The Crossbow — A Medieval Doomsday Device?

Crossbowmen at the Battle of Crecy, 1346.

“For much of the Middle Ages, the crossbow was considered to be one of the most destabilizing weapons in existence, not unlike today’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.”

IN THE 12th CENTURY, the crossbow was considered by many to be a weapon of mass destruction. Not only was it was remarkably accurate and deadly at vast distances, but shockingly, the bolts it fired could penetrate a knight’s armour. Crossbows meant that no breast-plated nobleman, prince or king was safe on the battlefield. Any low-born peasant with just a bit of training could kill a lord or sovereign with simple squeeze of a trigger — a platoon of crossbowmen could wipe out a kingdom’s aristocracy with just a few volleys.

And that was something Medieval elites feared might shatter the natural order of society.

Not surprisingly, the highest European authority of the day, the Roman Catholic Church, called for an outright ban on the weapon. And the Vatican wasn’t messing around — violating its decree could lead to excommunication, or worse: damnation of the soul. Strong language, to be sure. In fact, for much of the Middle Ages, the crossbow was considered to be one of the most destabilizing weapons in existence, not unlike today’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.


The Ancient Crossbow

of course, 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 knights in armour.

Armborst_4,_Nordisk_familjebokA 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 as many as 10), an army of ordinary infantrymen 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, bolts could penetrate chain and plate armour at distances of up to 300 yards; bows were far 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 a rank amateur was seen as an abomination. Crossbows weren’t just weapons that could quickly win battles, to the ruling class they were a great equalizer in an era in which equality was a dirty word. Accordingly, Pope Urban II banned the use of crossbows in 1096; a prohibition that was upheld by Pope Innocent II in 1139.

But 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 controversial. Both the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III and the Kingdom of Flanders abided by the holy ban in European wars and sent their own crossbow men packing; other continental powers skirted the rules when they could. But even with their prohibition, crossbows continued to be widely used.

Despite the morale panic, crossbows did very 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!

The weapons did have their drawbacks (pardon the pun). Aside from being painfully slow to reload, unless well protected by spearmen and cavalry, crossbowmen were sitting ducks in close combat, particularly once their lethal volley of bolts was released.

Then there was the problem that moisture posed to the weapons.

During the Battle of Crecy in 1346, a rainstorm rendered the bowstrings of the 5,000 Genoese crossbows soggy and useless. Too bad for the French. The English long bowmen on the other hand simply removed their bowstrings and tucked them beneath their caps to keep them dry. Unlike bows, crossbows can’t be easily unstrung. Later, the English restrung their weapons 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.

For more stories like these, follow on Twitter.

8 comments for “The Crossbow — A Medieval Doomsday Device?

  1. 26 May, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    Thanks to James Bayne for Tweeting the following to me after reading this story:
    @ThisIsWarBlog Found 10 parts Genoese xbow 1314 battle of bannockburn, it can loose 6 ballistas per min.replica shown!!

    Follow the link to see the pic.

  2. 24 April, 2013 at 10:54 am


  3. Joe
    15 December, 2014 at 11:45 am

    I just finished creating my medieval crossbows website

    Let me know what you think?

  4. DannyBoy2k
    7 September, 2015 at 10:54 am

    Complete nonsense designed to make the crossbow out to be more than it was.
    1. An arbalest is NOT a common crossbow, as the link shows.
    2. An arbalest have a slow reload time. A crossbow doesn’t, although it is still slower than a longbow.
    3. The general peasant leavy would not have an arbalest, even in the time when it existed. They would have a simple wooden crossbow.
    4. The arbalest couldn’t in your wildest dreams penetrate plate at 300 yards. I suspect it couldn’t penetrate proper, padded, MAIL at that range.
    5. The crossbow WAS banned…along with the bow, the sling and the javelin. Strange how that is never mentioned.
    6. The ban on the crossbow, and other weapons, interestingly, only applied to christians. Shooting ‘heathens’ was fine.
    7. The crossbow existed FAR earlier than plate armor did. If that’s the case, and the crossbow was so heniously dangerous…why did people wear armor at all?

    • Keith
      19 July, 2017 at 8:34 am

      Hi DannyBoy2K. Interesting critic on the crossbow. I wonder if you could possibly furnish me with the authoritive sources you claim knowledge from, which may save me weeks of research. I’m particularly interested in the shield and mail piercing properties say at one hundred yards. Accuracy is of no real importance.Modern equivalents of simple cross bows demonstrate that a man can relatively quickly span a 150lb weapon without recourse to other machinery and I take this ability to span time right back before the middle ages. Modern day bolt piercing properties of 2mm metal plate and phone books and 5mm plywood and such like I take it is difficult to reconcile with mediaeval materials or is it?

  5. 2 June, 2016 at 6:25 am

    In Europe the crossbow seems to have gone out of use from the 5th to the 9th century. Crossbows were used in the siege of Senlis in AD 947 and at Verdun in AD 985.

  6. Jon Terris
    30 August, 2017 at 7:02 am

    The crossbow, and ordinary bows were regularly banned by the pope and leading clerics. Not least in the various Lateran Councils.

    Reenactment archers regularly acknowledge that crossbows were banned by the pope but often are completely unaware that the ban was for All bows, not just crossbows to be used against Christians.

Leave a Reply