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Archery I. - archer´s equipment

Archery I. - archer´s equipment
Middle Ages Sunday, 2. June 2024

The standard weapon of the European archer (i. e. archer from the regions of Central, Northern, and Western Europe) was the longbow – but let us not be misled by the English term “longbow,” which immediately conjures up images of English archers from the mid-14th century in the battles of Crécy and Poitiers. This term, in a more general sense, also refers to older European types of bows and those not directly from the British Isles. Their common characteristics are considered to be straight limbs and a cross-section of the bow in the shape of a D, oval, or circle. Before the famous “English longbow” emerged, such bows with lengths ranging from 150-190 cm were used across early medieval Europe by Celts, Germans (including Saxons and Vikings), and at least Western Slavs in the period from approximately the 4th to the 11th century. Viking bows of these dimensions were found at notable sites such as Hedeby, Ballinderry, and Oldenburg.

Czech archers (Bohemians) in Italy in the second half of the 12th century. Illumination from the chronicle of Peter of Eboli, Liber ad honorem Augusti (1196). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It was only after this type of bow began to penetrate the British Isles with the Saxons in the 5th century, and repeatedly through Norwegian and Danish Vikings in the 8th-11th centuries, that it began to be adopted by the inhabitants of England and Wales. They developed the mentioned weapon in their own way, resulting in the famous English longbow by the 13th century, which could also reach lengths from 150 to 190 cm and became most renowned during the Hundred Years' War on French territory.

In France and Burgundy, the longbow took a slightly different development path during the High Middle Ages – compared to English bows, it was shorter (around 130-160 cm), somewhat weaker, and its limb tips could be slightly concavely curved. Unfortunately, there are too few direct evidences for reconstructing bows used in Central Europe (and thus in the Kingdom of Bohemia) during the High Middle Ages. Thus, based on analogies, it can be assumed that the bows used in the Holy Roman Empire probably resembled the English ones, although they did not reach their maximum length and strength.

Popular materials for making longbows traditionally included yew, elm, or ash. In French-speaking areas, at least for the High and Late Middle Ages, hawthorn, maple, walnut, and guelder rose were also mentioned. Bowstrings were traditionally braided from hemp or flax.

Among the Slavs in the early medieval period, it was also possible to count on the so-called composite reflex bow, which repeatedly penetrated Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe through the raids of the Avars or Mongols. As the name suggests, it was made of wood and horn glued together and tied with sinews.

Many types of wood were used for making arrows, specifically ash, larch, or pine. Goose feathers were most commonly used for fletching. Arrowheads could change depending on the customs of the given historical period and culture – in the early medieval period, these were variously wide heads with a tang fitted into the arrow shaft, glued with pitch, and wrapped with thread, which were in later centuries more associated with archers from Eastern nations. In the High and Late Middle Ages, socketed arrowheads became more common. Early medieval finds also include bone arrowheads, such as those found in the Viking site in the Wolin area. Although iron and steel arrowheads were used more frequently as the medieval period progressed, most of them fell into one of the two most widespread groups: the bodkin point of triangular, square, or diamond-shaped cross-section intended to penetrate armor, or the broadhead, which was flatter and occasionally featured expanded barbed wings to the sides. These wings were sharpened on the leading edge of the head, so along with the width of the head, greater tissue damage occurred upon impact.

Reconstruction of an early medieval quiver based on finds from Hedeby and the Bayeux Tapestry.

For an archer, a quiver was essential, serving to transport arrows on the move and in combat. Leather was a universal material for making quivers throughout history; however, in the early Middle Ages, alternative materials like birch bark could also be expected. In the High and Late Middle Ages, canvas quivers were mass-used due to low acquisition costs and – depending on the design – the ability to hold more arrows. Foot archers typically set down quivers or dumped arrows before them on the ground (if shooting from fortifications), or stuck them into the ground (during battle). 

Archers also used several protective aids when shooting. Primarily, this was a bracer where the string would strike, and sometimes also a shooting glove protecting the fingers drawing the string. Bracers were traditionally made of leather, but there are also examples made of polished stone, such as sandstone (Bronze Age), bone, or horn (and in the 16th century, even ivory). Shooting gloves are documented from the late medieval period, but it can be assumed that archers could have used simple finger protectors made of leather in previous centuries. We know that archers from Eastern nations and the Arab world pulled the string with their thumb when shooting from reflex bows, protecting it with a metal (often bronze) ring.

Regarding clothing and other equipment, it primarily corresponded to the era and their economic possibilities for archers. Early medieval archers usually had no armor, and we can only assume some form of gambeson and perhaps a simple helmet. In the High Middle Ages, it was usually gambesons or mail shirts with short sleeves and commonly light open helmets. In the late medieval period, the equipment of archers included even cuirasses or brigandines, and among archers of the guard units of rulers or high nobility, also plate protection for legs, shoulders, and partly arms. Sidearms for archers included knives (and later daggers), axes in the early medieval period, and possibly saexes among the Saxons and Vikings. In the High Middle Ages, these could be falchions (another weapon from the family of various choppers and long knives) and swords, occasionally supplemented by a buckler.

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