The Bow in Medieval Warfare

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The Bow in Medieval Warfare


The basic design of the bow most likely appeared around 3000 b.c. The fundamental technological principle of increasing the accuracy and velocity of a projectile far beyond that which is possible using only the force of the human arm remains unchanged. The simple design of a wooden stave, curved and pulled taught with a tension string, was used as a primary weapon in European warfare until the advent of reliable personal firearms in the eighteenth century. In other areas of the world, the bow enjoyed an even longer tenure as a favored weapon.

The new and redesigned bows of the Middle Ages—the short, long-, and crossbows—and the new class of archers who wielded them were both immortalized in chivalric literature and vilified in public discourse. Technologically simple modifications to the weapon to increase its tactical advantage on the battlefield raised compelling questions of the ethics and possible drawbacks of military technology. In Europe, the quest to create better weapons to pierce increasingly strong armor and successfully besiege fortress-like castles made the bow perhaps the most modified piece of technology of the Middle Ages.


The medieval short bow was, with the exception of variation in the materials used for its construction, the unaltered descendent of its classical predecessor. The weapon was effective at shorter ranges, within 100 yards (91 m) in capable hands. Hit directly, an unarmored or lightly armored soldier would sustain grievous wounds. The short bow helped in some of the key battles of the early medieval period, from the repulsion of Viking raids to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. As the monarchies of Western Europe grew in power, and increased their military pursuits—most especially during the Crusades—demand for more powerful weaponry was met by increasingly resistant defenses.

The crossbow first appeared in Europe in tenth century Italy, however, the technological idea was most likely of foreign origin. The crossbow was constructed by turning a bow horizontal on a fixed stock and adding a projectile guide and a release trigger. Despite the advantages of small metal bolts used as the projectile instead of traditional wooden arrows, initial models of the crossbow were difficult to draw and set, resulting in slow firing times. Despite the slow turnover of shots, the crossbow proved instantly devastating on the battlefield. The crossbows used in the early Crusades had a range of 300 yards (274 m), could pierce metal armor, and even kill a horse under its rider.

Improving upon the shortbow's lack of range and power and the crossbow's tedious loading and slow firing time, the longbow emerged in Europe in the thirteenth century. The weapon did not appear with regular frequency on the battlefield until the fourteenth century and until then was limited to more localized use, especially in England where it quickly became a favorite weapon. The design of the longbow dated back to antiquity, with similar weapons described in Greek narratives. Though used in the same manner as the short bow, the medieval longbow sometimes spanned over 6 inches (15 cm) and required upwards of 100 pounds (45 kg)of tension to draw back the string. More taut bows with greater firing power could be produced by replacing the normally used vegetable fibers (usually hemp or linen) with animal sinew. Thus, the use of the weapon required skill and brawn. The longbow was a breakthrough in medieval weaponry. It could send an arrow over 300 yards (247 m) when fired by a skilled archer. The bow could be drawn and aimed so as to change the firing angle and velocity with relative ease given its size, and it was possible for an archer to fire a dozen or more per minute.

Simply adding more length and tension to the bow—beyond that of longbow—to increase its power was possible, but not practical. The mechanized crossbow of the fourteenth century achieved both an optimum of range and force without increasing exertion on the archer by incorporating a firing lever into the design. The string was drawn with a crank device that permitted more tension with considerably less effort than previous crossbows. Though the firing mechanism was no faster than older models, the mechanized bow could be fired from a variety of angles and even while the archer was reclining—thus adding an element of stealth to an already dreaded weapon.


To gauge all of the ramifications of the increased use of the bow and the introduction of long- and crossbows in the Middle Ages is nearly impossible. There are several examples of military exploits and territorial acquisitions that would not have been achieved with only swordsmen. The basic principles of bow technology were also applied to large siege weaponry such as slingshots and the counterbalanced, stone-hurling trebuchets that aided in penetrating and destroying stone fortifications.

Despite the technical advancements of archery and military technology during the Middle Ages, the short bow remained a staple of armaments. Relatively light, more readily fired, and with moderately sized projectiles, the short bow was an enormous tactical advantage on any foe in an age when hand-to-hand combat with metal weapons was the predominant mode of warfare.

The longbow was the mass-deployment weapon of choice in late medieval warfare—even in the earliest days of mortars and cannons. The longbow was at greater distances too inaccurate to be used as an individual weapon. Groups of longbowmen firing together could create, as a French nobleman from the fourteenth century described, "[a] rain of arrows to shower down upon the opponent." The distance that could separate a unit of longbowmen from the front of battle was the critical factor in its success. Its purpose was to thin out, or at least weaken, the ranks of advancing men so that there would be significantly fewer people for swordsmen, cavalry, and foot soldiers to face in hand-to-hand combat. Designed to be a medium-range bow with substantial killing power, the high firing arc of the projectile greatly reduced its penetrating power at long range. Conversely, that same property facilitated the use of the longbow as a siege weapon because it could clear modestly tall fortifications.

The deployment of the longbow in battle required a corps of physically strong and skilled archers. The demand for these archers created a new class of soldier. A longbowman, because he was removed from the front of battle, did not need to have armor, a horse, or other weapons to go into battle. These battle trappings were expensive and often excluded from the group of swordsmen and cavalry all but the nobles and knights. The yeoman archers needed little other than their weapon and skill, thus permitting men of a wider segment of society to go on campaign. Some of the most famous and decisive victories of the longbow era, such as the English defeat of the French at Agincourt, were facilitated by units of yeoman archers.

Both the short and longbows were instrumental in the largest military operation of the Middle Ages, the Crusades. However, they were met with the force, accuracy, and agility of sometimes superior constructions of bows. The distinctive design of the Byzantine and Arab composite bows (imagine drawing an S with a backward below it) gave them the ability to not only fire projectiles with greater force than the similarly sized short bow, but unlike the longbow, it could be used on horseback. A greater tactical advantage was that the new composite bow could be made easier to draw and fire by adjusting the curvature at the ends of the bow. Thus, a special corps of skilled and physically superior archers was not needed to effectively use the weapon.

The medieval crossbow was unique not only for its mechanical operation, but its controversial nature. Perhaps no instrument of war drew greater debate about its ethical use, nor did any weapon so stigmatize the person who wielded it. The crossbow was denounced so vehemently that in 1139, its use was declared an offense worthy of excommunication from the Church. The deployment of crossbowmen was often the last resort of a feudal lord or king in military campaigns, and the crossbowmen themselves were considered suspect and morally corrupt. To assure that there was an ample supply of crossbowmen when the demand arose, a ruler had to offer attractive professional perks for those willing to compromise their reputations and take up the arm. Medieval crossbowmen often made double the pay of other men-at-arms, and sometimes even received grants of land for their tenured service. Regardless of the persistence of the stigma attached to it, the crossbow remained the most feared, used, and effective weapon. Similar discourse about the deadliness, ethics, and chivalric honor of a particular weapon and its carrier did not arise again until the introduction of firearms centuries later.


Further Reading

Lindberg, David C.The Beginnings of Western Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

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The Bow in Medieval Warfare

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