A much-feared hand-held weapon, the crossbow was once banned by the Catholic Church. But its origins are found in ancient China.
by Arnold Blumberg
Thought to have been invented about the time of the First Crusade by western Europeans, the crossbow actually arose around 500 BC simultaneously in China and Greece. The impetus for its creation was the desire to improve upon bows of the time.
Ancient Chinese manuscripts, such as the Shih chi written around 100 BC, document the extensive use of crossbows during the 4th century BC, notably at the Battle of Ma-ling in 341. From works produced during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-25 AD), it appears the crossbow was at the time the principal offensive arm of foot soldiers fighting on China’s far-flung frontiers. Owing to its hitting power it might have given the Chinese an advantage over the bow-firing nomadic tribesmen threatening China’s northern border.
Gain new insight into the battle that brought the end of Napoleon’s rule in France. Get your copy of Warfare History Network’s FREE Special Report, The Battle of Waterloo
Quickly adopted as a personal battlefield weapon, the crossbow changed the character of Chinese warfare. Before crossbows, combat in China had been highly individualized and dominated by chariots. But the capacity of the crossbowmen to shoot through body armor and shields from a distance drove the Chinese chariot into obsolescence. More importantly, it transformed the Chinese method of making war. Coincidental with the wider use of the weapon, the Chinese approach to fighting came to emphasize maneuver and the exploitation of psychological advantage.
While the Chinese embraced the value of the crossbow, the Greeks slowly got rid of it by improving it out of existence. First mentioned in Greek literature at the end of the 4th century BC, the simple, one-man portable weapon (called gastrophetes, or ‘belly-bow”) was transformed into a large siege engine based on the crossbow principle. This enlarged crossbow required a number of men to work it. The vast increase in size, and the added manpower needed to operate it, meant that the weapon was no longer a viable foot soldier’s sidearm. After this time the crossbow as a personal weapon was not heard of in the West until about 950 AD, and only then in the context of a hunting tool.
10th Century Revival
The crossbow, or “arbalist” as it was called during the Middle Ages, was resurrected in the form of a hand-held weapon in the 10th century, and its use spread rapidly across Europe. From 1200 to 1480 it evolved through several stages to become a powerful and deadly weapon. Its popularity had much to do with the ability of its missile, called a bolt, to penetrate mail body armor at close range. As such, the crossbow became a class leveler—a man of even modest means could afford one, it was very easy to master, and unlike the knight who had to maintain armor, horse, and retainers at enormous expense, the owner of a crossbow needed only bring bow strings and bolts to the field of combat.
The medieval crossbow and its user were disparaged by the era’s military elite, i.e., the horse-borne knight. But aristocratic disdain could not erase the fact that the mounted warrior of the Middle Ages was at great risk from this plebeian, generally infantry, weapon. As the noble class (i.e., knights) realized the danger crossbows presented, it attempted to lessen the threat by donning heavier armor designed to cover the body more fully. The result, naturally, was the creation of heavier and more powerful crossbows with even more armor-piercing capability.
By the late 14th century the race between increased defense (armor) and a more powerful offense (the crossbow and later the longbow) resulted in a standoff. The general advancement in metallurgical skills wrought technological improvements that allowed for stronger, lighter armor, but also for better crossbows. By this date, wood, horn, and sinew bows of the century before had given way to tempered-steel bows, which in most circumstances, and at the right ranges, negated the protection afforded by the new body armor. This fact was not lost on the nobles.
The mounted class, on the one hand refusing to openly acknowledge the seriousness of the crossbow problem, but on the other realizing that body armor alone was not going to save their hides, did as many noble Christians did when faced with a difficult problem—they turned to the Catholic Church for help.
As early as the late 1090s the ruling class of western Europe petitioned Pope Urban II to ban the use of the crossbow because of “its brutality in war.” The Pope complied, but the Papal edict did not seem to make much headway then or later; nor did it prevent the merchant guilds in London, Paris, Genoa, and Prague from continuing to manufacture and sell, at a handsome price, thousands of crossbows each year. Further, the fact that the foremost soldier of the age, Richard I of England (The Lionhearted), was an expert with the weapon did little to advance the anticrossbow crusade.
The Church, with the strong encouragement of the European nobility, tried again, if not to completely ban the weapon, then at least to have it pointed at non-Christians. The Second Lateran Council in 1139 decreed that the device was unfit for use by Christians, and that those who used the crossbow against anyone other than infidels (Muslims and heretics) would be placed under penalty of an anathema.