Solving the "Longbow Puzzle": why did France and Scotland keep their inferior crossbows?

The longbow was vastly, demonstrably superior to the crossbow, but only England adopted it as a common military weapon; the Scots and French stuck with the inferior crossbow for nearly a century -- why?

This riddle -- "the longbow puzzle" -- has dogged historians for decades, and now two economists, Douglas Allen from Simon Fraser and Peter Leeson from George Mason, have published a paper in The Journal of Law and Economics that proposes a solution.

The authors hypothesize that the French and Scottish monarchy were too afraid of being overthrown to allow their citizenry to possess and train with longbows, while the relative social stability in England gave the state the confidence to adopt the weapon, giving it an advantage in its wars with other, less-equipped powers.

For over a century the longbow reigned as undisputed king of medieval European missile weapons. Yet only England used the longbow as a mainstay in its military arsenal; France and Scotland clung to the technologically inferior crossbow. This longbow puzzle has perplexed historians for decades. We resolve it by developing a theory of institutionally constrained technology adoption. Unlike the crossbow, the longbow was cheap and easy to make and required rulers who adopted the weapon to train large numbers of citizens in its use. These features enabled usurping nobles whose rulers adopted the longbow to potentially organize effective rebellions against them. Rulers choosing between missile technologies thus confronted a trade-off with respect to internal and external security. England alone in late medieval Europe was sufficiently politically stable to allow its rulers the first-best technology option. In France and Scotland political instability prevailed, constraining rulers in these nations to the crossbow.

Institutionally Constrained Technology Adoption: Resolving the Longbow Puzzle [Douglas W Allen and Peter T Leeson/The Journal of Law and Economics]

(via Super Punch)

(Image: Longbow shoot, Hans Splinter, CC-BY-ND)

Notable Replies

  1. So they're saying the longbow was a double-edged sword?

  2. That's interesting.

    I'd always read that it had a lot to do with how little training is required to use a crossbow rather than a longbow. You could just arm peasant conscripts with crossbows but longbow archer was more often people with land, like yeomen, who were compensated more than a regular serf would be.

  3. While probably this shouldn't be brought up here, the Nazis did the exact opposite. When they had some parliamentary power, they loosened strict Weimar gun control laws to arm their militias, and those loosened gun laws were a critical part of their ascent to power. They wanted the rabble armed desperately since it was mostly their militias who were blocked, and since the chaos from street battles made their "law and order" stance electorally palatable. Sure, they didn't loosen gun control laws for the Jews, but they did everything they possibly could to restrict every conceivable right for Jews - they wanted them to be miserable, but weren't specifically afraid of armed resistance - armed resistance would have made it all the easier for their plans.

  4. So two economists set out to explain political and military policy. I love it when they create mathematical formulae to "prove" their case. Their arguments have more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese pinned to an archery target.

    Technology seesawed back and forth a bit between bows and crossbows, but to call one inferior raises the question "For what?" The rate of fire of the bow gives an advantage in open battle, but the crossbow has many advantages in a siege situation. Since French tactics, as the authors point out, were to avoid pitched battles and hole up in fortresses, the choice of crossbows makes sense. The ease of training crossbowmen has been pointed out above by logruszed

    Is a ruler facing the threat of war really going to deprive his army of the best technology? That only works if, as in Japan, all parties agree in order to preserve the status quo. The Catholic Church failed to achieve this when it tried to ban the use of the crossbow on the grounds that it was too deadly and disruptive to the natural order.

    Saying England was more stable ignores little details like the Wars of the Roses.

    Was this study funded by the NRA?

  5. Longbowie?

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