[Unit 101] Archer and Bow (Medieval)

Archers And Bows Medieval Units 101

[Unit 101] Archer and Bow (Medieval)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HD3uP_LNQ5g

Intro

The Medieval era is a bit problematic, because it spans a very large time period of around 1000 years, depending who you ask, after all historians have different views on when the Middle Ages started and ended. This video will cover for most part the general information about what we know about Archers and their weapons during the medieval period. Be aware that debates among scholars are common and a lot of previous research needs to be reevaluated. Two give two examples from different scholars:
“Indeed, for those military historians who wrote about the Middle Ages, the focus on battles not only led to a grossly misleading depiction of medieval warfare, but by failing to place the focus where it rightly belongs, i.e., on siege warfare, they did a substantial disservice to our understanding of a millennium of European history.” (Bachrach, Bernard S.: Medieval siege warfare: a reconnaissance, Journal of Military History 58, No. 1)

Whereas Bradbury notes about army sizes:
“It has been argued that medieval armies were smaller than once assumed. Exact figures are rarely if ever available but reasonable estimates support this thesis in general. Medieval armies seldom consisted of more than a few thousand men and sometimes of only a few hundred. We must however be cautious, since large numbers were often available and we can rarely be certain how many were used.” (Bradbury, Jim: The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare, p. 281)
Hence, you should take everything about medieval times and especially warfare with a grain of salt and this video is of course no exception. As always all sources are in the description, as is a link to the script with references to the various sources.

Attitude towards Archers

Archers in the Middle Ages for the most part were not well respected by the nobility, this had nothing to do with their effectiveness. Rather on the contrary, the church condemned the bow and also forbid the use of bows and crossbows against other Christians in the 12th century (1139) [ at the Second Lateran Council.] Yet, due to its effectiveness of bows the ban was largely ignored. (Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer, p. 1)

The bow in Europe was always a weapon of the lower classes, thus it was often neglected in literature and we shall not forget that the hero Robin Hood was an outcast. Yet, nobles used the bow quite regularly, but not as a weapon in combat instead they used the bow for hunting, one of their favorite pastimes. (Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer, p. 1-7) Nevertheless, there was a rather negative attitude towards archers. Bradbury notes that “One reason for hostility to the bow was precisely its effectiveness, especially from a distance. Nobles could be killed by low-class archers, without even an opportunity for retaliation.” (Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer, p. 3) After all, quite many nobles were killed by bows or crossbows, probably the best known was Richard Lionheart, who died after a bolt hit him in 1199. (Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer, p. 3)

Now, there is an important aspect about medieval combat, but isn’t really shown in popular culture. Even though nobles fought regularly, they were quite often spared when captured due to codes of conducts among nobles and thus captured for ransom, especially in the early Middle Ages. The thing is, arrows don’t discriminate. Of course, the practice of capturing nobles for ransom or sparing them was abandoned occasionally, whereas in general the common men were not spared on the battlefield or even after capture. (Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer, p. 1-2) Hence, the gameplay mechanic in the computer game Mount & Blade, where you can’t kill nobles in combat is actually not so far-fetched.

Archers Social Status

Now respect on the battlefield is one thing, another thing is the social status in society. Due to the effectiveness of archers, they were paid more than regular infantry, which also resulted in a better social status. This is also indicated by comments on the composition of armies that suggest a higher status for archers than ordinary infantry, but definitely lower than knights. Their status grew over time, but they generally didn’t reach the lower classes of the nobility. (Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer, p. 171-175) Bradbury sums it up the following way:
“So the archer’s place in society was a humble one, but respectable and increasingly respected.” (Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer, p.175)

Recruitment Training

In terms of recruitment and training a, it should be noted that for the most part there was no standing army in the Middle Ages. Also there were various forms of recruitment depending on the region and era. In general armies were raised for a campaign and afterwards disbanded. Of course some of these troops like militias or knights were in some way professionally organized, but quite different from an organized standing army like it was common in later centuries. (Bartlett, Clive; Embelton, Gerry: English Longbowman 1330-1515, p. 4)
Since archers were ordinary people they were usually recruited from rural areas, militias and mercenaries. For this reason rulers encouraged their population to train archery. In England this was especially successful, nevertheless archery was a sports for the common man even before that. There is little doubt about the various archery activities for sports or training, because there are many documented accounts of practicing archery and also quite some fatal accidents. (Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer, p. 160) The effects of archery and its training on the archers should not be underestimated, from the shipwreck from the Mid 16th century we know that the bodies of two supposedly archers were quite affected:
“They were both in their twenties, but already physically affected by their occupation, which suggests constant training and practice. One had a thickened left fore-arm, from the pressure of drawing his bow; and both had spinal deformations, from the pressure of drawing the bow hile the body was twisted sideways.” (Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer, p. 157)

Types of Bows

Now, let’s look at the weapons of the archers, there were several types of bows, the short-bow, the longbow and also the crossbow. Often it is not clear from the sources which of them were used due to writers back then not clearly noting and using the same words them, thus often the correct weapon can only be determined by context, presuming there is enough information provided. (Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer, p. 8)

Short Bow – Composite Bow

Now, the short bow is often seen as a lesser and simpler bow, but this is, according to Jim Bradbury, both wrong and misleading: “The problem would be diminished if modern writers avoided describing short ordinary bows as shortbows. The shortbow proper is a particular kind of bow, built with considerable craftsmanship. It is a composite bow, the stave made normally in three pieces: a centre part and two wings.” (Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer, p. 12)
Now, it was constructed broadly the following way. The inside is strengthened with bone that pushes outward, whereas the outside uses a sinew to pull inward. There is little evidence for a significant use of shortbows in Western Europe, only from illustrations and it can be assumed that it was very rare. Yet, shortbows were common in the east, for instance the Saracen used them quite often. Due to its size and power, it was ideal for horse archers. (Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer, p. 12; Waddell, Jack; Palermo, Brent: Medieval Arms, Armor, and Tactics. p.126-127; Bradbury, Jim: The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare, p. 256)

Longbow

Now, the Longbow is a quite iconic weapon, but:
“What was a longbow? It may be surprising to find that the answer is not as obvious as one might have supposed. For a start, the word ‘longbow’ was never used in the age with which we always link the weapon. Nor was there any special word in Latin or in French until the very end of the middle ages. Even then it was only called ‘longbow’ to distinguish it from the crossbow or the shortbow proper.” (Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer, p. 71)
Bradbury notes that the notion that Longbow is something special is actually a modern depiction.(Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer, p. 71) Now, the Longbow is actually an ordinary wooden bow made from a single piece of wood, although it could be enforced with horn at the nocks. (Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer, p. 14)
Bradbury notes further that the Long Bow probably didn’t emerge at a certain point, but rather was the result of constant improvement of ordinary bows over a long period of time. (Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer, p. 12-15) He states that: “There is no fundamental difference between the Nydam bows from the Roman period, the Norman bows on the Bayeux Tapestry, and the longbows of the Hundred Years’ War.” (Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer, p. 15; Bradbury, Jim: The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare, p. 253) Now, since the Nydam bow is estimated to be around from 200 to 400 AD and the One Hundred Years war lasted til 1453 we have a timespan of about 1000 years with very similar bow designs. (Stampf, Siegfried: Eine sozial und militärhistorische Analyse der englischen Langbogenschützen während des Hunderjährigen Krieges, S. 77)

Measurements & Range

Now, let’s look at the long bow, it was usually made of yew. (The sapwood was on the outside and the heartwood in the direction of the archer). The size of the longbow depended on the archer’s height. The typical size of a bow was about 2 meters (six feet). In the center there was a thickened grip and the string was usually made from gut and sometimes from hemp. (Bradbury, Jim: The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare, p. 253) The range of a longbow was about 270 meters, although the effective range is considered to be 180 meters. (Stampf, Siegfried: Eine sozial und militärhistorische Analyse der englischen Langbogenschützen während des Hunderjährigen Krieges, S. 38)

Effectiveness of the Longbow

Now, there is quite some debate on the effectiveness of the longbow, there are various historical accounts that claim that arrows could penetrate plate armor, whereas others deny this. (Stampf, Siegfried: Eine sozial und militärhistorische Analyse der englischen Langbogenschützen während des Hunderjährigen Krieges, S. 95) Both are probably right, but as Rogers notes:
“King David and King Philip, after all, doubtless had the best armour available, yet that did not save either of them from suffering multiple serious wounds.” (Rogers ,Clifford J.: The Efficacy of the English Longbow: A Reply to Kelly DeVries ,p. 239)

Yet, we need to consider that the material of the armor and the arrow heads probably differed widely even for the same period. After all, even in World War 1 the steel armor plates for German machine gunners had a huge variety in terms of quality and those were produced in an industrialized age.
Another aspect is of course that only a limited number of troops were equipped with plate armor or other high quality armor. Hence, a knight in shining armor amongst a large number of troops and horses being killed and incapacitated by arrows is probably not ideal for the morale. After all, many times the number of wounded and killed soldiers was below 50 percent and often it is even below 25 percent. (Rogers ,Clifford J.: The Efficacy of the English Longbow: A Reply to Kelly DeVries ,p. 235)

Yet, as always there is a certain dynamic in tactics, technology, measures and counter-measures, which makes statements about the effectiveness of a certain weapon that was used for centuries quite problematic. As Rogers points out:
“I am willing to concede Gaier’s point that in the decades after the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453, armour improved (and archery declined) to the point that the English longbowmen were no longer capable of wreaking the kind of havoc I have described above. But I think there is plenty of evidence to show that, at the battle of Agincourt in 1415 and for some decades thereafter, English longbowmen remained fully capable of ‘killing many’ on the battlefield.” (Rogers ,Clifford J.: The Efficacy of the English Longbow: A Reply to Kelly DeVries ,p. 241)

Crossbow

Now, let’s move on to the crossbow, which was already used in Roman times and considerably improved throughout the middle ages. It was not very popular with the English, although it was often used by mercenaries. (Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer, p. 8) One major advantage of the crossbow was that it could be readied and aimed without additional effort unlike a bow, where the string constantly needed to be held back. But this came at a price reloading a crossbow took quite some time, thus the rate of fire was considerably lower than that of bows. (Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer, p. 8) Depending on the size of the crossbow it could be reloaded by hand or needed mechanical devices ranging from simple ones like push and pull levers to more complex ones. . (Bradbury, Jim: The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare, p. 248)

Longbow vs. Crossbow

Now, both the crossbow and longbow had different characteristics, which made them better suited for certain circumstances.
In short the main differences were: (Mortimer, John: Tactics, Strategy, and Battlefield Formation during the Hundred Years War: The Role of the Longbow in the Infantry Revolution, p. 52-53; Stampf, Siegfried: Eine sozial und militärhistorische Analyse der englischen Langbogenschützen während des Hunderjährigen Krieges, S. 38)
• Higher rate of fire for the longbow with about 4 to 5 shots in the time a crossbowman could fire one bolt and reload a second.
• Higher penetration of the crossbow for short ranges
• Less space taken up by the longbow on the battlefield, due to the horizontal bow of the crossbow, thus the same amount of frontage allowed more firepower
• A crossbow could be used by used with just basic training, whereas a longbow required years of training.
• No extra strength required for aiming a crossbow, thus in general the crossbow was less dependent on strength
• Longbows were in overall quite simple weapons, thus they were easier to maintain, repair and cheaper to produce
Although, the longbow has an advantage in nearly all areas, one should not forget that training was an ongoing investment, which of course takes time, resources and probably most importantly a proper system.

Arrows

Time to look at arrows, let’s start with some basic anatomy: An arrow consists of the following parts the shaft with a nock at the end, the fletching and the head. [MAKE THOSE PARTS APPEAR]
A typical English arrow of the Hundred Year War had probably a length between 0.7 to 0.9 m(28 to 36 inches). (Stampf, Siegfried: Eine sozial und militärhistorische Analyse der englischen Langbogenschützen während des Hunderjährigen Krieges, S. 92; Mortimer, John: Tactics, Strategy, and Battlefield Formation during the Hundred Years War: The Role of the Longbow in the Infantry Revolution, p. 32)

Arrowheads

Now, there were various arrowheads, a general purpose, bodkin, bodkin needle and broad head.
The early military arrowheads were usually broad with a flat blade, this had changed by the 13th century, when narrower arrowheads became common due to the common use of body armor. This resulted in a bodkin needle design. (Mortimer, John: Tactics, Strategy, and Battlefield Formation during the Hundred Years War: The Role of the Longbow in the Infantry Revolution, p. 31-32) The bodkin needle was especially effective against mail armor, because the narrow tip would penetrate between the rings and broader part could break them. Consequently Plate armor was designed in a way that such long arrowheads would be deflected, sometimes they even broke or bent on impact. To counter this the arrowhead was shortened and strengthened. (Stampf, Siegfried: Eine sozial und militärhistorische Analyse der englischen Langbogenschützen während des Hunderjährigen Krieges, S. 92) Generally, bodkins were ideal for penetrating armor, whereas broadhead would inflict more damage against soft targets.

Equipment & Armor

In terms of armor and equipment there was a wide variety depending on the time period and region. Hence, here I will only broadly refer to English archer’s situation from 12th to 16th century. A decree from the late 12th century required free men to have a certain equipment depending on their income. This ranged from a gambeson, a spear and a simple helmet for the lower income to chainmail, helmet, shield and lance for knights. (Stampf, Siegfried: Eine sozial und militärhistorische Analyse der englischen Langbogenschützen während des Hunderjährigen Krieges, S. 10-11) A Gambeson was an armor made of several layers of linen, wool or other fabric that were sewn together and stuffed with cloth or others material. It could be worn as independent armor or underneath other armor. (Bradbury, Jim: The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare, p. 264-265) A follow-up decree in Mid 13th century also included specifically archers which were required to have a bow and arrows. [Assize of Arms 1252]. (Stampf, Siegfried: Eine sozial und militärhistorische Analyse der englischen Langbogenschützen während des Hunderjährigen Krieges, S. 10-11)
In terms of specialized equipment, I am bit unsure about archery gloves, since less reputable sources list two different archery gloves, whereas in more academic sources I only encountered very limited information on them, it seems that in general that bracers were common, but dedicated archery gloves probably not. (Stampf, Siegfried: Eine sozial und militärhistorische Analyse der englischen Langbogenschützen während des Hunderjährigen Krieges, S. 92-93)

Combat

Now, let’s take a look combat. Archers as mentioned before were quite effective in combat, this was the result of numerous factors like firepower, rate of fire, range, speed and also their flexibility. Archers could be used for the offensive and defensive in open field battles as during sieges. They were used for ambushes, providing covering fire, weakening the enemy, disturbing his preparations and provoking him to attack. (Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer, p. 3-5; Bradbury, Jim: The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare, p. 287)
On the battlefield the archers could be protected by ditches, stakes or natural obstacles in order to discourage or limit the impact of an enemy cavalry charge. Originally, stakes were not used by this changed around the 15th century, they were probably a direct response to the introduction of special cavalry units targeting archers. (Mortimer, John: TACTICS, STRATEGY, AND BATTLEFIELD FORMATION DURING THE HUNDRED YEARS WAR: THE ROLE OF THE LONGBOW IN THE INFANTRY REVOLUTION, p. 75) Besides these passive defenses archers were usually protected by Pike or other infantry as well. (Waddell, Jack; Palermo, Brent: Medieval Arms, Armor, and Tactics, p. 143)

During a battle archers opened fire at large initially firing in a wide arc, thus the enemies were showered by arrows. Even if those arrows weren’t deadly, they were at least disorienting, which could lead to breaking up enemy formations. When the distance decreased and direct fire was possible the archers switched to direct aimed fires.(Waddell, Jack; Palermo, Brent: Medieval Arms, Armor, and Tactics, p. 142-143)

The number of archers varied for each army, but for the English who were using archers to a large degree this ultimately lead to degree 3 to 1 between archers and men-at-arms. (Bradbury, Jim: The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare, p. 281)

Summary / Conclusion

To summarize, the archer in the Middle Ages was a common soldiers, whereas the nobility disregarded combat with the bow, they couldn’t ignore the archers effectiveness on the battlefield. After all, the dominance of cavalry in the High Middle Ages was to a certain degree ended by the use of archers, although cavalry wasn’t made obsolete its effectiveness was severely reduced.
Nevertheless, neither archers nor their weapons were without flaw. The main drawback of archers with longbows was they required proper and regular training, something that not all rulers could achieve due to various reasons. Even the English that had established a proper system for replenishing their pool of archers faced major problems when the black plague hit. (Mortimer, John: Tactics, Strategy, and Battlefield Formation during the Hundred Years War: The Role of the Longbow in the Infantry Revolution, p. 89) This illustrates that seemingly excellent and simple weapon systems often rely on infrastructures that can be quite fragile and missed with a superficial glance.

Sources

Bradbury, Jim: The Medieval Archer (amazon.com affiliate link)

Bradbury, Jim: The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare (amazon.com affiliate link)

Mortimer, John: Tactics, Strategy, and Battlefield Formation during the Hundred Years War: The Role of the Longbow in the Infantry Revolution

Rogers ,Clifford J.: The Efficacy of the English Longbow: A Reply to Kelly DeVries

Bachrach, Bernard S.: Medieval siege warfare: a reconnaissance, Journal of Military History 58, No. 1

Waddell, Jack; Palermo, Brent: Medieval Arms, Armor, and Tactics.

Bartlett, Clive; Embelton, Gerry: English Longbowman 1330-1515 (amazon.com affiliate link)

Stampf, Siegfried: Eine sozial und militärhistorische Analyse der englischen Langbogenschützen während des Hunderjährigen Krieges

Archery Handbook

Gambeson

Arrow

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