The Crossbow: A Study of Historical Use, Cultural Impact, and the Crossbowman

I have a particular fascination with the crossbow as a weapon, and below is a class I have prepared following my research in the subject. It is by no means exhaustive, but meant to provide an overview of what a crossbow is, the parts of the crossbow, the developments in the technology of the crossbow, historical use of the weapon in battle and sport, the lot of the crossbowman, and the cultural impact of the crossbow. I hope to continually expand and refine this course as my own knowledge develops. 

General Sources: 

Breiding, Dirk H. A Deadly Art: European Crossbows, 1250-1850. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013.

Crombie, Laura. Archery and Crossbow Guilds in Medieval Flanders, 1300-1500. Martlesham: The Boydell Press, 2018.

Loades, Mike. The Crossbow. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2018.

Payne-Gallwey, Ralph. The Crossbow: Mediaeval and Modern Military and Sporting, Its Construction, History, Management with a Treatise on the Balista and Catapult of the Ancients and an Appendix on the Catapult, Balista & the Turkish Bow. London: Holland Press, 1958.

Stuart, Ellis-Gorman. The Medieval Crossbow: A Weapon Fit to Kill a King. S.l.: Pen & Sword Military Publishing, 2022.

Presentation Slides for Class

SCA Crossbows.pptx

What is a Crossbow? 

Let’s begin with an understanding of what a crossbow is exactly. The Oxford dictionary defines it as “a bow that is fixed across a wooden support, has a groove for the bolt, and a mechanism for releasing the string.” Some people do include larger crossbows, used as siege weapons, called ballista or ballistae in this definition. However, for our purposes today, we’ll be discussing exclusively crossbows that are handheld. First, let’s cover the parts of the crossbow, so you’ll know what I’m referring to. Crossbows are made up, roughly, of a stock or tiller, the main wooden body of the crossbow, the prod or lathe, which is the bow part of the crossbow, the stirrup where the operator inserts their foot, the trigger mechanism that the operator pulls to fire the bow, the bow string, and the nut, or the rolling piece that secures the bowstring when the crossbow is cocked and releases the bowstring when the operator pulls the trigger. 

Why would individuals choose to use this complicated device instead of the much simpler handbow? Well, there are some advantages. One benefit of the crossbow as opposed to a normal handheld bow is that much of the mechanical force needed to draw the bow as well as hold the shot is completed using mechanisms instead of the archer’s physical strength. The crossbow allows its operator, once the bow is spanned and the bolt in place, to release using a trigger. Less training was needed to outfit crossbowmen, and the poundage or draw weight of their crossbows frequently could be higher than that of a handheld bow, particularly into the high middle ages as crossbows increased in complexity and used ever more advanced spanning devices. Crossbows could be relatively accurate by virtue of the fixed positions of the bow, as well as the fact that a crossbow can be sighted down the bolt by the user. A traditional hand bow of the period lacks an arrow shelf or cut out and must be held in place against the bow stave. Combined with the reduced training requirements, a crossbowman could be outfitted, trained, and accurate faster than a longbow archer. Finally, because the ammunition for crossbows, called bolts, are shorter and typically only have two fletching (or feathers) instead of three, they are cheaper to produce than arrows. This doesn’t matter much on the individual level, but when outfitting an army, or undergoing a protracted siege, the price per bolt/arrow begins to add up.

Types and Materials

Crossbows are typically characterized or described based on the material that the bow is made out of as well as the device used to span, or draw back the bow. Crossbows’ main body or stock were almost always made of wood, sometimes with bone, ivory, or etched metals as ornamentation. They are instead characterized by the material that their prod, or the bow part, is made out of. The earliest crossbows had wooden prods, but they were largely replaced by composite and steel crossbows after the twelfth century. Composite bows were made out of combined layers of wood, horn, and sinew. The actual construction of these bows varies quite a bit, but often there are strips of horn, stacked into layers, scored with grooves and adhered together using glue*. This horn core was often shored up by wooden strips, the entire core wrapped with sinew, perhaps with a leather cover to help protect it. 

Composite bows were the most common across the middle ages. Steel prods are a later invention, not appearing until the late 14th century but quickly rising in popularity throughout the 15th and 16th century. It is worth noting that the steel crossbow wasn’t the apotheosis of crossbow technology; composite crossbows continue to be found in the same period. However, as advances in steel production during the 14th century occurred, particularly a better understanding of heat treatment of steel and the creation of higher carbon steel, the springlike potential of a steel prod came into understanding. This had an impact on crossbow production; a steel prod can be mass produced, and relatively standardize. Composite bows take time to assemble and cure, while steel prods can be produced and assembled as soon as they cooled. Notably, though, many in period believed the steel crossbow to be inferior in cold weather environments, prone to breaking or snapping. Famously the Teutonic Knights made great use of composite crossbows to defend their quickly constructed defensive positions in their eastern crusades, eschewing steel prods for composite based on the understanding that they were superior in the winter campaign season. 

Spanning Devices

The major developments of the crossbow mostly have to do with the device used to span the crossbow. These increasing in complexity devices allowed for more and more energy to be created for the bolt release. However, it is important to note that there is not necessarily a linear development of the crossbow; simple stirrup crossbows spanned by hand and belt hooks can still be found in the late middle ages. 

The first major development in spanning or drawing a crossbow was the stirrup, which allows the archer to insert their foot into a metal catch, and use the muscles of their legs and back to span the bow. Prior to the invention of the stirrup in the late 11th century, crossbowmen put their feet on the bow prod itself to draw back the string. This was much less efficient, and could damage the prod or knock it loose. The stirrup is one development in crossbows that upon introduction seems to have become ubiquitous across the continent; the vast majority of crossbows have a stirrup on the front end. 

However, more efficient devices were developed for spanning ever more powerful crossbows. One complementary technology to the stirrup is the belt hook, which is simply a hook to catch the bow strings that hangs from the belt of the crossbowman. It helps the archer use more of their leg and back muscles to do the work of drawing the bow. The windlass, a slightly later technology introduced in the later 12th century, shows development in the complexity of crossbows. It uses a system of ropes and pulleys connected to a crank winch. You can see an image of it in the bottom center image.  This system of pulleys allows the draw weight of the bow prod to be much higher, but as you might imagine, this spanning system is fairly slow to reload. This may be of more importance if you find yourself in the middle of a pitched battle, as opposed to behind thick embattlements in a siege. 

Moving forward in time, we see the development of the Goats-Foot level, which is in essence two sets of metal claws joined together by a hinge, with a handle to draw back the string. This technology appears in the late 13th century, and has several advantages and disadvantages. Some advantages include that it is fairly quick to reload, and most importantly, it can easily be reloaded without using a stirrup while mounted. For this reason, goats foot lever crossbows were the most common choice for the mounted crossbowman, and often is featured on crossbows with a medium or relatively lighter draw, to increase speed in reloading. As opposed to other mechanical spanning devices, such as the crannequin, the goats foot lever was relatively simple to produce by a craftsman such as a blacksmith. One obvious disadvantage though is that these metal claws add weight to the crossbow. The hand lever also requires that the crossbowman use most of their own power to span the bow, hence this device mostly being used on lighter draw crossbows. The goats foot lever could be unhooked and packed securely, and we have found many examples of the lever in archaeological finds. 

The cranequin appears in the 14th century, and is one of the most advanced spanning devices. It consists of a gearbox and shaft with a crank handle; this mechanical advantage allows for a much higher draw weight on the crossbow. Towards the high middle ages, we see increasing draw weights on crossbows for warfare, as improvements in armor take place. The cranequin allows for the greatest draw weight, much higher than human power alone could attain. Because of the teeth of the gear, a crossbowman could begin drawing back the bow and stop in the middle, without losing their progress (this isn’t possible with the windlass, the string must make it to the notch or the bow will be dry-fired.) However, the cranequin was large, heavy, and a bit unwieldy. It could not be easily used on horseback and was slower to reload, requiring its user bend over or brace the bow as they wound. The cranequin, by virtue of being a large device made of metal, has survived well with the archaeological record. One note to the cranquin is that both the Germans and the Spanish were known for their crossbows in this construction. German crossbows typically have the cranequin mounted on the top of the crossbow, while Spanish crossbows typically had the cranequin mounted on the side of the crossbow. 

Finally, also appearing in the 14th century, we find the krihake, also known as the Samson belt. This technology is very similar to the idea or a belt hook, but increases the efficiency by integrating a pulley system. The crossbowman draws back the string  hooked to their belt using their leg and back muscles, aided by the mechanical advantage of the pulley. The advantages of this method is that it is fairly low tech, can be readily reproduced, and doesn’t require the production of specialized equipment such as goats foot levers or cranequins. 

Other Crossbow Types

Before we get into the origins of the crossbow, I would be remiss if I did not at least introduce the other types of crossbows, that mostly differ in the type of ammunition that they shoot. There were also in the late 15th century, early 16th century, pellet crossbows also known as stone bows or bullet bows that shot small stones, bullets, or pellets made or clay, rock, or metal. These types of bows usually feature a large dip in the stock to ensure that it doesn’t impede the path of the pellet. These bows are usually lighter in draw weight, typically although not always spanned by hand, sometimes they are spanned by goats foot levers. They were used primarily for hunting smaller game and sport shooting. The projectile could bash and kill the small game without ruining the belt or introducing lead into the small body. The pellet crossbow seems to disappear largely by the 18th century, replaced by small firearms, but maintained a role in hunting and sporting until then*. 

In very late period, we also see the advent of combination crossbows, that is, crossbows that can shoot bolts as well as something else, be it pellets, or perhaps integrated with a wheel lock gun. These weapons are typically not found until the later half of the 1500s, and represent an interesting time in weapon development where firearms were rising in popularity and accuracy, but still not yet overtaken by the practicality of the crossbow. These were typically the possessions of only the nobility, and there are very few extant examples remaining, but they represent a very high level of craftsmanship, and mostly can be found in Germany, Austria, and Italy. 

Similarly, late period, we see in Italy the creation of the balestrino, or little crossbow. These are very small crossbows, usually made of a metal stock, easily concealable, and often with a screw spanning mechanism, they were silent and effective little weapons. The balestrino was a very intricate device for its time, and seems to also have been a showcase of Italian craftsmanship. They were thought to be used, perhaps romantically, by both bodyguards and assassins who sought to deliver killing blows silently, quickly, and with a concealed weapon. These balestrino seem to have lead to the development of the pistol crossbow, which is mainly a crossbow with a short body and pistol grip, that emerged in the 18th century*. 

Origins of the Crossbow

Where did the crossbow begin? The origins of the crossbow likely lie in ancient China. The earliest extant examples of crossbows we have found all are from China, with a much different design philosophy than we see in the crossbows of the medieval west. They look more akin to a composite recurve handbow mounted on a shorter, thinner stock, with the trigger mechanism at the far end of the crossbow. The design allows for a much more powerful draw weight to length ratio than a European designed crossbow, and was drawn by sitting on the ground and bracing the feet against the bow, like early western crossbows without stirrups. Some examples of ancient Chinese crossbows also feature even shorter stocks with regular composite handbows mounted on the front end. 

The crossbow developed very differently in the east as opposed to the west. While the crossbow in the west got heavier, more complex, more expensive to produce, with higher draw weights. However, in the east, crossbows became lighter, less complex, less expensive, with lighter draw weights. A transition occurred after the Qin Dynasty, 221-206 BC where crossbows began being made with strips of bamboo and mulberry wood, and were “repeating” ie the user could shoot continuously a small magazine of bolts. The power on these bamboo crossbows was much lighter, and thus bolts became lighter. To compensate for this, poisoned bolts were much more common in the east, and they did not add fletching to crossbow bolts. Crossbows were mass produced, and were often a peasant weapon, used to arm the common man or conscripts. More powerful examples of the same technology could be found as siege weapons. 

How the crossbow came to the west is a matter of some conjecture. It has long been thought that the technology was brought back with Roman emissaries who reached ancient China. However, the Greeks also had a proto-crossbow technology with a very interesting spanning device. The Greek device, a “Gastraphetes” was first described in the 1st century AD, and is a larger crossbow with a full size composite hand bow mounted to the front. The larger bow requires a longer draw-length, or length the string must travel to be cocked; to help aid the archer in spanning the bow, the Gastraphetes used a pushing “slider”. The archer would hold onto the handles, and lean down using their stomach and back muscles to push the sliding wooden prow piece back, which provided mechanical advantage to the higher draw weight required. 

The Roman Crossbow: The Arcuballista

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the potential Roman ancestor of the western crossbow, the Arcubalista. It’s important to note that we have relatively scant evidence for use of the crossbow by the Romans. However, we DO have evidence. This is in the form of a handful of stone reliefs that depict the crossbow, either in background or being held, as well as a written description of the construction of an arcubalista. It is believed that the large butt end of the bow was placed against the archer’s belly, and the bow was spanned by hand. The bow itself is similar to the other early crossbows, in that it seems like a recurve handbow mounted on the stock. In the depictions we do have, the bow doesn’t seem to be lashed to the stock, but instead was most likely held in place by wedges. What is most notable about the arcubalista is that it's believed to have used the rolling nut mechanism, which is the primary mechanism used in the western crossbow across Europe. At the bottom of the slide you can see a diagram of the rolling nut mechanism, essentially when the trigger is pulled, it releases the pressure on the rolling nut, which then rolls because of the pressure of the bowstring, and releases the bowstrings. Rolling nuts in period were made of wood and bone, and could be replaced if they broke. These are the piece that most often endures in the archaeological record, and dated finds of rolling nut pieces are why we believe the arcubalista used this same mechanism. 

As I mentioned, there is relatively little written about the use of the arcubalista by the romans, and no examples remain to analyze. We’re also unsure why the weapon seems to have gone out of use in the west following the fall of the Roman empire. However, the traditional western crossbow as we know it was discussed as widely in use by the 12th century, and seems to have emerged in the late 10th century, gaining popularity and being in use during the beginning of the First Crusade. 

The Crossbow in Period: Battle

Now that we know what a crossbow is, how they are characterized, and their origins, how was the crossbow used in period battle? Crossbowmen were used in pitched battle, on both sides of sieges, and even in naval warfare. Crossbowmen in pitched battle could fire both volleys of arrows and targeted shots. They often would use large shields that they sheltered behind, called pavises, to protect themselves between shots. Sometimes a crossbowman would work with a partner, who would hold the pavise, perhaps span a secondary bow so that the crossbowman could maintain a fairly rapid rate of fire. Notably, and the subject of a lot of spilled ink in English history books, the crossbowman does have a slightly slower rate of fire than a properly trained longbowman, the delay being longer or shorter depending on the type of spanning device for the crossbow. Crossbows and archers in general were important aspects of any marching army; they were a major part of the Crusades, written about by chroniclers of the time. Crossbowmen and crossbow units could be domestic, hailing from the kingdom they fought for, or mercenary groups that fought for coin. The Genoese, for example, were renowned for their crossbow mercenaries, who were employed throughout the period, sometimes on both sides of a conflict. Crossbows in battle were typically grouped together, and would provide an offensive attack prior to the main assault by armored knights, or could provide cover for attacks by infantry. Although not as common, crossbows could be used on horseback 

The crossbow is also an effective weapon for naval warfare. As pictured above, archers would fire between ships while men at arms would struggle to board. At this time, naval battles still resembled land battles, ships approaching each other and troops boarding and fighting hand to hand, with archers and crossbowmen shooting at the opposite party.  The Battle of Sluys, a naval battle during the Hundred Years War, had a fierce exchange of bolts and arrows between Genoese crossbowmen hired by the French and English longbowmen. In Denmark in 1241, a law was passed that the helmsman on every naval vessel should have “a crossbow with 3 dozen bolts and a man who can shoot with it*” as a part of general defense. Similar laws were passed in Germany and France, demonstrating how useful the crossbow was considered for naval defense. Crossbows are a little easier to maintain steady aim on a swaying ship and they have great range, and some cogs of the period had raised features that sheltered the archer, as well as allowed them to fire down on attackers. 

Finally, the crossbow was used for both defending and attacking in sieges. The crossbow is an extremely effective weapon defending in a siege. The crossbowman can be concealed under cover, frequently with purpose built bolt slits in the fortifications. 

The Crossbow in Siege: 

Here you can see an illustration of a siege defense, with crossbowmen and ballistae firing from the top of an embattlement. You can also see examples of arrow slits as well. A frequent motif of the arrow slit was a cross shape, which allows the archer to shoot either out or down, as well as to the side.

The crossbow was also used by besiegers to attack keeps. Crossbowmen could fire upon defenders above, picking off individuals on the ramparts, shielded by pavises. 

The Crossbow in Sport: 

Crossbows were not just weapons of war, however. They also were a tool for a far more genteel pastime, sport hunting. It should be noted that we’re discussing the hunting of nobles primarily here, hunting by the lower classes was for food and pelts instead of just sport, and most would have been hunting with handbows. We have a lot more information regarding the hunting habits of the nobility from illuminations and treatises, and they were the type of people who could afford a dedicated hunting crossbow. Crossbows diverged in design between hunting and warfare; crossbows for warfare favored high draw weights to increase penetration of bolts through ever more advanced armor. This was overkill for hunting purposes; the power required to kill even large game was less than that needed to punch through plate. So hunting crossbows had lighter draws, and many were more ornate than a war crossbow, with precious inlays and intricate carvings. They generally were lighter, as they would be carried by a hunter for hours in the woods. From the fifteenth century on, most hunting crossbows featured steel prods.

Crossbows had an advantage over the hand bow in that they could be cocked and held in ambush, with no need to draw the bow in the moment. A crossbow can be operated while on horseback, and needs less space to fire because the bow is already cocked, which can help when lying in wait for game behind a blind or camouflage. You can see in the image to the left a hunter taking aim behind a decoy stag. To the right a group of hunters pursues a boar with dogs. Crossbows could be used to great effect on large game such as deer, boars, stags, and ibexes, but were also used on small game. Crossbow bolts became more specialized for hunting purposes, with different bolt tips for different uses. Blunt tip bolts could be used on small game, carved wooden blunts could be used on birds. On the far right side of the slide you can see examples of the variety of crossbow bolt tips, many of them used for hunting or sport. Hunting bolts were typically of higher craftsmanship than those used in warfare, which had either two fletchings, or no fletching at all. Hunting bolts would have two fletching, and sometimes three, often with the fletching being of a bright color to aid in ammo recovery.

Crossbows were such excellent hunting weapons that they remained in widespread use after the development of the firearm. Crossbows efficiently deliver a killing blow quietly, and unlike early firearms there is not an delay between pulling the trigger and the weapon firing, which can startle game. It wasn’t until later development of firearms in the 18th century that the crossbow was largely laid by the wayside. That said, modern hunters to this day continue to have active crossbow seasons for game, although modern crossbows are very different in design than those of the medieval period. The crossbow. 

Poppinjay shooting is another sport related to crossbrows. It’s a recreational shooting activity, which varied but often featured the “popinjay” which was an artificial bird made up of multiple parts, often lightly doweled together, placed on top of a high pole. This was shot at with blunt headed bolts, and because it was made of pieces, multiple pieces could be hit and knocked down, worth different amounts of points. Popinjay, also know as parrot shoots, were extremely popular across Belgium, Germany, France, and Northern Italy, with regional varieties. To give an example of how pervasive this sport was, “In 1354 the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights ordered that a popinjay pole be constructed in every city in Prussia.*”

Crossbow Guilds, Companies, Fraternities

Popinjay shoots were one important aspect of the activities of crossbow guilds, companies, and fraternities. These groups varied in status from official organizations for the defense of a town to purely sporting groups. Beginning in the 13th century, we see the development of groups, typically of urban individuals in the merchant to noble classes, who organized to host and participate in shooting competitions, practice their marksmanship, and socialize. A guild may maintain targets or a shooting range in order for their members to practice, and their members would have special dispensation or pardon if they should wound or kill someone while practicing, which is very important when shooting archery in an urban environment. The members would compete either amongst each other or between/within towns in games of marksmanship, popinjay shoots being very popular, but these shooting competitions could be quite large and elaborate, accompanied by feasts, festivals, and other games for spectators. Competitions were a chance for members to demonstrate their aim, their speed, and deadly accuracy with the crossbow, winning accolades and awards that could be purely for prestige or very tangible, such as a town office, or exemption from taxes for a year. Meticulous records were kept of the winners and points related to competitions*, which shows to the historian how important these competitions and companies were socially to the people of their time.

Like anything else in the medieval period though, these guilds also served the additional purpose of providing a trained corps of crossbowmen who could be raised for the town’s defense in times of need, or to police potential riots by the commons. The potential need for service is what helped to justify the legal charters that guilds were issued, which allowed them to carry and use their arms, as well as other various legal liberties, including some tax exemptions. The exact origins of crossbow companies is unknown, but is believed to have originated for the common defense, with many guilds having a required number of members they must maintain. However, in time, guilds seem to have developed social meaning of their own, with some towns having much larger crossbow guilds than would be necessary for their defense, perhaps out of civic pride. 

Honestly, this was a topic I only knew about tangentially prior to preparing this class, but found a wealth of information out there about these groups. I think this could be a great topic for future study, as in some areas, in particular Flanders, these guilds were truly integral parts of the urban community, and developed really dedicated memberships. Many guilds were associated with a patron saint, St. Sebastian being a popular option, and may have their weapons blessed to improve their luck. 

The Crossbowman

Unlike the classic medieval knight, the crossbowman did not have to come from the nobility. The average member of an urban crossbow build would be in the merchant to noble classes, typically not belonging to the lowest classes of peasant. Crossbowmen were granted legal charters for land to build guild halls and shooting ranges, members were granted legal protections, and at time financial benefits for their station such as exemption from taxes. 

We can help to understand the station of the crossbowman by their pay, pensions, and rank within military documents and chronicles of campaigns. For example, higher ranked crossbowmen on King John's campaign in Normandy from 1202-1204 received 4 shillings per day, a very high wage*. It is worth nothing, perhaps smugly, that almost without exception a crossbowman was paid more than a longbow archer. Later, in the 14th century, an archer would receive between 3-4d a day, while crossbowmen were paid 8d a day, which was the same rate as a man-at-arms on foot, although not the same as a knight*.  A mounted crossbowman could command even higher wages. A typical term of service would be 40 days for a paid man at arms, including crossbowmen. It also was possible for crossbowmen to gain manors and lands from their service. King Phillip II of France, granted his crossbowmen with lands according the chronicles of the times* and by the 13th century feudal tenure was extended to crossbowmen, with multiple individuals noted for their service as crossbowmen. Many mercenary groups provided crossbowmen, in particular the Genoese were renowned for their skill with the crossbow. 

A crossbowman on campaign would likely be expected to own their own weapon, so, in part the higher wages of the crossbowman are to reflect the investment in equipment that the individual has already taken on, as crossbows were not cheap. Again, this also illustrates the point that crossbowmen were not of the peasant classes, but more of a middle to higher class status. The crossbowman would be expected to provide his own weapon, and typically outfit themselves in earlier period in a padded gambeson, perhaps chainmaille, and helm. In later period, some crossbowmen wore full plate armor. The most common helm of the crossbowman is the arbalist or kettle helm, seen in the center photo. The wider brim helps to protect the face and neck when bending over to reload the crossbow, protected against stones or missiles from above in sieges, and helped to allow the crossbowman to shoot without obstructions in their vision. 

Where would the crossbowman work? Well, we actually have a really fascinating data source for determining that. The universities of Southhampton and Reading in the UK have created a searchable database of digitized muster rolls for later medieval England. Using this data, an analysis by Bell, Curry, King, and Simpkin in 2013 revealed the following breakdown in crossbowman postings for the years of 1415 to 1450: 

The majority of crossbowmen would be posted in a garrison for the defense of a city or town. Town walls, castles, and bridges were all guarded by crossbowmen, again speaking to usefulness of the weapon in defending against siege. Another sizeable portion would be involved in naval service, which would mean protecting goods and people in transport as well as assisting with port town sieges. The rest of the postings involve active field or siege service, city watch or urban policing, personal retinue, and those whose roles were unlisted. This breakdown helps to show how crossbowmen were utilized in period, although it is worth noting that this data set is English, and crossbows were actually more prevalent on the Continent, in areas such as France, Germany, Belgium, and Italy. This data also tells us that crossbowmen would sometimes serve as archers or gunners on different occasions, which shows that weapon use may have been more fluid and soldiers fought using what was in demand*. 

The crossbowman had a bit of a reputation as a rogue in period. Part of this was the consideration that the crossbow’s powerful shots were too savage, too violent to be used in warfare against fellow Christians, according to the Second Lateran Council in 1139. This condemnation of the weapon was conveniently forgotten about when it suited commanders and decried when used against them, a part of warfare propaganda. The truth is that crossbowmen were utilized by everyone and paid handsomely for it. 

The Crossbow in Culture

This reputation as a rogue, and the condemnation of the use of the crossbow as a weapon, leaves an interesting legacy behind in artwork and culture of the time. Richard I was known for his employment of crossbowmen, and his personal use of the weapon; it was the height of irony then when he himself died being shot by a crossbow from a rampart in 1199. Chroniclers of the time, particularly French ones, wrote that “It is only fitting that Richard, he who introduced the sinful crossbow to France, be removed  from it by the same instrument.” Of course, this was not true, the crossbow had already been banned by the Second Lateran Council in 1139, so clearly the crossbow was already widespread in use across Europe by that time. Crossbows were also written about scorchingly by the Byzantine Emperor’s daughter, Anna Komnene, who wrote of the Crusader Franks using, quote, “A weapon of barbarians, the crossbow is absolutely unknown to the Greeks…A truly diabolical machine. The unfortunate man who is struck by it dies without feeling the blow; however strong the impact he knows nothing of it.*” 

From quotes such as these, we get the impression that the crossbow was indeed a feared and somewhat reviled weapon. Its immense power was respected, but also clearly understood to be frightful. At the same time, however, we see artwork that provides a different interpretation of the cultural understanding of the crossbow. On the right hand of the slide, you’ll see a 10th century illumination which features Jesus Christ, at top, confirmed by his golden halo, with horsemen, heralding both the second coming and the apocalypse. Interestingly, Jesus Christ is holding a crossbow. What exactly this means, I can’t say, but it certainly seems that Christ would not be wielding something considered a “diabolical weapon.”

Another common depiction of the crossbow in period art is in relation to the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. This was a common motif, which depicts St. Sebastian tied to a tree and shot at with arrows, a part of his story, he is ordered to be executed in this manner by the Roman emperor Diocletian (he doesn’t die from this, in fact he is nursed back to health by a nun, goes to Rome, sees the Emperor, who is so incensed that he is still alive he has his bludgeoned to death in front of him.) BUT St. Sebastian is the patron saint of archers, ironically, and it often depicted with this scene. Notably in many high medieval artworks he is shot at by crossbowmen, such as this piece by Hans Holbein the Elder, and we can gain a lot of understanding of what crossbows looked like through time through all of the varied depictions of this artistic motif. 

Another artistic motif that appears in period is depictions of crossbowmen taking aim at the viewer of the artwork. You can see this in The Archer and the Milkmaid on the left. This gives us a really interesting depiction of the crossbowman as a ne’er do well, a rogue. Note the bulging codpiece, the bare legs. The text at the bottom, to quote the metropolitan museum of art “refers to slang expressions such as milking and shooting your bolt….The Latin verse alludes to male anatomy while the Dutch text warns maidens of men with crossbows cocked.” This crossbowman is a bit impish, itinerant, and clearly interested in the pleasures of life. The jokes and anecdotes written at the bottom of the image include references to crossbows and sex, solidifying the idea of a crossbowman as a bit of a rogue. 

The Disappearance of the Crossbow: 

Why was the crossbow eventually replaced on the battlefield? Well, largely the decline of crossbows are weapons of warfare can be traced alongside the rise in development of firearms. As cannons and firearms, sometimes known as hand cannons appeared on battlefields across Europe in the late 13th century, they changed battle. Plate armor that could withstand a standard hazards could not stand up to the force of these new hand cannons. This led to a bit of a short arms race in plate armor, with ever more advanced armor being created to protect its owner against the hazards of the modern campaign. Crossbows, meanwhile, needed to create more draw weight in order to increase the force of their projectiles. This was possible through developments in steel working, allowing for higher carbon steels and better heat treatment and tempering, but had a limit. Firearms outpaced the force that crossbows were able to generate for their projectiles, particularly as their design improved, and eventually took superiority as a weapon for a soldier. Firearm projectiles could be made relatively cheaply, and didn’t require individual fletched bolts like crossbows. 

However, as you can see in this 15th century illumination, during this time a variety of ranged weapons could be found in battle. This illustration shows crossbows, hand cannons, and artillery all being used in a single siege, with pikemen and hand archers present as well. This helps to demonstrate the mixed methods of warfare at play in the 15th and 16th centuries. The crossbow was a known tool for the conquistadores during their arrival and brutal colonization of the “New World” and we have found crossbow bolt tips within North America at Jamestown settlement, showing that this technology was still very much in use, likely for hunting, during the early development of the United States. 

The crossbow was slowly phased out as a weapon of war, but remained widely in use as a hunting and sporting weapon until the 18th century. Today, the crossbow can still be found as a hunting weapon, and continues to be a sport shooting favorite in Europe. 


To conclude, the crossbow is an ancient and elegant weapon that is still in use today. The weapon likely originated in ancient China and was brought to the west by the Roman empire. It saw widespread use in warfare in pitched battle, naval operations, and sieges, and remained on the battlefield until the early 16th century when it was largely replaced by the firearm. The weapon was used throughout the continent, and the crossbow’s power and prestige led to the development of civil crossbow guilds and fraternities that were major social pillars of medieval urban life. It continues to be used as a popular hunting weapon due to its silent delivery of a lethal blow. I hope that the reader has a better understanding and appreciation of the crossbow as a weapon and tool, and its impact in the medieval period.