Fashion in the Age of Datini


Yes, mounted crossbowmen did shoot from horseback! This very rare image shows one spanning his bow. (From Lower Austria, 1301-1350: Württembergische Landesbibliothek, WLB HB XIII 6 Weltchronik & Marienleben fol. 218v). Thanks to Jack Gassman for citing this painting in his article on European mounted crossbowmen, gassman-crossbow-cavalry

Crossbows were tools for hunting and warfare, and they are fun machines. The medieval western crossbows are relatively simple, with a bow fastened to a stock, a revolving nut which holds back the string when the bow is spanned, and a long lever for a trigger to release the nut. Sights, more complicated triggers, and clips to hold the bolt against the stock seem to appear in the late 15th and 16th century and on bows for hunting and target practice. We have some great source material from medieval Italy like the rule of the crossbow-makers of Venice. Most types of crossbow appear in texts long before they appear in artwork or museum collections.

Iolo’s First Book of Crossbows is a great introduction aimed at SCA shooters who seem to have customs similar to the Victorian sport longbow clubs (light draw weights, lots of target shooting). He focuses on surviving crossbows, so the midpoint of his study is around 1500, and on making and shooting crossbows with steel or aluminum bows.

Josef Alm’s European Crossbows: A Survey (1947, English translation 1994) (alm-european-crossbows), Egon Harmuth’s Die Armbrust (1986) (harmuth-armbrust), and Jean Liebel’s Springalds and Great Crossbows (liebel-springalds-and-great-crossbows) are three standard academic works. There are some books focused on specific museum collections by Jens Sensfelder and Dirk Breiding. Holger Richter’s Die Hornbogenarmbrust: Geschichte und Technik (Verlag Angelika Hörnig: Ludwigshafen, 2006) focuses on surviving horn bows. Stuart Gorman’s PhD thesis (gorman-development-of-the-bow-and-crossbow) compares longbows and crossbows but is stronger on surviving artefacts than written evidence. Victor Gay’s entry for Arbalète has some good texts and drawings. There is a bibliography at and a German journal, the Jahrblatt der Interessengemeinschaft Historische Armbrust.

Sir Ralph Payne-Gallway’s book from 1903 is widely available, but it has issues: he was an Edwardian gentleman-scholar who made things up or copied them from earlier researchers without crediting them (his onager catapult goes back to a French book by the Chevalier du Folard published in 1727 not the one ancient description or many 15th century paintings). Beginners might prefer the newer books by Mike Loades and Dr. Stuart Ellis-Gorman

a table of the frequency of different types of crossbow in some medieval archives (bachrach-crossbows-for-the-king-i - bachrach-crossbows-for-the-king-ii and garnier-artillerie-des-ducs)

Documents are most interested in the type of bow (wood, horn, or steel) and the spanning mechanism. From 1200 to about 1340 we hear about one-foot crossbows, two-foot crossbows, and tour or vice crossbows (spanned using rotary motion). There were also crossbows light enough to be spanned on horseback (Norwegian King’s Mirror).

The one-foot crossbows were probably spanned with a stirrup and a belt hook. A source in Latham and Patterson's Arab Archery describes how to do this from horseback, just like the Frankish painting above:

To shoot this weapon, the mounted archer should equip himself with a broad strap after the style of the familiar Frankish drawing-strap (jabbadh). The drawing-claw (khattaf) should have two hooks. What the archer does is to slip the drawing-strap over his left shoulder like a strap of the kind used by porters for heaving massive loads (hamalat al-haykal), placing the claw below his right armpit close to the nipple. When he wishes to shoot, he takes the reins in his left hand and the bow in his right and sets the string in the hooks, keeping the stock right in between them. He then bends forward in a stooping position until the front half of his right foot is in the stirrup with which his weapon is equipped. The archer now stands in his stirrups, as he draws the string at its centre point until it catches in the stock-nut (jawzah) and be can then settle it firmly with his right hands. This done, he bends over forward, removes his foot from the bow and, lifting the crossbow off the hook, transfers it to his left hand and holds it along with his reins.

A variation of the stirrup and belt hook is sometimes called a doubler belt: a waistbelt supports a cord which runs down, over a pulley, and back up to a pin on the stock of the crossbow. The crossbow is spanned by hooking the string to the stock and bowstring, lifting one foot, putting it in a stirrup on the crossbow, and pushing with the leg but the pulley gives a 2:1 mechanical advantage. (Although Tod of Tod's Workshop finds that this does not quite double the maximum possible draw weight due to friction and the awkwardness of pushing very heavy weights with one foot). The doubler belt does not appear in art before the mid 15th century, but some of the inventories from Dijon dating to the year 1400 and later mention "a pulley to draw an arbalest" (Item, une polie a tendre une aubelestre: ferrand-inventaires-dijon-i pp. 377, 396).

The two-foot crossbows were probably spanned by by sitting down and pushing with both legs while pulling with a belt hook, allowing a longer draw. These often shot longer more expensive bolts than the one-foot crossbows with their short span. The Arab archer al-Tarṣuṣi describes spanning a crossbow by sitting and pushing with both legs, and Anna Commena describes Frankish crossbowmen sitting down and spanning their crossbows with both legs. Some European inventories confirm that two-foot crossbows sometimes needed a bauldric (spanning belt) just like one-foot crossbows. Two-foot crossbows are very hard to find in art.

The tour or vice crossbows were probably spanned by cranking a block and tackle or screw press, or possibly a giant lever. These are very hard to find in art before the 15th century, but becuase of the documents we know that they were common by the 13th century and distinct from the great fixed crossbows.

French and English documents from the 14th and 15th century mention a spanning device called a hancepes (“haunce-foot”? the etymology is hard to understand: see richardson-medieval-inventories) Other than this difficult word, I do not know of evidence of the goat’s foot lever or the cranequin (a crank driving a toothed steel bar which draws the bow) before 1410. In her Livre des fais d’armes et de chevalerie (1410), Christine de Pisane suggests that a castellan obtain 24 good arbalestres à tillale (spanned by rotary motion?), 6 arbalestres à tour, and 24 arbalestres à crocs “hook crossbows.” The tillolle and croc appear in rules for proofing armour at Angers in 1488.

Datini bought and sold vast numbers of quarrels (verrettoni) but I can’t recall him selling crossbows (balestre). There is a lot to be learned about crossbow terminology in this period, and about how practice in this period was diffrent from practice around 1500.

Gaston Phoebus’ Le livre de la chasse has some things to say about crossbows, and the illustrations are educational.ète

gassman-crossbow-cavalry talks about mounted crossbowmen

"Arbalest à Tillolles," The Armour Archive

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