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Image of Gallery in South Kensington
On display at V&A South Kensington
Medieval & Renaissance, Room 62, The Foyle Foundation Gallery

Hunting Crossbow

ca. 1590 (made)
Artist/Maker
Place Of Origin

This is a fine example from the second half of the 16th century of the type of crossbow used by central European nobles while hunting. It has been lavishly decorated with staghorn and engraved with flowers and leaves. The steel bow was also etched with acid to create low relief patterns of masks and foliage.

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 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.

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 armourer and the furniture maker for the same productions.

Crossbows had several advantages over early firearms especially when hunting. They were almost silent, did not require cleaning regularly and if the bolt missed its target a trained dog could duly fetch it for re-use.


object details
Categories
Object Type
Materials and Techniques
Etched steel, wood with engraved staghorn, rope
Brief Description
Etched steel hunting crossbow with a carved wooden stock set with panels of engraved staghorn; Germany, ca. 1600
Physical Description
Steel bow etched with masks, foliage, men and beasts with a carved wooden tiller decorated with imbricated leafwork and set with panels of staghorn engraved with arabesques and running leaf ornament, the engraving infilled, the trigger and trunnions for fixing the cranequin are of steel. The rope cords and trigger nut may be original.
Dimensions
  • Length: 68.8cm
  • Width: 64.1cm
  • Depth: 12.5cm
  • Weight: 2.52kg
Measured for the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries
Gallery Label
Arms and Armour Galleries: HUNTING CROSSBOW Etched bow, carved wooden stock, set with panels of engraved staghorn. GERMAN, about 1600 Ramsbottom Bequest M.2744-1931(to 2002)
Credit line
Bequeathed by Mr G. H. Ramsbottom, through Art Fund
Object history
The crossbow was given to the Museum as part of the Ramsbottom Bequest of 1931. Its history prior to Ramsbottom's ownership is unknown.



Historical significance: This is a superb example of the crossbowmaker's art. The craftsmanship and the quality of the engraved ornament on the staghorn turn this killing weapon into a work of art.
Historical context
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 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, 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.
Subjects depicted
Summary
This is a fine example from the second half of the 16th century of the type of crossbow used by central European nobles while hunting. It has been lavishly decorated with staghorn and engraved with flowers and leaves. The steel bow was also etched with acid to create low relief patterns of masks and foliage.



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 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.



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 armourer and the furniture maker for the same productions.



Crossbows had several advantages over early firearms especially when hunting. They were almost silent, did not require cleaning regularly and if the bolt missed its target a trained dog could duly fetch it for re-use.
Bibliographic References
  • 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, p. 101, ill.
Collection
Accession Number
M.2744-1931

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record createdApril 1, 2004
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