Return of the Full Metal Anorak by Mary Gentle

Issue: 21

Return of the Full Metal Anorak
by Mary Gentle

A couple of points in Gary Hughes' piece on bows (in Ragnarok 19). Yes, you do need a rolling production line to create longbows (given how long it takes to grow and season the wood) and the same goes for composite bows (which are phenomenally effective) but the short answer to "why give them to a crappy peasant?" is "because there isn't anyone else!" From the Industrial revolution and after, we're used to a social "pyramid", with lots of workers at the bottom, slightly less middle class, tapering to an aristocratic point. Up until at least the start of the seventeenth century, Europe isn't like a pyramid at all - it's more of a broad fiat plain of peasants, with a single thin tall tower of monied people (aristocrats and merchants) jutting out of it. If you're going to fight wars, you need more people than you'll ever be able to afford to take off the fields and train.

Hello, peasant levy.

As for why you give bows and swords - well, mostly you give them bill, since billhooks are agricultural implements and bloody dangerous in any case. If you think using a polearm doesn't require "a certain degree of coordination and dexterity", then you try hitting someone with one! Add minimal training ("that hook on the side is for yanking knights off their horses, sonny,") and you're away. Hello, dead peasant.

With longbows, of course, you make them train themselves. I think they did finally repeal the law forcing Englishmen to practice at the butts every Sunday - but it wasn't that long ago... Social context explains longbows, and mostly the context they worked in was English. When English mercenary companies took them to Italy in the fourteenth century, they died out soon after, because Italian peasants weren't made to shoot every Sunday. (The French wouldn't trust theirs with longbows, wisely from their point of view.) Longbows require constant training to keep the requisite muscle power and hand-eye coordination. Muskets, on the other hand, any dumb dirt-digger can learn to use in a fortnight and he doesn't have to keep practicing. Most European training manuals don't have a word for "aim" because the concept was irrelevant. (The Japanese did, they concentrated on musket accuracy, and I think invented volley fire, but that's the Japanese for you). I suppose the moral is, choose which "peasant with stick" you're referring to.

Actually, I think mounted goblin archers arc fairly feasible - they wouldn't be the first nomad civilisation to get the composite bow on line. Goblin Khan and the wolf-riders of the Horde... it's starting to make sense! Could one envisage them fighting as the Saracens did at the Horns of Hattin, riding towards the knights and shooting them up, and then riding away at full tilt, while facing backwards and still shooting them up? It seemed to work... As for getting close to the enemy per se, foot archers traditionally carried falchions (which are best and untechnically described as cleavers), but archers unsupported by infantry aren't a good idea anyway. Not their job, guv, even if they did sling their bows across their backs and join in the melee.

What I'd really like to know is whether there are tactical uses other arrow storm, that is, whether archers fought combined ops in a more individual sense - the Burgundian lance of nine men included an archer, and I think a crossbowman, but I don't know whether this was an administrative or combat unit. It seems unlikely, on the face of it, archers being more effective en masse - does anyone know?

I think that's more than enough. This is the original Full Metal Anorak (or as I prefer to call it, demi-harness) signing off.

See also: