Sensfelder on the Bow – (starting from scratch #12c)

Images of military men or huntsmen with crossbows are not uncommon in European art. But since at the moment we are supposing that the figure on f.73v represents Sagittarius, the constellation, those which are not to that purpose can be considered irrelevant for the moment, unless they serve to illuminate some particular detail.

The Bow

About twelve years ago, Voynich researchers were reluctant to  accept the opinion of earlier experts about the manuscript’s date, so someone approached Jens Sensfelder (who knows about medieval weaponry) asking him to give his opinion on the date for the archer’s crossbow. His conclusion was that he “would date the crossbow as drawn in the illustration to the first half of the 14th Century.” Not a bad assessment on the face of it, given that this is exactly the period suggested for exemplars immediately preceding our manuscript, and coincides with the period of the Avignon papacy  (c. 1315-1377), which suits me well enough.

To be honest,  though, Jens relied heavily on a single unproven assumption: namely, that the draughtsman had drawn the image so precisely that it could be read as exactly to scale. That’s a dicey assumption, given that the whole figure is less than two inches square and the shaft of the bow less than one inch. (its length as drawn is about 22 mm).


In Jen’s favour is that medieval draughtsmen do often represent technical objects carefully, and pretty much to scale. Here one example: a musician’s rebec drawn within an illuminated initial. Despite its size, not only the instrument is drawn so well but so are the hands, which are placed correctly.  Medieval draughtsmen had no difficulty drawing hands, and tend either to be careful in all details, or a bit slipshod in all. You don’t often see an object depicted better than the hands which use it.

David Musicians 12thC German Marches BibMunicipale Douai MS250 fol2v

Here’s another example, from a manuscript made in twelfth-century Spain, or perhaps in Portugal.  I find this manuscript very interesting, not least for its effort to erase or obliterate the human faces.  At this time, in Spain, the crossbowman’s clothing is still shown as that of the ordinary archer who wants sleeves long, narrow and tight, as anyone will know who has drawn a longbow. The hands are again well drawn, and correctly positioned.

Crossbow Spain or Portugal  12thC

Spanish 12thC bowmen detail hands

So perhaps when Jens now noticed that the Voynich archer’s hands are positioned differently from the way they would be if the bow was as Jens expected,  he should have paused a moment and reined in his enthusiasm.   Jens was honest enough to admit the problem was there, but  – as is all too common a habit in Voynich studies – he just offloaded it by supposing some deficiency in the draughtsman.

Jens wrote:

“The archer is not holding the crossbow properly.. . The inept way in which the hands have been drawn lets us conclude that the artist had problems with this detail”.

fol 75 archers hands detail

Well, no it doesn’t. For one thing, as drawn, the arrow (bolt) is a short one, but you can see a slightly darker line running from the base of the arrow down to the archer’s hand, which appears to be twisting something (as one twists a key or dial).  If that darker line were a cord, then the thing he’s “twiddling” might be a tensioner for the cord, and the action related to the sort of bow seen in the 12thC Iberian manuscript. It’s one possibility. There is another – which is that the bow drawn in the exemplar was one of the Chinese type which had two bolts on the side of the trigger, by the latch.

In any case, that matter aside, surely the logical argument would be that:

(a) the draughtsman was “inept” – in which case you can’t rely on any particular precision in the drawing  or

(b) the draughtsman was not incompetent; that the crossbow is precisely drawn to scale and that hands are correctly placed too, and this bow is not the sort Jens thought it was, or

(c)   the draughtsman was not incompetent but had no intention of creating a literal portrait of the person, and/or of the object.

(d) any permutation of (b) and (c).

But in any case, it puts a bit of a hole in the line of Jens’ logic.

Even worse for his argument – though again he notes the point – is that details essential to his identification cannot be discerned at all, viz  “It is not possible to determine whether its cross-section is rectangular, round or oval” and  “The archer’s right arm partly covers the end of the stock and it is therefore not possible to determine its total length exactly”.

Yet those are the vital details in provenancing and dating an artefact of this sort, and the second is essential to Jens’ own calculations – as you’ll see if you read his article. For some years it has been placed as a permanent item on   here.

So I’m sorry to have to say it, but I don’t think Jens’ article is a clincher; not about the date for the manuscript’s manufacture (of course) but even about a date for an exemplar, even if I might be happy that it were. Nor does it convince me that the type of crossbow shown is particularly German, or even necessarily European. His dismissal of all alternatives seems rather arbitrary in retrospect, at least to me, but I do not see that it matters too much, either way, since we are no longer trying to date the manuscript by these means.  As to provenance – that can be done in other ways, too.

French hours owl crossbow-detail
Bib. Nat. de France, MS Latin 1173, fol.52r. Hours after the usage of Paris (1475-1500)


… next post…



  • Apart from other arguments about the bow pictured on folio 73v, one should not forget that the crossbow was near enough to ‘native’ in parts of southern Europe and England. A carving dated to the eighth century AD and found in northern England (the Drosten stone) represents what David Nicolle described as a “sophisticated crossbow”. Nicole guesses it an early Roman type, though it might have come from much further afield.
  •  from Payne Gallwey:

The system of a cord and pulley was probably the most ancient of all devices for bending crossbows, and is one that is rarely shown in illustrated manuscripts of a later date than the end of the first quarter of the fourteenth century.


1. David Nicolle, Arthur and the Anglo-Saxon Wars ( 1984) p.36.


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