I have been asked on a couple of occasions why my fictional characters aren’t all out practising their archery on Sundays, as one thing everyone knows (or thinks they know) about the Middle Ages is that this was compulsory. The short answer is that my stories are set in 1217, and that the law making Sunday archery obligatory didn’t come into force until 1252. But this got me thinking about thirteenth-century archery in general: what was the equipment like, what were the techniques, and what did people think about it? This is something I explored briefly in my book War and Combat 1150-1270, so I’ve dusted off some research I did for that and will expand on it a bit here.
A hundred years before the period in which my novels are set, archery was the subject of much debate. It presented the knights and nobles of the twelfth century with a fundamental dilemma: it was extremely effective, and could kill or injure the enemy at a distance without the need for hand-to-hand fighting, but this very effectiveness made the nobility reluctant to accept its use. Why would the knight want to encourage the use of a weapon which was a threat to his own superiority? Arrows or crossbow bolts could penetrate his expensive armour, and were a particular danger to his horse, the symbol of his social and military superiority; archery also represented a class threat, as the knight or noble could be killed by a common archer with no opportunity for retaliation.
Archery was at this point frowned on by the Church, and the use of bows or crossbows against Christians was forbidden by the second Lateran Council in 1139. However, archery was so effective that it could not be ignored: if one side in a conflict numbered archers among its ranks, the other side would be at a grave disadvantage if it did not, so once the use of bow and crossbow became widespread, archers formed a constituent part of any army. By the late twelfth century any commander not including archers as part of his force would be considered very foolish indeed.
The equipment in use in the early thirteenth century came in two basic types: the simple bow (which was probably under five feet long at this time, rather shorter than the classic longbow, taller than a man, which developed later), and the crossbow. Both were used in different ways for different purposes.
An early thirteenth-century depiction of an archer, showing that the bow is shorter than the man.
From the British Library Royal Manuscripts collection, MS Royal 12 F XIII, fol 36 v. Full image available on the BL manuscripts website
The simple bow was made of wood (generally yew, which has strong heartwood to form the inside edge of the bow, and springier sapwood to form the outside edge); the nocks at each end of the stave which held the string in place could be cut into the wood, or could be made of horn, and the string itself was made of hemp. Arrows were generally made of ash - which tends to grow very straight - with fletchings of goose feathers; the iron or steel arrowheads could vary in shape from narrow, pointed bodkins (useful for piercing mail) to triangular broadheads, effective against both horses and men and extremely difficult to remove once embedded.
The draw weight of a bow could vary but a war bow of the early thirteenth century was likely to be around 80-100lbs: that is, pulling the string back to your ear was the equivalent of lifting 80-100lbs in weight. This is difficult enough to do once; repeating it over and over again was a feat of skill and endurance.
Time was not measured as precisely then as it is now, but in modern terms a skilled archer could loose around 12 aimed arrows per minute, and probably a couple more if he wasn’t being too precise about his target. As a rather anecdotal comparison, back when I used to train regularly I could manage up to 14-15 aimed or 16-17 imprecise shots per minute – but this was with a 40lb bow (much easier to draw) and a target only 30 yards away. Given the heavier bows and a range of about 250-300 yards (with an accurate range of perhaps 100 yards) I would be extremely impressed with anyone who could aim and loose 12 arrows in a minute.
Longbow technique differs from modern usage, in that you don’t hold the bow out in front of you and then reach forward to pull the string back; rather you start in the middle, with the bow in front of your chest, then you lift it and push and pull with both arms at the same time. Only the first two or three fingers are in contact with the string (one above the arrow and one or two below it); you hold your thumb back out of the way. These days you hold the bow in your non-dominant hand and pull the string back with your dominant hand, meaning that you can shoot ‘left-handed’; you might have managed this in the thirteenth century if you were on your own, but in a combat situation archers would be drawn up in rows, which means everyone had to hold the bow the same way round to avoid getting in each other’s way. I haven’t found any specific evidence but I would suspect that when boys were taught to shoot, the instruction was not ‘draw with your dominant hand’ but simply ‘draw with your right hand’, so everyone learned the same technique.
The advantages of the simple bow are that volleys of arrows could be loosed at speed, without the necessity of hand-to-hand fighting; it was light and suited to all types of terrain; and it was useful both defensively and offensively. The disadvantages were that in order to gain speed and accuracy an archer had to be highly trained, and that, as the bow worked on muscle power, the string could not be held back in the draw position for long. It was also imperative that bowstrings were kept dry.
To add a quick note on terminology, the commands given to archers in combat situations were ‘nock’ (fit the arrow on the string), ‘draw’ (pull back the string) and ‘loose’ (let go). What you would never, ever hear (and this is one of my pet hates from TV and film!) is ‘ready, aim, fire’. The command ‘fire’ for ballistic weapons was not used – unsurprisingly – until the advent of firearms. To ‘fire’ an arrow is to set fire to it, which happened rather less often than is generally supposed.
But I digress …
The crossbow is a mechanical bow held sideways and operated by a release mechanism. It underwent many changes during the Middle Ages to improve various aspects of its trigger release and power, but its basic concept remained the same: a small bow attached to a stock which provided a groove for the missile (known as a bolt or quarrel rather than an arrow) and a bowstring which was held in place ready for release via a trigger mechanism. Crossbow bolts were shorter and thicker than arrows.
In the early thirteenth century the crossbow was of a relatively simple loading design, having a stirrup for the foot and a string which was drawn back either by hand or by means of a hook attached to the bearer’s belt (i.e. you bent down, hooked the string, and then used the force of you standing back upright to pull back the string and fix it in place). More complex designs which produced greater power, such as the windlass or cranequin, developed later.
Picture of a crossbow from Matthew Paris's Chronica Maiora, 1250-59. Note the stirrup, the bolt being held in place and the trigger.
The upside down shield and crown refer to the death of Richard the Lionheart in 1199.
From the British Library Royal Manuscripts collection, MS Royal 14 C VII, fol. 85v. Full image available on the BL manuscripts website.
Opinions vary on the precise range and accuracy of the crossbow at this time (and I don’t have any personal experience to fall back on here), but by averaging the estimates of all the sources listed below we can extrapolate a range of 300 yards, with an accurate range of half that. The short crossbow bolt was loosed at a flatter trajectory with a higher velocity than an arrow.
Whatever the precise range of any individual crossbow, its main advantages were its power and the fact that the string could be drawn back and the bolt put in place in advance, meaning that the operator could take his time to aim – useful if you were a sniper in a besieged castle looking to shoot any attacker who showed himself in the open. Using a crossbow also required less skill and training than shooting a bow, and a relative beginner could be as effective as an experienced crossbowman. The principal disadvantage was that it was slow to use, with even an expert loosing a maximum of two or three bolts in a minute.
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