Peter Finer

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A Crossbowman's Quiver, Italian or German, c. 1540-1550

Item Ref: 2087 Price on application

2087 1

Italy or Germany. Wood, leather, boarskin, iron.


Viscount Cowdray Collection

The crossbow, in its hand-held form, was little used in Europe before the time of the Crusades. The Byzantine Princess Anna Commena, writing in the years 1118–48, went so far as to describe it as ‘a weapon of the barbarians . . . A truly diabolical machine’: a view clearly shared by Pope Innocent II (1130–43) who in 1139 banned its use throughout Europe, declaring it ‘a weapon hateful to God and unfit to be made use of among Christians’. His prohibition, however, like that issued by Pope Innocent III (1198–1216) some three score years later, had little effect. As a result of improvements made over the succeeding years to the composition of the bow itself and to the design of the devices used to span or tension it, the crossbow became for a while the most powerful projectile weapon of the medieval battlefield. Although forced around 1500 to relinquish its military superiority to the increasingly effective handgun, it nevertheless remained popular as a sporting weapon for several centuries thereafter. While the traditions of the chase may to an extent have influenced its continuing use in that context, there is no denying that the ability of the crossbow to operate silently, and thus not scare away other game in the vicinity, as the use of firearms tended to do, was an advantage that the sportsman very soon learnt to appreciate.

It was indeed in its later years as a sporting weapon that the crossbow not only underwent its greatest technical refinement but also received in many cases its most elaborate and sophisticated ornament. Hunting was, of course, an activity of the social elite: one in which its participants would have endeavoured to convey to one another through the quality of their personal weapons and accessories something of their wealth, taste and position. Our extremely rare quiver, with its fashionable Renaissance ornament, would undoubtedly have impressed in such a context. The boldly roped turns at its upper and lower ends are of a kind commonly found on German and other northern European armours of the period 1520–50. The embossed classical mask that forms the central feature of it decoration, however, argues for a date towards the latter end of that period. While high relief classical ornament in metal was already being produced in Italy as early as the 1530s, it was only in the 1540s that it began to acquire a more widespread popularity. From then on, classical masks tended to become an almost obligatory element in the designs of the widely circulated pattern books of the Italian, French and Flemish Mannerist artists of the period. Although our quiver, with its tooled leather covering and embossed mounts, stands apart from most examples of its kind surviving today, contemporary illustrations suggest that others of a similarly impressive nature would also at one time have existed. A carved wooden crossbowman of about 1480 in the Bayerisches National Museum, Munich (no. 75/355), forming part of a group of figures from the Upper Rhine, representing the martyrdom of St Sebastian, carries a quiver that closely resembles ours in design, even to the extent of having a mount at its upper end that projects downwards as a tapering medial tongue embossed at its upper end with a grotesque mask. In addition two crossbowmen depicted in a manuscript illumination of Les Chroniques d’Angleterre, prepared for King Edward IV (1460/1–70 and 1471–83) about the same date (British Library, Royal ms 14 e iv, fo. 210), carry quivers that are once again of a form similar to ours but decorated in relief, not with masks, but with the fire steels of the Burgundian Order of the Golden Fleece.

Their decoration appears, like that of our example, to have been applied. From the evidence of the images just cited, the quiver seems generally to have been suspended from a belt at the right hip of its wearer. In those cases where the left hip was occupied by a sword, this position would of course have been the natural one for any other accessory. As can be seen in our example, the quiver of the crossbowman, in contrast to that of the long-bowman, flared more or less markedly to its lower end. This was to allow for the fact that the crossbowman’s bolts, unlike the arrows of the archer, were carried with the points uppermost and therefore required greater space at the lower end of the quiver to safely accommodate their fragile flights. These might variously have been made of wood, leather, parchment, bone or even brass. The tips of bolts used in hunting could likewise have varied in their design. In addition to the classic pyramidal or leaf-shaped heads commonly employed by the soldier, the sportsman had available to him broad heads, forked heads, chisel heads and dome-ended or flat-ended heads, each designed to deal with a different kind of game. 

Of biconvex section with convex upper and lower edges, it has slightly concave lateral edges that diverge towards their lower ends. It is formed of wood, covered with black leather tooled between lateral multilinear borders with pairs of lines forming a lozengy pattern enclosing in each of its interspaces a rosette, and overlain at its front and rear with a cusped central panel of boarskin. 

The upper end and lower ends of the front are overlain with panels of blued iron attached by rivets, respectively having plain and radially fluted heads. Each panel is formed at its main edge with a boldly roped inward turn, the shorter lower one accompanied at its inner edge by a series of small cusps and the longer upper one extending downwards to meet it in the form of a tapering medial tongue, pierced along its lateral edges with trios of holes and retaining beneath those edges an elaborately scalloped fringe of thin black leather. The tongue is surmounted at its upper end by an applied plaque embossed in high relief with a crowned classical female mask. The sides of the quiver are tooled with geometrical patterns of rosettes and quatrefoils, and extend upwards in the form of suspension loops.

Size: Height (including flaps) 40 cm / 15¾ in Width 18 cm / 7⅜ in