The Medieval Crossbow

Disclosure: Dr. Ellis-Gorman ran a Twitter giveaway for this book. After I won the drawing I told him that I would post a review of the book to my blog.

One of my favorite computer games as a teenager was Age of Empire II. The civilization I played most frequently were the Britons, whose unique unit, the longbowman, I used en masse to devastating effect. I gravitate to the Britons in this and other games principally because the strengths that the game designers give to these units fit my play-style that tends to be quite deliberate, but the reasons for my particular fascination with the longbow and its practitioners were myriad and various.

In part, the longbow had literally become a fixture in folklore. I was, and remain, fascinated by Robin Hood even though the purported chronology of Robin Hood and his trusty bow is ahistorical (royal mandates that are sometimes discussed with this weapon date to the fourteenth century, more than a century after Richard I died). Despite some modern iterations of the story where Robin Hood adopts smaller recurve bows modeled on those he saw on crusade, the longbow nevertheless remains firmly entrenched in this story.

But my interest in those parts of the national folklore coincided with a period in my life when I was fascinated by the battlefield aspect of military history (as opposed to questions of logistics and messaging that I am more drawn to these days). In this context, it was only natural that I be drawn the pitched battles of The Hundred Year’s Wars like Crécy and Agincourt where, the story goes, the English longbowmen triumphed over the knights and hired crossbows of the French. These battles became an essential component of the British national narrative and thus the supremacy of the longbow over the crossbow became almost a shibboleth, at least in the anglophone understanding of the Middle Ages.

It was thus with great interest that I read Stuart Ellis-Gorman’s The Medieval Crossbow. This book, a revision of Ellis-Gorman’s PhD dissertation, is an up-to-date history of the crossbow that aptly explores the ubiquity of the weapon.

The Medieval Crossbow is divided into two broad sections.

The first part of the book is a technical dossier that offers a clear discussion of the different pieces that made this weapon function. While a crossbow is a crossbow, Gorman points out some of the subtle innovations in trigger mechanisms that would release the “rolling nut” and fire the bolt (15–16). While such details might seem like mundane concerns, they also allow Ellis-Gorman to touch elsewhere on the possibility that the European crossbow was not explicitly related to the much earlier Chinese one that used an entirely different trigger mechanism (72–73). This dossier also examines reloading systems (spanning devices) from the stirrup attached to the stock that allow an archer to use his leg muscles in spanning the bow (17–18) to the cranequin gearbox that winches a the string back (18–20)–and more.

The initial discussion of the parts of the crossbow then transitions into an evaluation of the wide range of different crossbows that existed. In short, while all crossbows shared certain characteristics, there wasn’t just one crossbow. In fact, Ellis-Gorman includes in this discussion the short-lived phenomenon of the “gun crossbow” that was a hybrid weapon that was simultaneously a wheel-lock musket and a crossbow (45–46).

This section concludes with a discussion of the different technical and, at times, fanciful, representations of the crossbow that appeared in contemporary art.

The second part of the book offers a chronological account of the medieval crossbow. As is often true in books of this sort, this history has little narrative to it. Instead, Ellis-Gorman leads the reader through a series of events in which the crossbow appeared in order to both demonstrate the how the bow and its use evolved over the course of the Middle Ages and to reevaluate a series of battles in which the crossbow featured. These episodes usually address two related issues: the ambiguity of the sources and the strategic and technical consideration of the crossbow in the event.

Take Crécy, about which Ellis-Gorman says that it would be “impossible to write a history of the crossbow without” (108). After all, this was the battle most conceived of as a showdown between the longbow wielding yeoman archer and the Genoese crossbowman. Ellis-Gorman works through the battle from the technical perspective of the two bows and concludes that the popular narratives about the superiority of one over the other are misplaced when the performance of the crossbowmen can be better explained by the failures of leadership, and points out in the process that even the English went on to employ Genoese crossbowmen in the years after the battle.

More than anything, this reevaluation demonstrates the ubiquity of the crossbow in this period. The bow was an integral and effective weapon of Medieval warfare, and I particularly liked how Ellis-Gorman’s treatment allowed for fuzziness both in when the weapon came into existence and in how it transitioned from primarily a weapon of war to primarily a weapon of sport in the later middle ages.

In fact, my least favorite part of the book had nothing to do with the arguments put forward. Ellis-Gorman opens every chapter with an anecdotal story related to the crossbow. For instance, the introduction opens with a narration of the death of King Richard I of England, who died after taking a crossbow bolt outside Château de Châlus-Chabrol in 1199. As a writer, I understood the impulse. The stories offered him an easy hook for that section while also allowing him to tell more crossbow stories that he came across while conducting research. However, this was also one place where I detected some unevenness in the transition from the extremely narrow audience of the dissertation and a wider audience of a monograph. Basically, outside of a loose chronological fit, I did not always see the relevance of the chosen story to the argument of the chapter. That said, this is a minor complaint: it was not that these sections detracted from the value of this book so much as I sometimes found them distracting while I tried to fit the pieces together.

All told, The Medieval Crossbow is a compelling book. I am neither a medievalist nor a military historian, but I nevertheless gained a new appreciation for this particular piece of technology.