Men in foot attack a castle with axes while a crossbowman on horseback spans a crossbow and another horseman protects him with a shield

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)

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), Egon Harmuth’s “Die Armbrust” (1986), and Jean Liebel’s “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 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).

a bar chart of the frequency of different types and materials of crossbow in medieval sources from 1200 to 1500

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 (spanned with a stirrup and a belt hook?), two-foot crossbows (spanned 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 this method of spanning, and Anna Commena describes Frankish crossbowmen sitting down and spanning their crossbows with both legs), and tour or vice crossbows (spanned using rotary motion) but we only have pictures of the first kind; there were also crossbows light enough to be spanned on horseback (Norwegian King’s Mirror).

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 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

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