“Where did the crossbow come from?” “Did they really have crossbows in the Middle Ages?” “How do crossbows compare to longbows?” These and similar questions are usually asked by young boys on the tour. Whether at the Ozark Medieval Fortress or in their homes, boys seem to have a natural interest in weapons.
The first crossbows were probably used in ancient China, but those were unknown in the West. For us, the crossbow comes from the ancient Greeks. They made the hand-held weapon that we think of as a crossbow as well as a large-wheeled torsion-powered “ballista”. Many people mistake the ballista for a catapult. The ballista shoots an arrow six feet long while the catapult throws a rock. The Romans used the ballista more than the handheld crossbow, which fell into disuse in the Empire. When it reappeared during the Middle Ages, the crossbow became a major weapon. The first confirmed use in Europe was by the Franks of Northern France. The Normans, excellent fighters of Viking and Frank descent, also made good use of crossbowmen both in the field and in defense of their famous Motte and Bailey fortresses. The Normans, remember, successfully attacked and conquered England.
The crossbow is slower to load than a regular bow, but did not require the skill of an archer to shoot. In the field a crossbow can be used as a club or to deflect a sword, unlike a bow. The crossbow was ideal for castle defense because it can be loaded while protected behind a wall and is better suited for shooting downward over the wall. The shorter “arrows” are easier to make and keep straight. These “arrows” are called “quarrels”, from the old French word for four: “carre”, because they had a four-sided tip.
The crossbow I am holding was brought by my daughter from Carcasonne Castle, located in the fortified Medieval town of Carcasonne, France. The castle was built in the 12th Century. The French have kept it in exceptional condition even today. When Rebecca brought it home from France some twenty years ago, she carried it unwrapped onto the plane! Times have changed, the crossbow hasn’t.