A few brief and inadequate thoughts on the social attitudes towards archers and the use of bows in the warfare of the medieval period of this Earth and their relation to fantasy gaming in Middle Earth and other worlds by Bill Johnson


A few brief and inadequate thoughts on the social attitudes towards archers and the use of bows in the warfare of the medieval period of this Earth and their relation to fantasy gaming in Middle Earth and other worlds
by Bill Johnson

Congratulations to David Brewer on his article (Not just a string & a bent stick...) about... er... various things. As I interpret his article it seems as if, in between slagging off historical wargamers, medieval re-enactors, net surfers, museums and fans of heavy metal music, he is asking one (or more) of three (or even more) questions.

  1. What makes a culture adopt a widespread use of archery? (This includes the so-called long bow, the crossbow and the reflex bow used by horse archers.)
  2. What parts of society habitually use or are encouraged to train to use a bow as a matter of every day life?
  3. What is the attitude of societies to those persons or warriors among them who do use a bow?

As to the first of these questions my knowledge of history and anthropology is so limited that I would not even dare to attempt to answer the question. All I can do is to raise even more questions.

The Mongols, Seljuk Turks and other steppe peoples were renowned horse archers. They were hunter- gatherers and pastoral nomads. Why did they use bows? Was it because hunting deer, hare and other fast moving steppe animals required the use of an accurate long range weapon? Maybe the reason was that most of the tribes and clans had a subsistence level economy and the steppes were deficient in iron ore deposits so all steel goods had to be traded for, inherited or plundered. Armour and thus, heavy cavalry would presumably be confined to the leaders of the richest tribes. So why did the Numidians at the time of the Punic Wars mainly use javelins? What was different about their environment or, being as they lived 1000 years and more before those nasty Mongols, does the answer involve that hated word 'technology'? Then again why did the Welsh, contemporary with the Mongols, develop the bow to such an extent. A mountain people, pastoral again. Did they use bows for the same reason as the steppe peoples? But why in the high middle ages in England were the Cheshire archers so renowned as opposed to say, Cornish archers?

How about question 2?

In medieval Europe societies were rigidly and distinctly stratified. Put very crudely, barons on top, lesser vassals, freemen and other bits and bobs in the middle, the varying grades of peasants at the bottom. In England and Wales it was the "yeoman farmer" who was the predominant archer in the armies of the high and late middle ages. It is in this group that some commentators have seen the origins of the "sturdy English middle classes".

On the continent however the longbow was far less in evidence and the professional users of the crossbow tended to originate from lower classes. One of the reasons for the lack of widespread use of the so-called longbows in France or any other European continental country for that matter, was the extensive training it took to use longbows effectively.

Let me drop into technology for just a second. Throughout the period of the development of the 'longbow' not only did the pull of bows increase but also the length of draw. On the Bayeux tapestry (embroidery if you are really picky) is that archers are shown drawing the bow to the chest, the style used by many tribal hunters in the third world who don't need lots of penetration because they either use poison or rely on stalking techniques to allow them to shoot at very close range. Portrayal of archers in the later middle ages, the 'age of the longbow' shows them drawing to the ear. (The stance most used by figure manufacturers for all kinds of bowmen.) This draw gives lots of range if shower shooting or lots of penetration if direct shooting. However the heavier the bow and the longer the draw the more strength and the more training needed to use it to effect. If the measurements of the poundage pull of the longbows recovered from the 'Mary Rose' are accurate then it would indicate that English or Welsh archers using these bows in the later middle ages were great big beefy men who trained near daily and for prolonged periods. This implies that the longbow user in the later middle ages must have plenty of leisure time in which to practice at the butts. It also implies that s/he must have a good diet and thus a reasonable income so as to build up the strength necessary to use such a high powered bow. (Think of the diet of the modern athlete.)

If all this is correct it means that your average peasant would not be able to pull a longbow to any great effect. It required a higher class like the yeoman archers of the 100 Years War period in English history. It also means that firearms were so readily adopted because like the crossbow, they only required minimum training. They were expensive but almost any dork could use them. (This is echoed in the Renaissance period when pikemen were recruited from the big lads and musketeers were the wimps.)

By the way, as a general rule, both the Anglo-Saxon fyrd and the Frankish hereban in the early middle ages and those called out by the feudal levy in the high middle ages as well as all kinds of mercenaries were required to bring their own weapons, armour and horses. This included bows and arrows. Unless prior agreements were made only replacement bows and the cart loads of arrows which would be required in the event of a major battle were provided by the employers of those armies which depended heavily on bowmen.

In Mongol and steppe nomad societies there was far less rigid stratification. In addition more or less everybody, clansman and chief alike, used the bow, particularly for hunting. Skill with the bow was a prerequisite for survival on the steppes. To shoot accurately and quickly with the bow from a cantering or galloping horse required long training. We are told by chroniclers that steppe children were in the saddle almost before they could walk. A life-time of on the job training.

Now to the last question and their societies' attitudes to these men. In England we have the repeated statutes requiring people to practise archery which gives us some idea of the regard in which archers as a class were held in England. And the attitudes of their opponents? Well, most wargamers must be familiar with the story of the origin of the two fingered salute and I don't mean Winston Churchill's version.

The crossbow does not need such lengthy training and such great strength to achieve similar range and penetration to the late medieval English/Welsh longbow. Accordingly crossbowmen can be recruited from the despised peasant classes. Use of this weapon, the first great equaliser, was banned, except against infidels, bythe Fourth Lateran Council of 1139. An ineffectual ban but it should begin to give some idea of attitudes towards both this weapon and its users at least in the early part of this millenium.

By contrast, in Mongol society, because practically everybody was a bowman or bowwoman, it was probably the person who lacked skill with the bow who was despised.

However to complete the picture what also needs to be considered is the attitude of the heavy troops towards battle, towards themselves and towards the rest of the troops in their armies. In Europe the tenth and eleventh centuries saw the rise of the professional warrior. In the absence of good heavy infantry the armoured cavalryman was a battle winner. The comitatus in the early middle ages Europe and the knight of the high Middle ages liked their combat 'up close and personal'. In general, it seems to be that these men regarded themselves as the lords of creation, everybody else was nowhere. Of course, this must have varied in degree from time to time and place to place. You would need a detailed study to even get close to the truth.

What is clear is that in these different societies there were different attitudes towards archers and these depended primarily on the social position of the bowmen and not on their battle winning potential. Let's face it, in general, archers alone don't win battles. They are light troops who will get their butts kicked if they try and mix it with heavy troops. This is not to say that their contribution is not decisive in weakening or making holes in the enemy line for the heavy troops to exploit or that when the enemy charge is broken they will not dive in and dole out some punishment but to score a decisive victory heavy troops are needed to demolish the opposing heavies. There are of course exceptions. A really stupid general can do the same; given the time. Witness the Persians under Darius v the Sycthians under Idanthyrus, the Romans under Crassus v Parthians under Surena.

Translating the above ranting into fantasy terms you will have to look at your armies to see if you can sort out from what kind of society they might come.

If your elf army consists of large numbers of light armed longbowmen with either a dismounted force of heavy spear or swordsmen or fair numbers of armoured cavalry then this could correspond to early 100 Years War English and would possibly give you the same sort of "feudal" society based on an agricultural economy.

If your goblinoid army consists of large numbers of light armoured bowmen, with a core of heavy armoured household troops, this might correspond more to a nomadic society, possibly hunter/gatherers, who make their living by plundering more settled communities. If there are a lot of foot soldiers in your army they could correspond to dark age Welsh rather than steppe nomads.

Of course, all of the above is quite academic. Most of us fantasy nuts fall in with a group playing with a certain set of rules, Warhammer, Fantasy Warlord, etc. We build our armies so as to win with this particular set of rules. I doubt very much whether anyone out there constructs a fantasy world, then collects armies to correspond with the types of societies s/he has created and finally finds a set of rules with which to play wargames.

Nevertheless, maybe these few brief remarks (remembering that brevity is just another word for inaccuracy) will stir someone's interest enough for them to give the social and environmental questions raised by Mr. Brewer a thorough and rigorous treatment.

For those interested in historical (and technological) aspects of archery and medieval warfare I can recommend the following books as an introduction to the subject.

  • Bradbury, Jim The Medieval Archer Woodbridge 1985
  • Hardy, Robert The Longbow (revised edn.) 1982
  • Jones The Art of War in the Western World London 1988
  • Prestwich, Michael Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages, The English Experience Yale 1996
  • Verbrugen J.F. The Art of War in Western Europe during the Middle Ages Oxford 1977
  • Morillo, Stephen Warfare under the Anglo-Norman Kings Woodbridge 1994

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