Bows of one type or another played an important role in battle throughout the Middle Ages. They were used as direct fire weapons against individual targets on battlefields and during sieges. In some cases they were used as area fire weapons.
Missile fire allowed men to cause casualties at range. Archers were used as light troops to cause casualties and weaken enemy morale due to losses before mêlée combat. If the enemy force could be weakened or shaken, the chances of winning the mêlée were enhanced.
Bows used during the Middle Ages were of various types, including the short bow, the composite bow, and the longbow. The short bow was 3 to 4 feet long and rather easy to make and use. It was employed widely and the most common bow encountered. It had medium range, power, and accuracy and required substantial experience and training for effective use.
The composite bow was of Asiatic origin. It was made from a composite of wood or bone strips bonded together. The lamination created a more powerful bow, but one that required more strength and training than the common bow. This relatively short bow was the preferred weapon of horse archers, especially the Mongols and other horse peoples from Asia. A variant of the composite bow was curved forward at the tips during manufacture (by steaming and bending the laminate). This recurved bow generated more power and required a high degree of strength and skill.
The longbow originated in Wales and spread to England. It was a 6-foot bow made from a single piece of wood, usually from the yew tree. The longbow shot a 3-foot arrow (cloth yard). These were fitted with broad tips for use against infantry (for piercing leather armor and causing lacerations) and narrow tips for use against armored men (to pierce mail or plate armor). Shooting the longbow required extensive training and practice; men experienced with the weapon could get off six well-aimed shots in a minute. Longbows had a long range and were quite powerful. Large contingents of experienced longbowmen were a devastating force on many battlefields of the Middle Ages. They could fire individually aimed shots or rain down a barrage of arrows into an area.
The English encouraged the use of the longbow by sponsoring archery tournaments throughout the land. All other sports were banned on Sundays. This created a large pool of experienced bowmen from which they could recruit. Each English shire was required by law to provide a number of bowmen each year. There was usually no shortage of applicants because the pay of soldiers was so good relative to other work.
The crossbow was known in ancient China but seems to have been reinvented in Europe around 900. It had good range and was more powerful than most bows, but it took much more time to load. An average crossbowman fired 2 shots per minute.
The bow of the crossbow was held horizontally and fired with a trigger that released the taut bowstring. To load, the front of the weapon was pointed to the ground and held in place by foot. The bowstring was pulled up and back with both hands or with the help of cranks. The crossbow fired a quarrel, or bolt, which was much shorter than a typical arrow. The quarrel did have flights (feathers) for stabilization in flight and had a sharpened metal point.
Crossbowmen often carried a pavise shield into battle to provide cover while they loaded. This was a tall shield with wooden braces attached. A force of crossbowmen set up a wall of such shields and bent down behind the wall to load. When they shot, only the crossbows and their helmeted heads appeared over the wall of shields. If forced to fight in the open against a comparable force of longbowmen, they were usually forced to withdraw.
The crossbow was a deadly weapon and was very popular for the simple reason that it took little training to operate. Relatively raw soldiers could become proficient with a crossbow very quickly, and a well-aimed shot could kill a knight in armor who had spent a lifetime in combat training. The crossbow was considered unfair in some circles (those of the knights, primarily) because it took so little skill. Richard I of England, the Lionheart, was wounded twice by crossbow bolts. The second proved fatal. The idea of such great men being killed easily by common soldiers or worse was appalling to the nobility. In the twelfth century a pope tried to get the crossbow banned for being inhumane.