“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 particularly deadly, worse, it allowed any lowly peasant to kill a high-born mounted knight with the simple squeeze of a trigger.
No one, neither a king in full suit of armour nor lowly conscript in homespun, could escape a well-aimed crossbow bolt. And that was something Medieval elites feared would shatter the natural order of society.
As a result: the highest authority of the day, the Roman Catholic Church, called for an outright ban on the weapon. And the Vatican wasn’t messing around — violating the 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
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.
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 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.
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