for National Geographic News
"Bless these cavalieri for transferring their noble weapons into instruments of peace." With these words and a sprinkling of holy water, a local priest completed the blessing of arms that opened the crossbow competition in Gubbio, Italy, last May.
The target-shooting contest that pits the bowmen of Gubbio against their challengers from Sansepolcro, a neighboring city in Umbria, has been held regularly for several centuries.
This weekend, the Gubbio team travels to Sansepolcro for the second stage of the colorful event, known as the Palio della Balestra.
"The first match was played in 1461, on the 17th of May. We have original documents about the competition that year," said Orlandi Ubaldo, president of the Crossbowmen's Society (Balestrieri) of Gubbio and the only contender in this century who has won the event three times.
Today, the event is held every year in Gubbio on the last Sunday in May, and in Sansepolcro on the second Sunday of September.
"It is now more than 350 years that the palio has been held here. It was interrupted only for the World War II, and one time Napoleon forbade it," said Ubaldo. This year his group is printing a list of all the winners from 1864 to 1974.
In a nod to the contest's deep roots, the contenders don medieval costumes and observe historical customs that include awarding the winner a specially designed palio banner (originally a pallium, or special fabric to sew a new suit), followed by a torch-lit victory procession through the town.
The crossbow, which has ancient origins in China, was one of the most important weapons of medieval Europe.
"Crossbows were important for warfare and hunting from the 11th century onwardthey were of daily practical use," said Stuart Pyhrr, a curator in the arms and armor department of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
William the Conqueror brought skilled crossbowmen with him when he invaded England in A.D. 1066.
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