Tag Archives: crossbow

Dissecting the VMS Crossbow

The Bard with a Bow

VMSArcherIn the Voynich Manuscript, Sagittarius the archer has two legs and carries a crossbow. Most depictions of Sagittarius show a four-legged centaur with a longbow, so I searched for those that were similar to the VMS archer and described them in a previous post. This time, I’m more interested in the details of his dress and his bow. On the right, I’ve removed some of the text that was crowding the picture so you can see his crossbow and costume more clearly.

WarArcherIt’s unlikely the archer is dressed for warfare like the 14th century warriors pictured left. The long tail on his hat would be a distraction and a liability, but his dress is not uncommon for archers participating in crossbow tournaments or involved in recreational hunts.

TourneyClothesA pleated tunic is typical for the middle ages, as is the style of the VMS archer’s hat. The broad sleeves are not as common as narrow sleeves, but are not unusual either. On the right is an archer at an English crossbow tournament wearing a similar outfit sans hat.

Hat tails made from fabric or sometimes from the tails of animals, like foxes, were common in many areas. The VMS archer also sports a goatee and booties and appears to be wearing leggings, as his legs are painted blue.

The Style of the Crossbow

Most zodiac drawings don’t have enough detail to determine the style of crossbow, but perhaps the VMS does.

To help identify the archer’s bow, I removed it from his hands and labeled the visible parts. Fortunately, the trigger was visible, along with the shape of the stirrup. The style of the lathe is fairly clear and shows recurved tips. The catch, an important component that holds the cord until it’s ready to fire, is barely shown, but it clearly doesn’t have the crank called a cranequin that is found on some of the later crossbows. The stock looks pretty basic—this is not one of the high-octane automatic crossbows from China nor does it resemble earlier Greek and Roman crossbows that lacked a stirrup.



A hunting bow from a French manuscript from the mid- or late 1300s was drawn with a rounded stirrup, recurved lathe tips, and an angled lever. The bolt has a traditional arrowhead rather than a narrow spike.

Who Used this Style of Bow?

This simple style of crossbow isn’t difficult to find in medieval imagery—it can be seen in English, Czech, French, and Lombardic manuscripts from about the late 13th century to the mid-1400s. After that, some of the crossbows include accessories for drawing the cord and some have spikes on the stirrup, which I assume is to stabilize them in the soil when stepping on the stirrup.

I don’t have enough images to know if it’s a general pattern, but many of the images of battle bows had straight stirrups while some of the hunting bows, like the one on the right, had rounded stirrups. It’s not a hard-and-fast distinction, however.

An early Hussite bas relief also has a crossbow with a rounded stirrup, but the trigger is not shown and the lathe is not as broad as the one in the VMS, so it’s difficult to know if it’s the same kind.

Sometimes the bolts have narrow tips, sometimes the classic arrow shape. Crossbows in a c. 1380 manuscript from France are similar to the VMS, but the stirrup is quite thick and the trigger is not shown.

SaintsCrossbowThe image on the left is not a zodiac crossbow, it’s a marginal embellishment from an English psalter created around 1330, but it’s interesting because it shows the joint between the lathe and the stock more clearly than most (the illustrator has rotated the trigger, probably to make it easier to see). The stirrup is rounded, like the VMS, but the lathe has a narrower span and doesn’t have recurved tips.

CzechCrossbowA number of the French manuscripts illustrate narrow bolts, probably developed because they could penetrate armor, while the one on the right, from the Czech region, shows arrow-shaped bolts. How accurately illustrators have represented the bolts (and the crossbows themselves) is hard to assess.

Quite a few crossbows from France, Switzerland, and the upper Rhine are depicted with a different style of stirrup that is  flatter at the end and more angular than the rounded stirrup in the VMS.

RecurvedFlatStirrupThis flatter stirrup is illustrated in a Germanic image of a hunting bow from the early 1300s (right). The lathe has probably been rotated in the image to show it more clearly, as the triggers were usually on the bottom rather than on the side of the stock. The image is thought to depict a nobleman from eastern Lombardy. Note the recurved tips.

AustriaCrossbowThe symbol for Sagittarius on the left from c. 1469 was created in southern Germany or possibly eastern Austria and has recurved tips and a flattened stirrup similar to the previous non-zodiac image. Notice also the pleated tunic, wide sleeves, and typical leggings. The pointed hat is a different style from the VMS, but it’s one of the few examples of Sagittarius with a crossbow wearing a hat.


Crossbow1463It’s difficult to find examples of Sagittarius with both legs and a crossbow but those identified so far are from central Europe. It’s even more difficult to narrow it down to crossbows with a curved stirrup, because the stirrup is usually not clearly drawn in medieval Sagittarius symbols. In fact, the crossbow in the VMS shows more details than most examples of Sagittarius with legs, with the exception of one from approximately the mid-1400s shown on the right.

The VMS archer is also unusual in that he’s wearing a long-tail hat and a beard. The other zodiac symbols with crossbows and legs don’t include these features except for the one mentioned above. You have to look at images of crossbows that are not related to zodiacs to find them.

Did the VMS illustrator add the extra details based on seeing non-zodiac illustrations or based on personal observations? As with so many aspects of the VMS, there’s a level of uniqueness in the images that adds to the mystery.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2015 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Additional image added Oct. 27th, 2016:

Sometimes I come across a picture on the Web or in my files that relates to a previous blog that is worth including with the original material. I thought this image from BNF Lat. 9333, folio 68v, (created in the early 15th century) was particularly relevant. The book was inspired by an earlier copy of Tacuinum Sanitatus—a manuscript on living a healthful life.

The image is more detailed than the VMS crossbowman, including a loaded bolt, twirled cord, and lamination seam in the stock, but what caught my attention was the long trigger, and lath tips that are curved slightly more than those in many medieval crossbow drawings. I thought readers might enjoy seeing it.


Additional image added Nov. 11th, 2016:

Another interesting crossbow image in a siege commentary from BNF Latin 6067 (later 15th c) illustrating three archers. The first is loading a bolt, the second pulls the string while his foot supports the bow with the stirrup, and the third has a more automated form of crossbow with a crank to pull the string. The crank provides more leverage but also more weight and would be more appropriate for seige warfare than hunting. Quivers of bolts can be seen attached to belts. The two fully visible triggers are relatively long (the one on the right might be slightly stylized).


Additional image added July 7, 2017:

This image post-dates the VMS, but I felt it worth including because it illustrates a long-triggered crossbow drawn with considerable detail for the time. (The source is a c. 1475 painting of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian from a region of Munich, Germany, now in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne):


Additional image added August 7, 2017:

There is a clear drawing of a crossbow in Thott 290 2° (c. 1459). I was aware of it but didn’t include it in the original blog because it probably postdates the VMS. However, I’ve decided to add it because it has a long trigger and curved ends on the lath, similar to the VMS crossbow (note, however, that it has a straight stirrup), and because I noticed recently that it is similar to the crossbow and bolt in BNF Lat. 9333 noted above:

Voynich Location – Sagittarius with Legs and Crossbow                      16 Dec. 2015

Voynich Manuscript Origins – Does Sagittarius Hold Clues?

In a previous post, from July 2013, I summarized zodiac symbols that are illustrated in the Voynich Manuscript (Beinecke 408) and included examples of symbols from other manuscripts.

Since then I’ve collected many more examples, far too many to include in one post, so I’ll constrain this one to Sagittarius, the archer, because, as I mentioned previously, it is somewhat unusual for Sagittarius to be represented with legs and a crossbow when the actual constellation is typically a centaur with a long bow.

SagitCodSang250Examples of Sagittarius as a centaur are far more frequent, such as this one (left) from Codex Sang. 250. And, with the exception of a rare example from Israel in the 6th century, most of those with legs occur between 1395 and the late 1400s, the same approximate time as the creation of the VM manuscript.

If we further narrow the examples to those with both legs and crossbows, then only a handful remain. To make it easier to understand the importance of these examples, I created a chart which shows the extents of the Roman Empire in the late 1300s overlaid with Sagittarius symbols. This made it easier to visualize the approximate origins and dates of creation of the ones drawn with legs

I felt it was important to include the political boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire because it provides context. I was not specifically looking for zodiac symbols in this region, I sought out every Sagittarius with legs that I could find, but discovered after collecting them that they had commonalities not only in attire, but in geography. It’s probable that others may surface that have never been digitized and uploaded to the Web but until that happens, one has to work with what is available.

MapSagLegsRevisedThe above chart illustrates Sagittarius with legs from a variety of documents. The one in the upper right was pasted into a manuscript and may not originate at the same time or place, but was probably created sometime before 1468.

The image in the lower left of the chart is technically not a zodiac symbol, although the volume from which it originates has astrological references. I included it because it resembles some of the zodiac drawings and might provide a clue as to why crossbows appear in zodiacs. The painting is from the Netherlands and shows a crossbow tournament. It occurred to me that the popularity of the crossbow for warfare and for competition may have inspired drawings of Sagittarius for a brief period of about three decades.

SagittariusP457I didn’t include this image of the archer squatting because it’s from a fragment that has been assembled with a longer document, but it is assumed to be from Germany, with an estimated date of about 1457 or earlier. By the mid-1400s, most of the Sagittarius symbols had reverted to longbows and, by the 1500s, the legged version of Sagittarius had almost disappeared (other than obvious copies from older texts). Most of the examples that include crossbows are from the early to mid-1400s.

Note that the examples I’ve located so far tend to be from the same general region. Most are within the Holy Roman Empire, near to what is now the border between Germany and Switzerland. An early one appears to originate in Czech. The legged symbols from Israel and Italy are longbows.

The zodiac symbols in the VM do not appear to be copied from one specific source. If they are, that source has not yet turned up on the Web or may no longer exist. At least for now, it appears that the VM illustrator was inspired by a number of sources. Clearly Beinecke 408 is not a work of pure fantasy—many parallels to European culture are evident.

Location Clues

LastPageWhat is most significant about the Sagittarius crossbowmen is that they originate from a fairly specific time period (clustering around the 1420s to about 1475) and a fairly specific area of central Europe, the same region that matches the handwriting found in the marginal notes and on the last page of the VM (I refer to this handwriting as second script because there’s no definite evidence yet that the VM author (first script) and the author of the Germanic/Latin text on the last page are the same person—there are significant differences in the handwriting).

We also don’t know for certain whether the person who created the drawings is the same as the person who added the text. It probably is, but it should not be assumed that only one person authored the manuscript. In fact, it appears that the paint may have been added by someone other than the person who drew the lines, given that the lines are fairly careful and the painting rather sloppy, so we have to keep open to the possibility that the artist and author may be different people, as well.

NantesSagittariusVMSagittariusThe clustering of legged crossbow symbols isn’t sufficient evidence to assume Beinecke 408 was created in S.W. Germany or Switzerland (there are some perplexing oddities in the manuscript that are not typical of this region), but It’s certainly possible. The style of the plant illustrations and the handwriting on the last page are similar to others originating in the same general area (including northern Italy). The manuscript’s provenance, which includes Czech and Italy, and the organization of the content (and materials used to create it), also suggest a central European/Holy Roman Empire origin, so it may be that the person (or persons) who authored the Voynich Manuscript was born there or migrated to the area.

If you have seen any examples of Sagittarius with legs and a crossbow in documents from the 15th century or earlier that are not scanned and uploaded to the Web, I would be interested in hearing about them.


J.K. Petersen

Postscript: I should mention that I didn’t include examples of Sagittarius with goat legs (of which I found several examples, one from about four centuries before the VM), because it struck me that the Pan-like representation of Sagittarius was as distinct from Sagittarius with human legs as it was from Sagittarius as a centaur, individual enough that it deserves a separate article.

2016 Jan 11 Postscript: It was brought to my attention that David Jackson has located a further example of Sagittarius with what appears to be a crossbow, described in his article here.

© Copyright 2015 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved