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One of the more famous and certainly curious decisions at the Second Council of the Lateran in 1139 was a ban on using missile troops against Christians. Specifically, Canon 29 states that:

We prohibit under anathema that murderous art of crossbowmen and archers, which is hateful to God, to be employed against Christians and Catholics from now on.

Papal Encyclicals Online

This is frequently misrepresented as a crossbow only ban, usually accompanied by far fetched claims such as likening the crossbow to "weapons of a mass destruction" (more likely, it was an attempt by the Church to take the moral high road). In any case, it seems similar bans were issued by Pope Urban II in 1097 and repeated again towards the end of the century by Pope Innocent III, but I cannot locate definitive sources or texts for either.

Obviously, the bans didn't last. Archers and crossbowmen continued to feature in European battles everywhere. For example, the famed Genoese crossbowmen dueled English Longbowmen at the Battle of Crécy. I even found references claiming Pope Gregory IX employed "Provençal mounted crossbowmen" against the Lombard League in 1239 (but that seems a bit dubious since AFAIK they were allied against the Holy Roman Emperor that year).

What I am curious about, is whether the ban had any actual effect on European warfare (or diplomacy!) at all. Did any feudal lords ever take the ban seriously, or had it been unenforced right from the start? Was there any outrage when the ban was violated, or was it always ignored by the secular world?

Did any contemporaries actually take note of the ruling?

  • The big loophole that existed from day one was that these weapons were not 'to be employed against Christians and Catholics'. That left plenty of non-Christian targets. – justCal Jan 17 '18 at 14:10
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    @justCal Not for most Europeans at the time unless they go on crusades. Regardless, there was frequent fighting among Christians at the time, hence the question. – Semaphore Jan 17 '18 at 14:14
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    Interesting they said 'and Christians'. Who were they acknowledging as non Catholic Christians? – Ne Mo Jan 17 '18 at 15:01
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    @NeMo Presumably the Orthodox. – Semaphore Jan 17 '18 at 15:04
  • Interesting note in research, but there is a good chance the banning of these weapons was due to the heavy use of these weapons vs crusader forces, particularly Saracens, that brought about the outlawing. Crusader forces tended to be superior in hand to hand combat, but fell to the ranged superiority of their enemies. The 'why the ban was imposed' is an interesting question itself. It would appear the later Teutonic Crusaders made heavy use of crossbows themselves. Unfortunately I can't add an answer that isn't already covered by the existing answers. – Twelfth Jan 17 '18 at 19:48
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Concerning the question

-Did any contemporaries actually take note of the ruling?

An article cited by the OP brings up a couple of possible groups which may have complied with this, The Holy Roman Empire under Conrad III and the region referred to as Flanders. So we can look at the extent of any ranged weapon bans in those locations.


  • Conrad III

This source, International Encyclopedia of Military History edited by James C. Bradford, while discussing crossbows, confirms the information that Conrad III, (Holy Roman Emperor from 1138-1152),

condemned their use in his domains.

(The same source mentions that the Magna Carta in 1215 banned the use of crossbows specifically.)

Conrad III is also mentioned in an article which appeared in The Nation, (in 1961), entitled 'UNILATERAL DISARMAMENT: 1139 A.D. - - by Jack Rothman',

"So, moved by humane considerations, the Lateran Council, which advised the Pope on secular affairs, in 1139 declared the crossbow 'a weapon hateful to God.' The ban was observed unilaterally by Conrad III of Germany, who forbade its use in his armies for thirteen years, meanwhile trying to persuade other powers to do likewise. He failed, and by 1152 Conrad's soldiers were again using the crossbow."

So it appears that Conrad made some attempt at abiding by the Popes wishes (at least concerning the use of crossbows),but was only was able to uphold this ban for 13 years, and then resumed the use of crossbows as well. No information here concerning the inclusion or not of long bows in this , and this article,as most that I found, seems to also interpret the papal ruling as mainly directed at crossbows.


  • Flanders

Concerning Flanders, which was another area mentioned as banning ranged weapons, this ban is brought up in the book Archery and Crossbow Guilds in Medieval Flanders, 1300-1500 By Laura Crombie. In this text,it states:

In England all men were required, from 1363, to practice archery at the local butts each week. In contrast, Flemish towns passed laws against anyone using bows or crossbows, and later guns, within their walls...

It later mentions that shooting outside the city walls was allowed, so it seems this was not a ban on the use of these weapons in war such as canon 29 seems to indicate, but just local ordinances to make it safer in the city limits. (The presence of archery and crossbow related guilds there would also seem to agree that military use was still allowed). So the above Flanders reference, though it did actually specifically include bows, seems to have little relation to the ban from the Second Council of the Lateran.


So some sources indicate that the Holy Roman Empire under Conrad III, (who took power in 1138) did try to follow the ruling (which was in in April 1139), it was for only a limited time at best, while others (apparently everyone else) 'skirted the rules'. Most information I find seems to be treating this as a crossbow ban, regardless of our interpretation of the actual text of the Canon. (I have seen several sources listing it as slingers and archers). I have not found any mention of an actual ban of the use of bows (beside the later Flemish cities reference).

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    From an article at MilitaryHistoryNow This exact article was actually cited in the question as an example of nonsense. There's no such thing as a Kingdom of Flanders. Do you have a more credible source? If Conrad III banned the crossbow because of the Lateran ruling, what about bows, since canon 29 banned archers too? – Semaphore Jan 17 '18 at 14:34
  • Sorry, you had a lot of sources, which I didn't go through (figured you were being thorough). It does list actual political entities or regions which acknowledged the ban (the big one being the Holy Roman Emporer), so 'some did' seemed a valid conclusion. I'll delete the answer if you think its inadequate however. – justCal Jan 17 '18 at 14:46
  • There's no need to delete it, I'm just rather skeptical of a source calling crossbows "weapon of mass destruction", and making claims about fictitious polities - It would be better if you don't use that source. This answer would be improved if you could locate some better sources, and elaborate on Conrad III's decision (again, the Lateran Council banned crossbows and archers, so anything that only bans crossbows is prima facie not observing the Lateran ruling) or how other European powers "skirted the rules". – Semaphore Jan 17 '18 at 14:52
  • Looking for more specifics... – justCal Jan 17 '18 at 15:09
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    I appreciate the efforts you've gone into updating the answer, but I think it would be best if you simply take out all the MilitaryHistoryNow references. To be blunt, I cannot accept answers that quote from, or rely on, such a clearly faulty source. I would also suggest that sources that treat canon 29 as a crossbow only ban are less than respectable, but this is not as egregious as talking about a "Kingdom of Flanders". – Semaphore Jan 17 '18 at 21:13
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In the book War and Chivalry: The Conduct and Perception of War in England and Normandy, the author claims that the ban was simply ignored everywhere.

Clerics were indeed correct in recognizing the lethal qualities of the crossbow, which claimed many knightly an even royal victims in the eleventh and welgth centuries. Yet the crossbow was far from an innovation at the time of its ban by the Second Lateran Council, and it is important to note that the canon also forbids the user of ordinary bows. Churchmen were not outlawing the crossbow as a deadly novelty, but, as an extension of the Peace and Truce, they were seeking to prohibit all missile weapons which could inflict such casualties among Christian warriors. It was, however, this very effectivneess that caused commanders utterly to ignore this ban. Archers and crossbowmen continued to form an integral element of Anglo-Norman and Angevin armies, playing a key role in both battle and siege warfare.

The author also lists Richard of England and Philip Augustus of France as examples of commanders who used large numbers of crossbows. On Richard however, I did also find an excerpt on Google books which says:

In the reign of Stephen, in 1139, the second council of Lateran prohibited their use; and some historians assert, that they were not again used in this country till the reign of Richard I., whose death, occasioned by one at Chaluz, was considered as a judgment on his impiety.

So perhaps the ban on crossbows was "obeyed", but only until people went to war against other Christians and found crossbows useful. Meanwhile archers were so important and ingrained no one ever gave them up despite what the church said.

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