Crossbow of Matthias Corvinus

For our correlating post to the Holy Roman Empire, I decided to discuss art left from the King considered to bring the Renaissance from Italy, and that would be Matthias, King of Hungary and Bohemia. This crossbow belonged to him and was one of the earliest surviving that included heraldry in the decoration. 

Crossbows are one of the world’s oldest weapons, and pinning down its origins is complicated, but it boils down to Ancient China and Ancient Greece. I would put money on the Chinese beating the Greeks to this, as we have references dating to the 3rd century of primitive crossbows in the region, but they became popular during the Han dynasty. They emerged in Europe in Greece around the late 5th century, being called gastraphetes, though there are references to them being used in Ancient Rome, being used by acrubalistarii (otherwise called artillerymen).

Slowly, they began to spread through Europe, with the first mentions coming from Scotland with the purpose of hunting. By the Fifth Crusade, they were a crucial part of defense. Soon they were the highest paid members of any army with status similar to knights. They battled for supremacy against the longbow, but by the end of the Hundred Years War, the crossbow was the dominant long distance weapon. Even after the handgun became more popular, Spaniards like Herman Cortes preferred the crossbow. 

King Matthias’s crossbow was made of wood with bone plating. The top of the bow adorns his personal coat of arms, and the coat of arms dedicated to his kingdom. Depicated to the right, Saint György stabbing a dragon, while Adam and Eve appear on both sides: once naked and once fully clothed. You can surprisingly find this on display at the Metropolitan Museum, where it has been for 100 years.

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