Back in the 12th Century it was considered by many to be a weapon of mass destruction. It was feared and hated not just because it was capable of eliminating anyone on the battlefield from great distances, but because it allowed any lowly peasant to kill a high-born professional knight with the simple squeeze of a trigger – something that many elites feared could shatter the natural order of society. As a result: the highest authority of the day, the church, called for an outright ban on this particular weapon. Violating the decree could lead to excommunication, or worse: damnation of the soul. Of corse we’re talking about the simple crossbow. But in the Middle Ages it was considered by many to be one of the most destabilizing weapons in existence, not unlike today’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
The Ancient Crossbow
Crossbows were by no means cutting edge technology in the medieval period. Evidence suggests that the weapons were used by armies in Ancient China as far back as the 5th Century BCE. Classical Greek historians referred to arrow-firing catapults in the 399 BCE and Ancient Roman legions had a series of large crew-operated crossbows known as ballistas. By the Middle Ages, many armies across Europe trained ordinary commoners to operate crossbows, or as they were known then: arbalests. They were particularly effective against high-born mounted knights wearing armour – a fact that deeply troubled both church officials and nobles.
The Great Equalizer
Although slower to reload than a typical longbow (a crossbow could manage only two volleys in a minute while a bow could send 10), an army of peasants could be made proficient with crossbow in weeks, or even days. Conversely, the strength and skill required to effectively operate a bow could take a lifetime to develop. More significantly, arbalests bolts could penetrate chain and plate armour at distances of up to 300 yards; bows were less powerful. In a highly stratified society like medieval Europe, any technology that could put the power to instantly kill a chivalric knight, a nobleman, or even a king into the hands of an amateur or a commoner was seen as an abomination. Crossbows weren’t just battlefield weapons that could quickly win battles, to the ruling class they were downright terrifying. Accordingly, Pope Urban II banned the use of crossbows in 1096; a prohibition that was upheld by Pope Innocent II in 1139.
Yet, while the church frowned on Christian-on-Christian use of the crossbow, religious authorities of the day had no problem when the weapons were being pointed at non-believers, heretics and heathens. As such, the weapons featured prominently in Crusader armies. Yet back in Europe they were still controversial. Both the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III and the Kingdom of Flanders recognized the holy ban in European wars; other continental powers skirted the rules when they could. But even with their prohibition, crossbows continued to be widely used.
Yet, despite all of the hype, the use of crossbows did little to actually usurp the medieval class system. In fact, many rulers found the weapon too good to pass up and made room in their armies for crossbowmen.
Crossbows in Action
Crossbowmen from the Italian city-state of Genoa became legendary for their mastery of the weapon and were employed as mercenaries by the English and the French, as well as others. These soldiers for hire decimated the forces of Emperor Frederick II at the battle of Parma in 1248. In fact, the Holy Roman Emperor was so incensed by the reversal he reportedly ordered his men to cut off the fingers of all crossbowmen captured!
Crossbows did have their drawbacks (pardon the pun). Aside from being painfully slow to reload, unless well protected by spearmen and cavalry, arbalesters were sitting ducks in close combat, particularly once their lethal volley of bolts was released.
Then there was the problem that moisture poses to the weapons.
During the battle of Crecy in 1346, a rainstorm rendered the bowstrings of the 5,000 Genoese crossbows useless. Too bad for the French. The English long bowmen on the other hand simply removed their bowstrings to keep them dry — unlike bows, crossbows can’t be easily unstrung. Later, the English restrung their bows and rained volley after volley of arrows down on the helpless Italian mercenaries. The Genoese broke and fled and ironically were cut down as they retreated by their own French employers who thought them cowards.
Despite setbacks like these, crossbows, when employed properly, continued to dominate the battlefield until they were gradually replaced in the 1500s by ball and power weapons.
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