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An extract from Armies of the Middle Ages, Volume 1
by Ian Heath


With the single exception of England (where, for instance, out of the army of 32,303 men involved in the siege of Calais in 1347 only 111 were crossbowmen), the crossbow was in widespread use among all European armies during this era, only finally falling out of favour during the first half of the 16th century. The French relied in particular on mercenary Genoese and to a lesser extent Spanish crossbowmen, while the English obtained what few they had principally from Gascony. Froissart reports of the Genoese that they 'are such expert marksmen that wherever they aim they are sure to hit', while earlier in the century the Catalan chronicler Muntaner says that they had 'a fashion of shooting ceaselessly, and they shoot more quarrels in one battle than Catalans would shoot in ten'. The figure depicted here is a Genoese crossbowman from the same source as 41-44.

At the beginning of the 14th century the standard crossbow was of wood or else was composite, made up of horn or baleen, hazel or yew, tendon and glue, the steel crossbow being introduced c. 1370. It was spanned by any one of half-a-dozen methods, of which the oldest was the belt-hook and stirrup (described under figure 33 in Armies of Feudal Europe). Two developments of this were the cord-and-pulley and strap-and-roller mechanisms, which were both in use from the early-14th century. In the second half of the century there appeared two related systems of which the earlier is called by Payne-Gallwey a 'screw and handle', which was far less popular than its successor, a ratchet device called a rack in England and a cric or cranequin in France. The system that can be seen in use in the majority of 15th century depictions, however, was the windlass or moulinet, shown being used by figure 48. This apparently first appeared during the early-14th century. In fact of them all it was the simplest of these devices - i.e. the cord-and-pulley and the belt-hook-and-stirrup - that remained the most popular in practice, on the grounds of both efficiency and cost (in 1437, for example, a cranequin cost the same amount of money as a handgun).

The bolts crossbows fired were called carreaux (quarrels), viretons (so-named because their spiral feathering of cuir-bouilli made them spin in flight, thus increasing their accuracy), and dondaines or 'grete shot' as Caxton calls them, being intended for the larger crossbows. Some had flat, squared heads like dumdum bullets for shattering armour. The bolts were stored points uppermost in a quiver at the left hip, contemporary ordinances informing us that 18 or 36 were carried. This is not many, but Guiart records early in the century that in addition spare bolts were carried in carts in the baggage train.

[Based on the Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, folio 137v, Battle on the bridge over the Seine]

Next: 46. CROSSBOWMAN WITH PAVISE, 15th CENTURY in Armies of the Middle Ages, Volume 1 by Ian Heath