Institutionally Constrained Technology Adoption: Resolving the Longbow Puzzle
By Douglas W. Allen and Peter T. Leeson
Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 58 (2015)
Abstract: For over a century the longbow reigned as undisputed king of medieval European missile weapons. Yet only England used the longbow as a mainstay in its military arsenal; France and Scotland clung to the technologically inferior crossbow. This longbow puzzle has perplexed historians for decades. We resolve it by developing a theory of institutionally constrained technology adoption. Unlike the crossbow, the longbow was cheap and easy to make and required rulers who adopted the weapon to train large numbers of citizens in its use. These features enabled usurping nobles whose rulers adopted the longbow to potentially organize effective rebellions against them. Rulers choosing between missile technologies thus confronted a trade-off with respect to internal and external security. England alone in late medieval Europe was sufficiently politically stable to allow its rulers the first-best technology option. In France and Scotland political instability prevailed, constraining rulers in these nations to the crossbow.
Introduction: On July 19, 1333, amid the Second War of Scottish Independence, Scotland’s Sir Archibald Douglas led a massive force of some 15,000 men up Halidon Hill to face England’s King Edward III and his army of only 8,000. It was a slaughter— not of the English, but of the Scots.
The Battle of Halidon Hill was not the first conflict in which England displayed the longbow’s military potency, nor would it be the last. Between 1332 and 1428, in battle after battle the longbow enabled vastly outnumbered English armies to defeat the Scots, the French, and anyone else who dared engage them, garnering the English and their longbow a reputation of near invincibility.
Edward had spread his men-at-arms in three divisions across the hilltop, flanked by archers armed with longbows. As the Scots proceeded to the hill’s bottom to begin their ascent, English longbow arrows rained down “as thickly as the rays in sunlight, hitting the Scots in such a way that they struck them down” in hordes, and thinning them to the point of defeat. As the Scots retreated, mounted English knights hunted down the remainder until nightfall. Scotland’s casualties numbered thousands. England’s numbered but 14.