“Grab your torch,
Mount your horse,
Screw your courage to the sticking place,
We’re counting on Gaston to lead the way.”
– Kill the Beast, Beauty and the Beast
Ahh, Beauty and the Beast, the greatest animated, children’s story about schizoid personality disorder and Stockholm syndrome ever made. Seriously, Belle was f$&%ed up. If Gaston had had her tossed in the asylum, he’d have been doing her a favor.
But, we’re talking about that weird line about screwing your courage to the sticking place. What the hell does that mean? Well, the line is a direct quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth tells her hubby to be a man and murder King Duncan of Scotland. As near as we can tell, Shakespeare invented the term “sticking place.” And he never explained it.
But some scholars think it refers to the spot on a crossbow where a soldier had to lever or crank the cord back to ready the crossbow for another shot. Basically, tighten up your courage as tight as it will go.
Of course, the crossbow predates Shakespeare by a hell of a lot of years. The earliest crossbows date back to China in the 5th Century BCE and also Greece at around the same time. The crossbow enjoyed a surge of popularity in the 12th Century and remained popular through the 1,500’s. Sure we’ve all heard stories about how devastating the English longbow was. And it was. But the crossbow had some advantages.
For one thing, the crossbows fires much heavier bolts, so they have more pentrating power. For another thing, it only took about a week of training before someone could use a crossbow reasonable accurately. While hand bows had longer range and faster rates of fire, it took years of training before someone could (a) overcome the pull strength of the most powerful bows and (b) acheive any sort of accuracy with direct fire. It was time consuming and expensive to train soldiers to use a bow effectively. In his book, Connections, historian James Burke suggested that the longbow didn’t even come into its own until there had been enough advances in farming to free some folks from the field and give them enough training time to get good at using the things.
Meanwhile, the humble crossbow had armor penetration, simplicity of use, and cranks and levers to help someone draw the damned thing. Crossbows could also be modified to fire stones or bullets. So, they also had the infinite ammo as long as there was some rocks around.
If I seem a little emotional about all of this, it is becuase I’m tired of seeing the proud crossbow passed over time and again in fantasy RPGs because everyone wants to be f$&%ing Legolas. The crossbow was a weapon of the people, something that everyone could learn to use.
So, next time you need to outfit an army in your D&D game, screw your courage to the sticking place, dump the elitist bow, and perforate your PCs with armor penetrating crossbow bolts.