This lesson looks at the return of the crossbow to Medieval Europe.
The relative cost of crossbows to armored knights is explored, as are the socioeconomic repercussions of each.
The Crossbow: Weapon of the Devil
In 1139, Pope Innocent II issued a papal bull forbidding the use of crossbows.According to Webster, a crossbow is a weapon for shooting quarrels that consists of a short bow mounted crosswise near the end of a stock. According to the Pope, the crossbow was an instrument of Satan, hateful to God and unfit for Christians.So what was the Pope’s beef with the crossbow? To a modern audience, a ban on a lethal weapon does not seem so strange. Maybe the Pope just wanted to reduce bloodshed among Christians, yet such a ban was unheard of in the 12th century.
The Church clearly had no problem with Christian violence. They’d already sent the rulers of Europe on one crusade at the end of the 11th century and would do so twice more in the 12th century alone. So how do we explain this unprecedented prohibition on the crossbow?The answer is simple: the crossbow threatened to undermine the very foundations of medieval society.
Crossbow vs. Armored Knight
You see, before the crossbow came on the scene, the ultimate killing machine in Western Europe was the armored knight. Their mounts made them quick and maneuverable, while their armor made them nearly invincible.
The only force that could challenge an armored knight was another armored knight.However, these knights were dreadfully expensive to outfit and maintain. The knights themselves required nearly a decade of training. Their arms and armor required skilled craftsmen and lots of metal, and their horses consumed vast amounts of food.By contrast, a crossbowman didn’t require much training at all.
With its simple point-and-click interface, a couple of weeks was all it took to master the crossbow. A crossbow is a relatively cheap piece of equipment. It requires very little metal, especially compared to a full set of plate armor. Most importantly, using a crossbow doesn’t entail feeding a horse all year just to go to battle for a couple weeks.Yet that was not the worst of it. For you see, the crossbow packs a great deal of punch into a bolt – enough punch, in fact, to pierce through plate armor, the very thing that made the armored knight seem invincible.
This meant that a knight – a member of the nobility, Europe’s apex warrior – with his expensive armor, horse, and a lifetime of training could be brought down by a peasant with a week’s training and a crossbow.
The Armored Knight’s Importance to Feudal Society
Big deal, you might say; new technology replaces old technology. This sort of thing happens so much in our world today that it’s hard to remember that entire ways of life can come to be built upon a technology and its replacement can upset an entire civilization. Such was the case in Medieval Europe.
The overturn of the armored knight would not have been such a big deal were it not for the fact that Charlemagne had engineered the entire feudal system for the purpose of generating armored knights for his army.In the Roman Empire, membership in the aristocracy had been limited to those from ancient families – or those with enormous wealth and land that went with being from an ancient family. In Charlemagne’s time, all the ancient families were dead and forgotten, what wealth there was had long been pillaged, and the land was an open frontier, owned by no man.Recognizing the importance of the armored knight in warfare and having limited resources at his disposal, Charlemagne had taken his greatest and most loyal warriors and made an aristocracy of them by giving them plots of land to rule, or fiefs. These fiefs were enough to support the newly made lord, allowing him to train and outfit knights.In exchange for his fief, the feudal lord provided armored knights and foot soldiers to his king when he called. This feudal system allowed Charlemagne to call on a powerful army without having to outfit and train them himself.
Thus, in essence, the entire aristocracy of Medieval Europe owed their lofty position to the importance of knights on the battlefield. If a peasant with a crossbow could take down an aristocratic knight, what was the point in having aristocrats? What purpose did the aristocracy serve any longer?
A New Opportunity for Kings
This very question was being asked in the courts of kings across Europe. You see, kings have always had a sort of love/hate relationship with their feudal lords. Yes, it is nice to have an army of invincible killing machines at your beck and call, especially one that you don’t have to pay for. The problem is that the knights and armsmen of feudal lords are loyal to their feudal lord, who supported and trained them, not to their king, who just calls upon them.
This made it very hard for a king to enforce his will on his lords, since they were all quite heavily armed and nearly as powerful as the king himself. Thus, feudal lords were as dangerous a weapon as they were useful. Push one too hard, and your own sword could turn on you.
Of course, a king would have knights and soldiers of his own, but the cost of outfitting and maintaining knights was so cripplingly expensive that a king would bankrupt himself trying to build an army on his own. The best he could hope for was enough of an advantage over his lords to intimidate them into falling in line.With the crossbow, all of that changed. A king could outfit a company of crossbowmen at a fraction of the cost of a cavalry unit. They did not even have to be trained; any old peasant could do it. All you had to do was give him a crossbow, feed him when there was fighting to be done, and then set him back to hoeing fields when the war was over.This made crossbowmen an excellent alternative to knights, and kings began building large armies of cheap crossbowmen.
This, in turn, gave kings a lot more power to enforce their will on the nobility. If a noble wanted to lead his armored knights in rebellion, the king had an army of crossbowmen to mow those lovely knights down.This did not mean that the aristocracy was no longer needed. Centuries had entrenched the feudal system as the most effective form of administration for a kingdom. Kings needed their lords to help them rule their countries.
It did not even mean that knights were no longer needed. Armored knights continued to charge across medieval battlefields for centuries to come. Armored cavalry remained an important part of every medieval army until the ascent of gunpowder in the 15th century. What the ascension of the crossbow meant was that knights were no longer as important as they used to be, and kings gained more authority and power over their feudal lords.
So we’ve seen why the advent of the crossbow got Pope Innocent so upset. The crossbow threatened to undermine the feudal system by making the armored knight irrelevant.
The armored knight was the heart of the feudal system, the ultimate medieval fighting machine. The problem was that with a crossbow, a peasant with a week’s training could kill the ultimate medieval fighting machine.This fact was not lost on Europe’s monarchs, who didn’t really care what the Pope had to say on the matter. The kings of Europe were tired of dealing with touchy feudal lords and wanted the security of a powerful army without the crippling expense of training, outfitting, and maintaining armored knights. The crossbow offered a cheap alternative that was as effective at controlling feudal lords at home as it was on the battlefield abroad.
After viewing this video lesson, you should be able to define what a crossbow is and explain why Pope Innocent did not like this weapon.