The Transitional Thirteenth Century

The thirteenth century witnessed a gradual rise in the importance of light infantry. As the crusaders returned from the Levant to western European battlefields, they brought with them a new appreciation for the effectiveness of light infantry, an appreciation that would raise the position of archers and crossbowmen on the battlefield, but in varying degrees. In England, Anglo-Norman border wars against the Welsh and Scots produced a profound respect for the range and power of the longbow, while on the continent, well grounded in chivalry and feudalism, Italian crossbowmen mercenaries would be utilized as a subordinate arm to French and German noble heavy cavalry.

Light infantry archers and crossbowmen were not uncommon in western European warfare before the thirteenth century. Light infantry was easily conscripted because the bow was a peasant weapon used for hunting (and poaching), and the crossbow was a point-and-shoot mechanical device that took a short time to master, an ideal characteristic for use by city dwellers. But the high Middle Ages was the plateau of chivalry, a time when the mounted nobleman lancer ruled the courts and battlefields of western Europe. In this social climate, weapons systems of the common man, no matter how effective, were looked down upon in a contempt born of fear. So powerful was this fear that the medieval period’s most powerful institution, the Catholic Church, passed legislation at the Second Ecumenical Lateran Council in 1139 anathematizing all who used the crossbow and bow in wars between Christians (later, the killing of infidels with missile weapons was acceptable). In many ways the Catholic Church was bowing to the demands of a noble class who feared death by arrows and bolts from a distant, anonymous killer.

The basic construction of the crossbow was a small bow attached to a stock that provided a groove for the bolt. The bowstring was held in place when cocked by a simple trigger mechanism. Early crossbows used a wooden bow, and the string could either be drawn by hand or with the aid of a simple claw or goat’s foot. But by the thirteenth century the crossbow had evolved with the addition of a composite bow made of horn, sinew and glue. The composite crossbow required a stronger cocking mechanism, a problem solved with the invention of the windlass. The windlass used pulleys attached at the butt end of the stock to a winding mechanism which, when hooked onto the bowstring and wound, would draw the string to the trigger. By the fifteenth century the bow of the crossbow was made entirely of metal, increasing its power, range and ballistic impact. With a maximum range of almost 500 yards and the ability to pierce the best plate armour, the metal crossbow became the most dangerous non-gunpowder missile weapon in use by medieval light infantry.

Although medieval commanders recognized the importance of combined arms in winning on the battlefield, commanders differed in how they respected and employed light infantry. On the continent, crossbowmen were often favoured over archers because of the small amount of skill required to operate their weapon. The French crown regularly employed Italian mercenaries renowned for their skill with the crossbow. In England, King Edward I (r. 1272–1307) first conquered the Welsh, then assimilated their native weapon, the longbow, into his army, creating a very dangerous weapon system for use against the Scots and later, by his successors, against the French.

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