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Dashiell Harrison




Location: California
Joined: 14 Jun 2014

Posts: 26

PostPosted: Mon 27 Nov, 2017 10:15 am    Post subject: Crossbow use in Scandinavia and the Holy Roman Empire         Reply with quote

Hi All,

I know the whole discussion of crossbow vs longbow has been gone over many times on this forum, but there are a couple of aspects of it that I am curious about that I haven't seen anyone discuss in much detail.

Prior to scanning through some of the threads on this forum, my general impression was that crossbows were popular in Continental Europe because they were more accurate, powerful, and easier to learn how to use than longbows, even if they had a substantially slower rate of fire.

However, from looking at at lot of previous threads it seems like all of those advantages of the crossbow have been called heavily into question, while the longbow's superiority in terms of "re-load" time remains unquestioned.

So, I'm left wondering why crossbows were so popular on the Continent. The other explanations I've heard offered for crossbow use was that a) they were easy to use, and b) they were used by the downtrodden commoners of Continental Europe who, unlike the proud English Yeomen, were discouraged from possessing truly devastating weapons of war.

I'm not convinced by either of those explanations, however. Crossbows seem to have largely replaced longbows among Scandinavian militiamen, who had previously had a strong longbow archery tradition among free farmers which seems at least somewhat similar to that of the English. Similarly, crossbows were popular among urban militias in Germany and Italy as well as the mercenaries who hailed from those areas, both of whom seem to me to have had the means to acquire longbows and learn how to use them if they wanted to. Why did they opt to use the crossbow instead?
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Benjamin H. Abbott




Location: New Mexico
Joined: 28 Feb 2004

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PostPosted: Mon 27 Nov, 2017 2:00 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

What has called the crossbow's accuracy into question? I'm confident crossbows are more accurate apart from perhaps the highest skill levels. Being able to aim without holding the equivalent of 80+lbs back has inherent advantages.

Current crossbow replicas do perform poorly enough in terms of velocity and kinetic energy to call the crossbow's power advantage into question, yes. This doesn't strike me as consistent with most period sources, but numerous sources do treat bows and crossbows as interchangeable. I still suspect quality historical European crossbows hit harder than today's replicas, but I don't really know.

Chinese-region crossbows are likewise perplexing. Ancient (Han-era) ones had refined triggers, grid sights, and a long powerstroke, but we still don't have any clear numbers from replicas or a clear understanding of spanning techniques, some of which look pretty awkward. Crossbows coexisted with bows through medieval China, sometimes serving as the most prominent weapon for Chinese soldiers, but crossbows declined in importance after the Mongol conquests.

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Niels Just Rasmussen




Location: Nykøbing Falster, Denmark
Joined: 03 Sep 2014

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Posts: 796

PostPosted: Tue 28 Nov, 2017 4:52 am    Post subject: Re: Crossbow use in Scandinavia and the Holy Roman Empire         Reply with quote

Dashiell Harrison wrote:

I'm not convinced by either of those explanations, however. Crossbows seem to have largely replaced longbows among Scandinavian militiamen, who had previously had a strong longbow archery tradition among free farmers which seems at least somewhat similar to that of the English. Similarly, crossbows were popular among urban militias in Germany and Italy as well as the mercenaries who hailed from those areas, both of whom seem to me to have had the means to acquire longbows and learn how to use them if they wanted to. Why did they opt to use the crossbow instead?


I think that they might have been substantial differences within Scandinavia whether you had a longbow tradition or not.
This has to do with hunting.

For instance it is known that Iceland did not have a longbow tradition, simply because there was no game to hunt and thus no real use for bows. So longbows were a rare elite weapon for the upper class farmers.
When it comes to Denmark it is probably certain that from the middle ages with the population expansion of the 1100-1200 hundreds, that hunting also became a speciality of the upper classes. Though in the late viking age you still had wild areas in for instance central Jutland and in northern Zealand., so these areas might still have had a tradition at that time (though would also be thinly populated).

It is also interesting that arrow-bundles are associated with elite burials in Denmark.
Here are the list of graves with arrow-bundles from Denmark:

Ladby shipgrave: 45 arrows outside starboard side of the ship. [only weapons in the grave]
Hedeby boat chamber grave: At least 9 arrows. [only weapons in the grave]
Stengade I chamber grave: 15 arrows
Kumlhøj: 9 arrows.
Source: Anne Pedersen (2014): Dead warriors in living memory. Book 2, list 4, page 137.
Then 22-23 arrows from the newly re-excavated viking age chamber grave from Fregerslev.
Then you have another 11 grave-finds with a single arrow.

So it does seem that bows-and-arrows had elite associations in Denmark in the later viking age.

Some areas in Sweden and Norway hunting would likely have been much more prominent among the "normal" freemen class. Though sagas does seem to indicate that bowmen often were either Norwegian upper class men, or Sami/Lapp.

It is likely that Norwegian and Swedish local rulers imposed a tax (of animal skins) on the Sami and to ensure these were paid took hostages. These hostages could then enter the ruler's household and act for him as expert scout and bowman. Other Sami might also enter into this service of their own free will.
The Sami certainly were seen in the sagas as experts in two things: Hunting/Archery and Magic.

So the Law of Jutland from 1241 has crossbows instead of bows, but it seems to be an elite item.
Book 3 Chapter 4:
Every "Styrisman" must have a full weapon-equipment and furthermore have a crossbow and 3 tylvter [Tylt/Tylvt = 12] arrows and a man that can shoot it, if he can't shoot it himself. And every harbour-farmer on the ship must have a shield and 3 peoples-weapons: Sword, Kettlehat and Spear.

So it was only the "Styrisman" who had to own a crossbow and 36 arrows/bolts. If he couldn't shoot it himself he had to pay for an expert that could. But the rest of the crew were not acquired to have a crossbow.
This indicate to me that the crossbow was an elite weapon and since there is no enforcement of having bows - that both bows and crossbows were seen as upper class weaponry in the danish high middle ages.

So to conclude probably no "longbow tradition" in Iceland and most of Denmark outside the elites.
Probably much broader longbow tradition in Norway and Sweden and especially those areas which employed a number of Sami hunters.
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M. Nordlund




Location: Sweden
Joined: 03 May 2017

Posts: 6

PostPosted: Tue 28 Nov, 2017 9:12 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I would just like to mention that most tests on crossbows I know of are done with steel prod crossbows, From my own limited understnding steel has lower maximum return speed than pretty much all woods used for bowmaking and is on top of that a bit less efficient purely in a energy in/energy out way.

I was also under the impression that a wood prod crossbow can outrange a longbow with light bolts since the return speed is faster due to heavier strain on the wood in a crossbow and that a deflexed prod can further help with pure speed for range if light bolts are used.

In that case it might be that range and accuracy was more favoured especially in sweden where shooting from boats and ambush tactics seems to have been pretty common.

As for steel prod crossbows they are good for town militia where you buy them then let them hang in some storeroom strung and ready to use togrther with non expiering wood fletched bolts for a rather substatial number of years and can just be handed out when needed ready to shoot for whomever might need it.
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Michael Curl




Location: Northern California, US
Joined: 06 Jan 2008

Posts: 486

PostPosted: Tue 28 Nov, 2017 9:53 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Read the Great Warbow by Stickland and Hardy. They well help you understand this. The more interesting question you should ask is why did the English use the crossbow before they starting using the longbow, and why did they keep using the crossbow? That will give you a better, non-intercultural, weapon comparison.
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Baard H




Location: Norway
Joined: 13 Mar 2013

Posts: 90

PostPosted: Fri 15 Dec, 2017 12:31 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

To add to the law texts available, the Norwegian law for the royal retinue only mention crossbows (lock-bows) as kit for knights and possibly nobles and then only as optional instead of a bow. For all the other ranks of the hird and in the laws regarding the militia, only bows are mentioned. These laws were first written around the last half/quarter of the 13th century.

"[Barons] and [sheriffs] should have more weapons as they have higher rank and greater accesses from the king than other men.
But each knight shall own a full harnisch; first «spalnđener» (translated as leather soulder protection) or aketon, maille coif and maille coat with maille hosen, and iron gloves, helmet or steel cap, sword and spear, strong shield and coat of plates. It’s also good to have a buckler and not least hand-bow or lock-bow.
A hirdmann shall also own aketon and on top of it either panzer or maille, as well as steel cap and shield and a good sword, spear and buckler and a hand-bow with three dozen arrows.
The guests shall own a gambeson, steel cap, shield, sword and spear and hand-bow with two dozen arrows.
The same weapons mentioned for the guests shall also be owned by the squires."

At kveldi skal dag leyfa,
konu, er brennd er,
mæki, er reyndr er,
mey, er gefin er,
ís, er yfir kemr,
öl, er drukkit er.
-Hávamál, vísa 81
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Niels Just Rasmussen




Location: Nykøbing Falster, Denmark
Joined: 03 Sep 2014

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Posts: 796

PostPosted: Sat 16 Dec, 2017 9:23 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Baard H wrote:
To add to the law texts available, the Norwegian law for the royal retinue only mention crossbows (lock-bows) as kit for knights and possibly nobles and then only as optional instead of a bow. For all the other ranks of the hird and in the laws regarding the militia, only bows are mentioned. These laws were first written around the last half/quarter of the 13th century.

"[Barons] and [sheriffs] should have more weapons as they have higher rank and greater accesses from the king than other men.
But each knight shall own a full harnisch; first «spalnđener» (translated as leather soulder protection) or aketon, maille coif and maille coat with maille hosen, and iron gloves, helmet or steel cap, sword and spear, strong shield and coat of plates. It’s also good to have a buckler and not least hand-bow or lock-bow.
A hirdmann shall also own aketon and on top of it either panzer or maille, as well as steel cap and shield and a good sword, spear and buckler and a hand-bow with three dozen arrows.
The guests shall own a gambeson, steel cap, shield, sword and spear and hand-bow with two dozen arrows.
The same weapons mentioned for the guests shall also be owned by the squires."


So the Norwegian Elites in the royal retinue were definitely expected to use bows or crossbows, but if it was also required of the militia in general, then it must have been a common tradition among the freemen. "Bring the bows you are already proficient with" instead of having a big expense of buying crossbows.

So some kind of longbow tradition (mostly likely based on hunting) must have been in place in Norway in the 13th century, where the Danish law from the same time period only had crossbows for styrismen (captains of the longboats).
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Steve Fabert





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PostPosted: Sat 16 Dec, 2017 10:21 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Effective use of longbows requires years of practice to develop the muscle set need to draw the bow. Although crossbows don't require the same years of training & practice they were expensive to manufacture & so were popularly used by mercenaries. They were best employed from behind defensive walls rather than out in the open the way longbows were most often used. Each weapon had a role to play in its proper context.

Everything you would ever want to know about the history of the ancient & medieval crossbow can be found here:
https://www.amazon.com/Book-Crossbow-Additional-Catapults-Military/dp/0486287203/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1513448405&sr=8-2&keywords=crossbow+trebuchet
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Baard H




Location: Norway
Joined: 13 Mar 2013

Posts: 90

PostPosted: Sun 24 Dec, 2017 6:29 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Something to remember with Norway is that no king ever banned the farmers from hunting like you see in other European countries, so hunting was a big thing in all levels of society.
At kveldi skal dag leyfa,
konu, er brennd er,
mæki, er reyndr er,
mey, er gefin er,
ís, er yfir kemr,
öl, er drukkit er.
-Hávamál, vísa 81
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Peter Spätling




Location: Germany
Joined: 07 Nov 2015

Posts: 117

PostPosted: Mon 25 Dec, 2017 5:46 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

England, compared to the HRE, had a very centralized ruling system. The king could just pass a law that peasants had to own a longbow shoot and train with it and serve in the military. Of course there could have been resistance, but still. While in the HRE this was a lot trickier. The counts and earls often did what they seemed was right. If the Emperor were to pass such a law, they simply wouldn't follow it. Imagine the King of Bohemia and Emperor would do so. Do you really believe that the Palatines at the other end of the Empire would follow his new law? I highly doubt it. There are a lot of examples were e.g. the electors did what they wanted without listening to anyone else. If it comes to investing a lot of money to give your peasants deadly weapons and let them train, which in return means a loss of time for you, as they can't work on the field, then you, as the ruler, probably would have objected.

A city that wasn't in war had no use for longbowmen. The feathers rot away. Bolts on the other hand are quite timeless. For defending your city a crossbow is better.
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Pedro Paulo Gaião




Location: Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
Joined: 14 Mar 2015

Posts: 257

PostPosted: Wed 27 Dec, 2017 7:44 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

The centralization argument is quite relevant in my opinion, though I believe the problem would be firstly the princes of the Empire and then their respective vassals. In George Gush's Renassaince Warfare he mentions that Emperor Maximilian I officially abolished the use of pavises in "Germany" during his reorganization of the "german army". He speculates that those shields entered in decay after this. But what and were exactly was "Germany", those shields were definitely used by Hussite mercenaries who fought against him in the 1500's wars in Lanshut (artistic evidence supports that).

Better centralization means you have a greater chance to actually put in effect military reforms, but that's not 100% possible: the english monarchs of 16th-century found problems in updating the traditional longbow n' bill infantry into a continental style of warfare (only in 1595 and without entire success). The Ottoman sultan couldn't enforce the use of pistols among his sipahis, who viewed the pistols as dishonors.

An effective example of the introduction of the crossbow would be Portugal. They were known since the 12th century but in 13th the King passed ordinances enforcing his adoption into a semi-regular formation of Besteiros do Conto. Those were initially intended to be artisans mainly, but merchants also composed several numbers of them. The King choose the artisans because they were more familiar with the crossbow (and some of them could make crossbows themselves); the King rejected the idea of allowing the peasants to be crossbowmen because that would mean they wouldn't work in the field while training with their weapons. So, to avoid problems with hungry, they were outside this class. But Portugal had put a greater emphasis in crossbow units than many kingdoms of that time: the military classes in the 13-14th centuries were, according to their wealth and social class: knights and esquires, cavaleiro-vilão (milites vilani or villain-horsemen), crossbowmen and foot. Latter, they were put as men-at-arms, crossbowmen and foot. Whereas in Castille you had, in that order: men-at-arms, ginetes, "heavy infantry", crossbowmen and other foot. In Portugal, literally, everyone who wasn't a man-at-arms but had at least some wealthy was a crossbowman. You eventually had some problems with that, since the wealthy urban population of Lisbon was complaining they didn't want to serve as mere crossbowmen, as they had conditions to serve as men-at-arms, a "proper condition" for them. But otherwise, the Portuguese were considered top-class of crossbowmen, like the Genoese Mercenaries. Duke Charles the Bold often employed some in their army and asked King Afonso V, by the time of Swiss Wars, to lend some of his crossbowmen to his service, though the King declined the offer.

“Burn old wood, read old books, drink old wines, have old friends.”
Alfonso X, King of Castile (1221-84)
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