How do Crossbows Work? So Glad You Asked!

It’s a simple thing, but also a tedious, and gory sort of thing. Here’s four essential facts about this simple, but often misunderstood, weapon.

1 – They’re Easy

Firing a good ol’ bow and arrow is pretty tough. You have to master knocking the arrow on the inside (which doesn’t feel natural at first), learn how far to pull back the string, and then spend the rest of your life perfecting the art of making the arrow arc just right so it hits the target.

The crossbow, by comparison, is child’s play. The extra power sends the bolt in more of a straight line, so you just point the crossbow and pull the trigger. (Rifles wouldn’t achieve this accuracy until the 19th century.) You could mount crossbows on a castle wall and tell just about anyone to sit there to fire at an oncoming horde of invaders. Easy.

2 – But They’re Also Really Hard451px-armborst_42c_nordisk_familjebok

Stories rarely show the hard part of using a crossbow. All that power comes from a string that’s pulled back with more tension that most people can manage, so crossbows usually require a crank or some other tool to use between shots.

Also, you’ve got to place the bolt just right, and it can tumble off if you aren’t holding the crossbow correctly.

3 – They’re Powerful

Where an arrow would bounce off of a suit of armor, a crossbow bolt might punch right through it. And if didn’t do that it could still knock you from the saddle. When no armor is involved the bolt can even pass through a few people before stopping. Sometime you might read a book where a character shrugs off a crossbow attack, and now you know why that’s silly.

4 – They’re Slow

Because of the loading issues and the tools needed to pull back the string, it takes a while to reload and fire a crossbow. A trained archer could let out countless arrows in that time, which meant that the man with the crossbow really wanted to hit his target on the first try, or have some really good cover.

Note the crossbowmen losing in close quarters to the traditional bowmen. I’m guessing this painting was commissioned by a guy who sold bows and arrows.

A fascinating and more in-depth account of how crossbows were problematic in the field can be read here. I was going to quote from that post, but it’s too good not to read the whole thing.

BONUS – Yes, they can be automatic

Many cultures pioneered a self-reloading crossbow. For the most part, these turned out to be expensive and impractical, but a raiding party certainly thought twice about approaching a keep if they knew a mounted crossbow inside could spit a dozen bolts at them.

Oddly enough, even though these were very real, seeing a self-loading crossbow in a historical or fantasy novel would probably feel far-fetched.


The Historical Mystery of a Strange Spanish Building: Santa María la Blanca

I traveled to Toledo with the job of lecturing my colleagues on Santa María la Blanca, surely one of the oddest buildings in Spain.

Plaques and encyclopedias tell you Santa María la Blanca is a synagogue owned by the Catholic church. Nothing too weird about that, but it begs a few questions. “Why does the Catholic church own synagogue?” comes to mind.fde13-espana252520621

But trying to learn about the history of this building becomes immediately frustrating.

Older history books tell different stories about the building’s origins, but as time went on those descriptions stopped being printed. I kept digging and discovered these stories were either 1) being conflated with the histories of another nearby synagogue, or 2) that they relied heavily on unreliable stories or documents we have lost. To sum up my research: there doesn’t appear to be a single document that explains where the building came from.

But I was in for a real shock when I arrived and saw it in person. Somehow, none of the books mentioned that the Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca is shaped like a mosque, complete with the niche used for Muslim prayers. (Some of us, scratching our heads, wondered if we had wandered into the wrong building and went back out to double-check the sign.) Despite the design, there’s no record of the place being used as a mosque.

All relevant scholarship claims that Muslims built Santa María la Blanca, even though we can’t identify the patron. Did these Muslim builders, being unfamiliar with synagogues, design Santa María la Blanca to be similar to their own places of worship? That’s one theory, but no one knows.

Disappointingly, none of the books I read explored the idea of medieval Jews worshiping in a mosque-shaped building, but it paints a fascinating picture.

It’s been used by nuns for centuries, and they use it for training younger nuns and selling hand-made crafts.


Another oddity: no one’s fighting over the building’s origins. Every other old building in Toledo comes with a mountain of scholarship explaining why it belongs to one group or another, and there’s usually an ongoing academic battle over which culture should claim it. But Santa María la Blanca somehow avoids this mess, even though it contains a piece of every part of a medieval Iberia. No one could explain to my why this building alone escapes that academic contest.

I think Iberian scholarship has long accepted Santa María la Blanca as an outlier; as an newcomer to the subject, I found myself asking questions that researchers had long give up on answering.

I had to content myself with appreciating the miracle of a Christian building that was once a synagogue built by Muslims. There was a time when these three great faiths lived together in medieval Spain, maintaining an impressive, if sometimes troublesome, alliance. Santa María la Blanca reminded me that peace is not a hopeless pursuit if I’ll just remember to love my neighbor.

Adventures in Academia: Clarence Glover, and His Big Bag of Cotton

Part of the reason that I enjoy working at a university is the interesting people I meet, and the ways they challenge me.  While helping the Southwestern History department with their yearly conference, I met Clarence Glover, CEO of Sankofa Education Services, who brought plantation life to me.

(Don’t mind the pictures.  I know they stink, but it’s just a camera phone in a hallway with strange lighting, and I’m not a photographer.)

He showed up with that large bag you see in the picture.  It’s so long it can’t fit in the picture and it weighs 200 pounds when filled with cotton.  I asked if I could take a picture of it and he did me one better – he told me to pose with it while he took my picture.  (Then he told me to take it off because I had put it on wrong.  Yep.  Did I mention that I’m a certified AVIT consultant?)

Then he pulled some cotton out of his pocket.  Not cotton balls like you find in the store, but cotton that he had picked off of cotton plants.  (He picks cotton and keeps it with him.)  He then showed us how he could quickly spin the blob of cotton into a strong strand.  It was hypnotic to watch his hands dextrously manipulating the cotton.  He told us that he did this by moving his hands to a certain rhythm – a rhythm that was a part of the way his people worked and influenced the way they sang.

He spun that into a stout bracelet (like the one he always wears) and gave it to Dr. Countryman (whose elbow is visible on the right), one of our own well-respected professors.  Most technicians don’t get to hang out with luminaries on the job, so I’m pretty lucky.


Then I picked up the old chains he had with him.  They were convicting.  It’s one thing to give a man a difficult job and tell him to earn his living that way, but it’s another thing to make him wear these heavy, demeaning chains.  How could people do this to each other?  I shook my head and wondered what kind of monster would chain up is fellow man while he worked.

But, then, something even more horrid occurred to me: I was giving myself way too much credit.  In the old days, most people went along with slavery.  Respectable men and women from the past that we study and admire were not opposed to tying people up and forcing them to work.  Would I have protested slavery?  Or would I have gone along with it?  Unfortunately, almost no one protested slavery for most of man’s history, so I’m sure I would have been no different.  That pains me.

Is there anything that I should be protesting that I’m not?  Am I overlooking anything like slavery in my life?  I hope not.  But how would I know?

How Studying Philosophy Helped Me Learn Computer Programming

A just spent an entire week being trained in the computer language I use at work.  Since I’m mostly a hands-on engineer rather than a code-jockey, I am accustomed to being “the slow one” in these classes, but not this time – this time the slowest ones in class were the programmers.  And they needed a shot of philosophy.

The program I use is different than other programs and has some very strange idiosyncrasies to it.  I have a hard time with these oddities, just like everyone else in the room, but I file it under “weird stuff” in my head and move on.  But not the programmers.  No, they complained.  “It’s not like this when I work in Java,” they whine.  “I want to do it this way instead of the right way, why can’t I?”  “Why was it designed to want brackets instead of quotes here?  It’s not like that in C++!”

All week I heard them crying out for justice and proclaiming the travesty of this language.  Meanwhile, I was working away and getting the class assignments finished.  Why was I able to press on?  Because I remembered what Marcus Aurelius said:

A cucumber is bitter. Throw it away. There are briars in the road. Turn aside from them. This is enough. Do not add, “And why were such things made in the world?” (Meditations VIII. 50, trans. George Long)

but, for the computer programmers, I need to amend it, just a little:

A pair of brackets is open.  Close them.  The baud rate is not allowed.  Change it.  This is sufficient.  Do not add, “And why were nominal C+ standards not deployed?”

If I’m ever a certified expert in this software, which may happen by the end of the year, I’ll be sure to thank the stoics.  Just don’t tell Boethius.  (See, studying the humanities can help you in the real world!)

Cool Google Map – Where Each Apostle Died

My colleague and friend, Brian Franklin, showed me this cool map that gives the location of where each apostle died.  As you know, all but one of them died violently, while the Apostle John had the misfortune of surviving his torture and living in exile.  Was he jealous of his brothers who had already passed away?  I wonder about that, sometimes.  Anyway, here’s the map:

View Where the 12 Apostles Died in a larger map

For more information, this link has a good discussion of these men and their deaths.   It’s hard to tell if these traditions are true, because we have very few Christian documents from that time.  (Stupid Roman persecution.)