also noticed that the series sits oddly compared with the rest of the drawings though I should limit that comment to the centres: the ‘ladies’ are pretty consistent in form, style and reference to those in other sections.

    I agree with you that this section, too, has come from pre-existing matter, though from my investigation I’d say the same was true for every section as far as the imagery goes. Whether the text was created for our present copy I have no way to tell.

    ” I would fairly surprised if any great revelation about the rest of the manuscript were to come from these specific drawings”.

    Well, be surprised if you like, but the drawings do tell us a good deal about the manuscript as a whole. In the case of the ‘archer’ figure, they reinforce the message offered by so much else that the matter originated earlier than most have supposed; that it is no original creation of a Latin European; that its transmission to the western Mediterranean may have occurred as early as the tenth century, though it did not come first into the Latin corpus, and most interestingly for me – so noticeable in the case of the archer, that not only the image was taken up (probably from Spain or Mallorca) but that the fifteenth century copyists who I think *were* Latin European understood the character correctly, and have translated it beautifully into a form which tells us so. Even to emphasising the distinction between the maritime crossbow and the landsman’s.

    Very much “spain or somewhere southern” and all in appropriate costume, with Occitan inscriptions.. so cool.

  21. bdid1dr on November 29, 2015 at 5:52 pm said:

    The archer’s uniform (pleated skirt) was the equivalent of a ‘suit of armor’ for his legs. That pleated/layered uniform was called “foustanella/fustanella”. It was used primarily, throughout Greece, Macedonia, and ( I think) the islands of the ‘Med’. Apparently it became usable in Europe, when dealing with Suleiman’s enslavements of young boys to be trained in Suleiman’s elite ‘walking’ army.

  22. boyfriend , Champollion,,. :-) on November 29, 2015 at 8:21 pm said:

    Vielen Dank Rene.
    According to the film , I wondered at R.Z. Now I know it was Andreas . Here is an interesting. That there is describes the production, moving pictures. And a lot of years ahead of Lumiere ( 1895). Great magician at the time, he was in Prague . And at the Lords of Posenberg. Edward Kelly. He showed moving pictures. Pud and taverns. Kelly did not write the manuscript. That is the work of Eliška ( Elizabeth of Rosen- Berg).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *