The Return of the Crossbow and its Implications for Europe

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  • 0:06 The Crossbow
  • 1:16 Crossbow vs. Armored Knight
  • 2:50 Armored Knight's Importance
  • 4:51 A New Opportunity
  • 7:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
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?

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