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.
[Douglas W Allen and Peter T Leeson/The Journal of Law and Economics]
(via Super Punch)
(Image: Longbow shoot, Hans Splinter, CC-BY-ND)