Crossbow, terror and beauty: an exhibition in Berlin and its catalogue (20.09.19-08.03.20)

Before most of the early art collections, the first ‘civic’ or territorial museums were the arsenals, specialised storage buildings designed to keep, maintain and display arms and armour, as well as other objects that were seen fit to be stored there. It is no surprise to see that many arsenals eventually lost their military functions and became museums. The German Historical Museum (Deutsches Historisches Museum) is located in the former Zeughaus (arsenal) of the Brandenburg/Prussian army in Berlin, not far away from the brand new Humboldt-Forum – the museum designed to reflect the former castle of Berlin. But it is in an adjacent contemporary building, designed by the architect I.M. Pei, that the temporary exhibition “Die Armbrust – Schrecken und Schönheit / The Crossbow: Terror and Beauty” is displayed from September 20, 2019 until March 8, 2020.

The exhibition was initiated by Sven Lüken, who leads the department for military collections of the German Historical Museum. The motivation was the scientific description of objects from the museum that can be connected to the crossbow. Whereas the catalogue contains objects exclusively from the collections of the museum, the exhibition has on display, besides items of the German Historical Museum, dozens of objects from other museums or libraries (Heidelberg, Regensburg, Berlin). A visit to the exhibition is recommended particularly because of this pluralism of its displayed material culture.

Insight into the arms and armour collection of the DHM by Sven Lüken, presenting crossbows, windlasses and bolts. Youtube channel of the Deutsches Historisches Museum, September 2019.

The catalogue’s introduction by Raphael Gross and the first essay by Fritz Backhaus, respectively the director and the collection’s department director of the museum, address the paradox of the museum’s ambition – to confront Germany’s past with a critical and enlightened mind and avoid chauvinistic and nationalistic expressions – and the museum’s belongings, since at its core were arms and armour from the former Prussian Arsenal and the German Democratic Republic’s national Historical Museum. Dealing with the crossbow is nonetheless seen as a convenient way to address an exhibition of deadly weapons, and altogether question the point of these collections in a society that rejects traditional martial and violence-glorifying values attributed to them. Sven Lüken addresses the question of the collection’s provenance and history. Whereas most objects are most likely the remnants of the collections of Brandenburg castle storehouses, especially from Berlin, others found their way to the museum during the 19th century, especially with the ‘Blücher’ plunder (objects seized in Paris in 1815 that had been themselves taken by French troops in Germany or Austria) or the acquisitions of the Prussian prince Carl during the 1820’s. During the Second World War, the collections were displaced and partially seized and transferred to the USSR as war compensations: the lost (but often not destroyed) objects and artisan marks are included in the catalogue (p. 314-318 and 319-321). It is striking, though, that (unlike the windlasses) the attribution of crossbow to specific artisans or even to production centres is still uncertain, although most of them are believed to have been made in Southern Germany (Augsburg or Nuremberg). The crossbow selected for the cover of the exhibition catalogue, which may be a gift from the Southern German counts of Zollern, was however identified as the work of a member of the Kadus family which was active in different cities around Lake of Constance (one of them settled in Basel during the 1580s).

The exhibition displays several crossbows from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, although the majority of them are early modern objects. Besides the crossbows, which were carefully restored, we can see paveses, bolts (some of them are archaeological founds from the site of a failed Hussite attack on Bernau in 1432), bolt boxes and quivers, windlasses, and a very rare spanning bank. The detailed and state-of-the-art catalogue (93 objects, p. 113-311) made by Jens Sensfelder, a technical expert, addresses also the question of the technical evolution of the crossbow and compares the objects with other collections. Jens Sensfelder is also the editor of a crossbow-related review, the Jahrblatt der Interessengemeinschaft Historische Armbrust.

Many videos and figures explaining the delicate mechanisms or the crossbows are also on display in the exhibition, as well as shooting videos (one of them re-enacting the William Tell apple shooting).
Since most of the crossbows of the museum had no direct military function, the curators saw fit to put the focus on the symbolic and martial dimensions of the crossbow, which could be seen as an erotic symbol (cf. Jacob de Gheyn) or as a memento mori. The iconographic details (hunting, classical, or Biblical scenes) are wonderfully depicted and compared in Brigitte Reineke’s contribution to the catalogue.

The crossbow remained during the early modern period a weapon for hunting and, especially, a tool for target practice, which explains the focus on shooting contests [1] , deploying not only beautiful festival books by Lienhart Flexel or Ulrich Ertel from the Stuttgart festival of 1560, but also the series of engravings of the festival of Regensburg (1586) by Peter Opel, which was himself a firearm stock-maker. It also features some objects related to shooting competitions, such as letters of invitation (Landshut, 1549 and Regensburg, 1586), the crown given after the Nuremberg contest of 1579 to the Regensburg marksmen, and the stick of the target indicator. The last part of the exhibition addresses the famous William Tell myth, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries with pocket-theatre figures, photographs and postcards.

The temporary exhibition, which could have also emphasised the revival of the crossbow in popular culture, is a satisfying achievement. It certainly raises the question of whether the collection of early modern firearms from the German Historical Museum will benefit from the same exposure one day, showing that a contextualised exhibition about martial cultures is possible.

[1] The author of this review has researched the dynamics of shooting festivals in (mostly Southern) Germany and Switzerland as a tool for civic and aristocratic diplomacy: Jean-Dominique Delle Luche, Sportliches Engagement und städtischer Wettbewerb : Schützenfeste als Ausdruck der Konkurrenz im Heiligen Römischen Reich, in Matthias Schnettger, Julia Schmidt-Funke (dir.), Neue Stadtgeschichte(n). Die Reichsstadt Frankfurt im Vergleich, Bielefeld, transcript, 2018, p. 369-398; Une association d’intérêt public : les sociétés d’arbalétriers et arquebusiers dans les villes du Saint-Empire (XVe-XVIe siècles), in Olivier Richard, Gabriel Zeilinger (dir.), La participation politique dans les villes du Rhin supérieur à la fin du Moyen Âge/Politische Partizipation in spätmittelalterlichen Städten am Oberrhein, Berlin, Schmidt (Studien des Frankreich-Zentrums der Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, 26), 2017, p. 241-277 ; Die Schießregister und die Entwicklung der regionalen sportlichen Netzwerke der Stadt Nördlingen (1464–1585), in Jahrbuch des Historischen Vereins für Nördlingen und das Ries, vol. 35, 2017, p. 131-170. https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-01759024

Acknowledgment: the author of this review has collaborated with the exhibition organisers and presented his research during a public conference in October 2019. His PhD dissertation, which was written in 2015 at the EHESS (Paris), addressed the topic of shooting ‘guilds’ and festivals in the Holy Roman Empire during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Cite this article as: Jean-Dominique Delle Luche, "Crossbow, terror and beauty: an exhibition in Berlin and its catalogue (20.09.19-08.03.20)," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 07/01/2020, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/627.

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