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Crossbow

  • Place of origin:

    Poland (made)

  • Date:

    dated 1726 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Walnut with engraved antler inlay

  • Museum number:

    M.224-1919

  • Gallery location:

    Europe 1600-1815, Room 5, The Friends of the V&A Gallery, case CA11

This is a fine example from the early eighteenth century of the type of crossbow used by central European nobles while hunting. It has been lavishly decorated with inlaid antler and includes the arms of Jan Tarlo, Governor of Lublin, Poland.

A crossbow is a more rigid form of the traditional bow in which a wooden stock (or tiller) replaces the archer's arm and is fixed at right angles to it. The bowstring is pulled back under extreme tension (using a separate spanning device such as a windlass or cranequin) until it is held in a notch set in the stock and the projectile is fired using a trigger. Crossbows were used in war, hunting and target shooting, activities aristocratic children were expected to master by adulthood.

Crossbows generally fired small, wide arrows called bolts (or 'quarrels') with a range of heads designed for specific purposes. Bolts with warheads of heavy forged steel were designed to pierce armour and fell horses. Others used in hunting had fine chisel-shaped or forked heads for severing the hamstrings of large game, or blunt wooden heads for stunning small animals without damaging their skins and for knocking birds out of trees. Some crossbow bolts, common in Russia, were pierced so that they whistled through the air terrifying enemy horses and slowing their cavalry charges. Other bolts were in the form of socketed arrows whose stems were packed with incendiaries which when fired in unison rained fire down on besieged troops and castles.

Finely carved and decorated with intricate depictions of hunts and battles, crossbows express the finest craftsmanship. Their power, however, generating 400lbs of tension to fire a bolt that could kill a stag at 300 yards, made them killing machines.

Physical description

The walnut stock is inlaid with engraved staghorn and decorated with the Polish arms of Jan Tarlo, Governor of Lublin and Steward of the Royal Household

Place of Origin

Poland (made)

Date

dated 1726 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Walnut with engraved antler inlay

Marks and inscriptions

Arms of Jan Tarlo
Stock, the Polish Governor of Lublin and Steward of the Royal Household

Dimensions

Length: 71 cm, Width: 58.8 cm bow, Height: 10 cm

Object history note

This hunting crossbow dates from 1726 and was made in Poland. Its tiller (wooden stock) is decorated with inlaid anler and includes the arms of the Governor of Lublin, Jan Tarlo. This type of crossbow was used in hunting and target shooting. By the time it was made, crossbows had long disappeared from the battlefield, replaced by concentrated fire from guns.

Hunting was central to the standing of European princes. Their hunts were expensive ceremonies. Attendance at court hunts was an honour for visiting diplomats who were sometimes flattered with gifts of weapons. Entire landscapes were modified to facilitate hunts which were hosted from palatial lodges. Game was jealously guarded. The most prized quarry was stag, but a crossbow like this also targeted wild boar, game birds and wolves. Hunting was part of the popular imagination. Romantic depictions of hunts decorated cabinets, wall tiles, plates and tapestries.

Finely carved and decorated with intricate depictions of hunts and battles, crossbows express the finest craftsmanship. Their power, however, generating 400lbs of tension to fire a bolt that could kill a stag at 300 yards, made them killing machines.

Historical context note

A crossbow is a more rigid form of the traditional bow in which a wooden stock (or tiller) replaces the archer's arm and is fixed at right angles to it. The bowstring is pulled back under extreme tension (using a separate spanning device such as a windlass or cranequin) until it is held in a notch set in the stock and the projectile is fired using a trigger. Crossbows were used in war, hunting and target shooting, all activities children were trained in from a young age and expected to master by adulthood.

Crossbows generally fired small, wide arrows called bolts (or 'quarrels') with a range of heads designed for specific purposes. Bolts with warheads of heavy forged steel were designed to pierce armour and fell horses. Others used in hunting had fine chisel-shaped or forked heads for severing the hamstrings of large game, or blunt wooden heads for stunning small animals without damaging their skins and for knocking birds out of trees. Some crossbow bolts, common in Russia, were pierced so that they whistled through the air terrifying enemy horses and slowing their cavalry charges. Other bolts were in the form of socketed arrows whose stems were packed with incendiaries which when fired in unison rained fire down on besieged troops and castles. Some crossbows were designed to fire stones or pellets at small game.

Crossbows probably originated in China around 2000 years ago. They were not commonly used in Europe until the late 10th century, and until the common use of firearms in the 16th century, were only rivalled as projectile weapons by the longbow. Crossbows were much used in England for defending fixed positions such as castles, towns and ships. They were also used for hunting large game until well into the 17th century. The introduction of steel, replacing horn, for the bow in the 14th century increased the range of crossbows and encouraged their construction in a variety of sizes.

Crossbow makers in many European towns were affiliated as a separate group of craftsmen, 'The Crossbowmen'. By the 16th century the great craft centres such as Nuremberg and Augsburg in southern Germany were producing crossbows with elaborate carving and engraved staghorn. The combination of steel bow, often beatifully etched with mythological or biblical designs or with hunting and war scenes and the wooden stock, equally lavishly ornamented, brought together the skills of the armourer and the furniture maker for the same productions.

Crossbow have struck fear into people for centuries. The Byzantine Historian, Anna Comnena (1083-1153) condemned it as 'verily a devilish invention' and 'a truly diabolical machine': 'the wretched man who is struck by it, dies without feeling anything, not even feeling the blow, however strong it be'. (Dawes, Elizabeth A., Anna Comnena's Alexiad, London, 1928) In 1139, the 2nd Lateran Council decreed that the crossbow was 'a weapon hateful to God and unfit to be made use of among Christians.'

Tests carried out in the 1950s on crossbows of the European 15th century type showed that, depending on the size of the bow, the bolts had a maximum range of between 300 and 350 metres and were most effective up to 100 metres. Maximilian I claimed he could slay a stag at 200 yards and that a man could be killed at more than twice the distance.

Crossbows had several advantages over early firearms especially when hunting. They were almost silent, concealing a hunter's hide, did not require cleaning regularly and if the bolt missed its target a trained dog could duly fetch it for re-use. They were slower to become hunting weapons than war weapons as traditional close-contact hunting on foot or horseback, with hounds, sword and spear, required more skill. Many rigid rules governed the use of crossbows and there were particular stipulations as to their use for sporting purposes. Target shooting at popinjays (wooden parrot-like birds) on church steeples was popular in many German towns, accompanied by festivities and much rule-bound ceremony governing safety.

Crossbows were used in war until around the mid-16th century when they were gradually replaced by firearms. They remained popular however up to the 19th century for hunting and target shooting.

Descriptive line

Crossbow with the walnut stock inlaid with engraved staghorn decorated with the arms of Jan Tarlo, Governor of Lublin, Poland, dated 1726

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Wilson, G.M., European Crossbows: A Survey by Josef Alm (1947), translated by H. Bartlett Wells, Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, 1994, Reprint 2001, ISBN 0 948092 20 3
Blackmore, Howard L., Hunting Weapons, Barrie and Jenkins Ltd, London 1971, Chapter 5, pp. 172-215
Blair, Claude, European and America Arms c.1100-1850, B.T. Batsford Ltd., London, 1962, pp. 34-38
Laking, Sir Guy Francis, A Record of European Armour and Arms Through Seven Centuries, Vol. 3, G. Bell & Sons, London, 1920, pp. 130-144
Dawes, Elizabeth A., Anna Comnena's Alexiad , London, 1928
Patterson, Angus, Fashion and Armour in Renaissance Europe: Proud Lookes and Brave Attire, V&A Publishing, London, 2009, ISBN 9781851775811

Materials

Steel; Walnut; Antler

Techniques

Forging; Inlay (process)

Subjects depicted

Coats of arms

Categories

Arms & Armour; Metalwork; Tools & Equipment; Accessories

Collection

Metalwork Collection

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