Author: Mike Loades
Illustrator: Peter Dennis
Short code: WPN 61
Publication Date: 9 Mar 2018
Number of Pages: 80
Osprey’s Weapon’s series has some excellent titles, and allows a specific kind of author a valuable chance to investigate the nuts and bolts of military hardware. Mike Loades is a perfect writer for this series due to his practical experience, dedicated research, open mindedness and engaging style. As the author points out at the beginning, the crossbow has a strangely bad reputation, especially in England. Seen as the weapon of villains and foreigners, and scoffed at when compared to the longbow, this weapon is undeserving of the scorn heaped upon it. When your humble reviewing servant opined, one indulgent evening, in a tweet that noted the expertise of crossbow companies as opposed to those of the longbow, he was met by quite a bunctious barrage of indignant replies.
Nevertheless I maintain that professional crossbowmen, or arbalists as those of the fraternity are called, were on the whole better drilled and more professional than their archer counterparts, at least at first. The synchronicity required to orchestrate the continual massed discharge of a lateral firing weapon and it’s accompanying pavises in battle necessitated the expertise of crossbow armed troops, hence they were perfect mercenaries and ‘scientifically minded’ soldiers. They also represent an overlooked factor of warfare in the Middle Ages. All too often people imagine a frenzied melee, but the presence of a machine like a crossbow and the inherent necessity to protect their practitioners shows us the much neglected combined arms nature of 12th and 13th century medieval armies. This seems borne out by the Chinese, who left us the only actual written evidence of the complexity of crossbow tactics, and happily this is covered in Loades’ book, identifying how it could dominate the battlefield in a number of ways.
It was not a super-weapon, as many tend to argue as overcompensation for its bad press, but it checked the boxes of what makes a weapon useful and popular, simplicity, portability, ruggedness and maintainability. Loades delves into the science, construction and attributes of the weapon and explores its role and effectiveness, in China, the Middle East and Western Europe.
Not being an archer myself I couldn’t say wether all the talking points are covered in the examination of what makes a crossbow, but it seems thorough to me. I enjoyed the analysis of its combat use, especially how it could form only a part of a professional soldier’s arsenal of talents. Being able to shoot a crossbow and work with others looked good on ye olde CV.
It is commonly thought that both the church and the nobility shunned crossbows, and while it is partially true the papacy tried to prevent all bowmen from shooting fellow Christians, it’s hardly true that the crossbow was despised by medieval commanders. Much like the later musket, the bow, and especially the crossbow (because it’s construction allowed for a greater amount of technical intricacy and artistic embellishment) was a prized weapon for the nobility to master. It was of course rare to see them employ it on the battlefield, and it was most commonly to be seen as a sporting weapon in the upper echelons of society, however in saying that let us not forget that it was with crossbow in hand that Richard the Lionheart waded ashore to relieve Jaffa, and the bolts of his mercenaries that he beat off Saladin’s horse-archers in the ensuing battle. Loades does not omit the factor of crossbow culture here, when he examines the importance and influence of crossbow societies and guilds which were remarkably egalitarian in their membership requirements.
A wealth of practical and experimental knowledge is brought to this work, from shooting the bow mounted, to the tricky procedure of using it in a turret at targets below you, and by the end the reader should find themselves in the enviable position of those who are inspired to learn more. Peter Dennis does duty for the main illustrations here, delivering an engaging scene of the Battle at Jaffa and some typically exciting siege scenes. There are also as many excellent photographs of the weapons themselves as anyone could wish.
The demise of the crossbow, ironically seems to have been its expense. Though at first the ease with which the weapon could be mastered made it popular, the upkeep of professional companies would prove more damaging to a purse than the trickier and more labour intensive longbow, at least in Britain. Although both stringed weapons superseded by the gun, so long as Mike Loades has anything to say about it, neither will be considered inferior to them.