The Crossbow

If medieval archery is mentioned, most people will think about the classic longbow and arrows. But in our period the crossbow was much more used.

The Leugemeetefresco
Part of the Leugemeetefresco from Ghent, dated around 1346.
The Saint-George guild of the Ghent townmilitia


The crossbow was introduced in Europe in the 11th century. Those first crossbows were not more than a simple wooden bow mounted on a wooden frame, in order to allow the bow to be spanned for a longer period. In three centuries up to 1300, the crossbow evolved to being an easily portable weapon with a short bow, made out of composite material, mounted on a wooden stock with a trigger mechanism.

The composite material consisted of layers of wood, horn and sinew. This gave the bow a great stiffness causing it to be much more powerful than a normal handheld bow. The bowstring was made out of linen or hemp rope.

A crossbow doesn't shoot arrows but bolts. This is some sort of short, thick arrow with a small and sharp iron tip. This was much more aerodynamic than a normal arrow and that contributed greatly to its effectiveness


Around 1300 the crossbow was spanned by placing a foot in the stirrup in front of the bow and put a hook, fixed onto the belt of the shooter, on the bowstring. If the shooter stretches, the hook will pull the string and the shooter can arm the trigger mechanism. The elaborate winches and other spanning devices often associated with crossbows date from much later.

Spanning of a crossbow
Spanning of a crossbow.

Crossbow shooters of the townmilitias were aided in combat by servants which carried their big shields, behind which they could shelter while spanning their bow. These shields are the so-called paveses.

Sending the crossbow shooters up front and trying to weaken the enemy lines by their shots started a lot of medieval battles. This happened too in Courtrai. The crossbow otherwise proved her use during sieges.

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Copyright on text, images and photos by Joris de Sutter, unless noted otherwise.
The picture of the crossbow shooter comes from "Encyclopédie Médiévale", E. Viollet le Duc
This information is provided by De Liebaart and was last updated on March 30th 2001.