22 July, 2009

Bowmen in medieval Wales

In the comments thread on the post on seventh-century Chester, the discussion turned to the medieval longbow. I said I thought archery was especially associated with south Wales and that I hadn’t got the reference to hand but would post it when I found it. Well, I have now found the reference I was thinking of. It comes from the Description of Wales, written in the 1190s by Gerald of Wales (also known by his Latin name, Giraldus Cambrensis), and the quote is:

Merionyth, and the land of Conan, is the rudest and least cultivated region, and the least accessible. The natives of that part of Wales excel in the use of long lances, as those of Monmouthshire are distinguished for their management of the bow.
--Gerald of Wales, Description of Wales, Chapter VI. Online at Project Gutenberg

Monmouthshire is in south-east Wales, immediately west of the River Wye. See the Wikipedia page on the historic county (not to be confused with the smaller modern county of the same name) for maps showing its location, and see Streetmap UK for an interactive map that will let you zoom in and out to put the location in context.

Gerald was a distinguished churchman, the son of a powerful Norman baron and a princess of Deheubarth (south-west Wales), so he was in a position to have access to accurate information about the Wales of his own time. While it is unlikely that the men of Monmouthshire had a monopoly on archery (or that the men of Meirionydd had a monopoly on the use of long spears, come to that), I see no reason to doubt Gerald’s word for a particular skill being concentrated in a particular region, at least in his own time. Whether that reflects any deep-seated historical tradition or was a relatively recent development is open to interpretation.

22 comments:

Rick said...

Gerald wrote about a century before Edward I adopted the longbow in a big way - I presume after experience of it in Welsh hands. I wonder if there are any earlier references to Welsh people, in Monmouthshire or otherwise, being notably handy with a bow.

I'm also curious about the reference to 'long lances.' At least to me, lance as distinct from pike or plain old spear implies specifically a cavalry weapon.

Carla said...

Yes, I presume Edward I learned about the effectiveness of the longbow the hard way and then made use of it. There was very likely some technical development of the longbow to make it into the fearsome 'great war bow' of the Hundred Years War, though it was evidently a pretty powerful weapon by the time of Edward's Scottish wars. Robert Hardy (yes, that Robert Hardy) in his book "Longbow" says that Welsh bows were not made from yew, so that's possibly one line of fruitful development that was followed.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes one Ralph of Hereford and a cavalry force being ignominiously defeated by Welsh and Irish forces in 1055: "And they
gathered a great force with the Irishmen and the Welsh: and Earl
Ralph collected a great army against them at the town of
Hereford; where they met; but ere there was a spear thrown the
English people fled, because they were on horses. The enemy then
made a great slaughter there -- about four hundred or five
hundred men; they on the other side none." That would be characteristic of an archery-cavalry encounter, and Robert Hardy considers it as such in "Longbow". If so, that takes you back to 1055, though I would guess it has a much longer history than that.

Gerald's original is in Latin, so you need a linguist to tell you whether the Latin word he used specifically implies a cavalry weapon or could also be a common-or-garden foot-soldiers' spear in the usage of the time. Being from an aristocratic Norman family on his father's side he would have been familiar with Norman cavalry weapons and may have chosen the term he was familiar with from that context.

Steven Till said...

"Robert Hardy in his book 'Longbow' says that Welsh bows were not made from yew ..."

What does he say they were made from? I always thought they were made from yew.

Carla said...

Steven - He says they were made of wild elm, and the source cited is Gerald of Wales again, but this time it's his Journey Through Wales, Itinerarum Cambriae. I haven't checked the reference.

He also says that yew was recognised, at least by Gerald, as the best wood for bows at the time, since Gerald thought it worth specifying that the powerful Monmouth bows were made of a different wood.

My understanding is that the Great War Bow of the Hundred Years War was generally made of yew. If I have understood Robert Hardy correctly (it's a while since I read his book), I think he suggests that the medieval Great War Bow may have developed by combining the bowmaking techniques of the Monmouthshire Welsh with the use of yew as the material.

Rick said...

I'm also a bit surprised about the wood used. My impression is that the longbow is a 'simple' bow, not compound (is this correct?), and assumed that it got its enormous power from the properties of yew.

But maybe compounding is only critical to get power from a short bow, suitable for horse archery. I can't imagine anyone shooting a longbow from horseback!

Carla said...

Rick - Yes, a longbow is a 'simple' or self bow, not a compound bow.

Laminating different materials together to make a compound/composite bow gets more power per length of bow, which means a bow short enough for horse archery is also powerful enough to do serious damage at a distance.

You can make a self bow from any suitably springy wood. Flatbows can be made from ash, elm, oak, maple etc as well as yew. Medieval longbows are round or D-shaped, not flat, and as I understand it that means yew is especially suitable. If I remember rightly, the heartwood and sapwood of yew have different properties and if you get them the right way round on the front and back of the longbow you get an exceptionally powerful weapon. Sort of a compound bow except that the compounding has been done for free by the tree. You can make a longbow from woods other than yew, but yew is more powerful than any of the others per unit of length.

Robert Hardy discusses at some length whether the Monmouthshire bows were flatbows and comes to the conclusion that they weren't, based on niceties of the translation from Gerald's medieval Latin.

Rick said...

'Self bow' - I knew there was a term, but couldn't remember it. Is yew generally widespread in Britain? Perhaps the longbow only fully caught on when people discovered the extra power available by making them from yew.

Though the military prominence of the longbow in a military sense might also relate to other factors. This is the same period when the crossbow became popular in Europe, so there was a growing interest in missile weapons. Perhaps the wide military use of the longbow came first, with yew becoming the standard wood when its better performance was recognized.


When I was a kid, I was puzzled by references to 'missiles' in medieval warfare. :-)

Carla said...

Yew likes to grow on chalk or limestone soils for preference. There is a lot of chalk soil in southern England in places like the Downs and Chilterns. You also get large areas of limestone in Yorkshire and the Midlands (White Peak in Derbyshire).

Yew bows go back absolutely for ever, though. The Rotten Bottom bow discovered in a peat bog in the Scottish borders and dated to about 4000 BC was a flatbow made of yew. So whatever drove the craze for longbows in the High Middle Ages it wasn't the sudden discovery of yew. I have read somewhere that although flatbows are generally superior technology to longbows, longbows are quicker and easier to make in large quantities than flatbows. So if you wanted a single bow and had the relevant skills you could make a flatbow out of any one of several woods, but if you wanted bows in industrial quantities, you would want longbows, and as yew is the most powerful wood you'd want them made of yew.

As to why the longbow caught on, social factors probably played a big part. Edward's successful use of the longbow in Wales (he had South Welsh allies when he was fighting the princes of Gwynedd) and Scotland would have produced a self-feeding positive spiral. Longbow archers are shown to be effective in battle; the king wants more and more of them; the king is prepared to pay very decent wages and pardon outlaws for archery service; archery becomes recognised as a good way for the ordinary joe to earn money (not to mention loot and glamour) and becomes popular; the king has access to more archers; archery becomes more effective in battle. Repeat for the duration of the Hundred Years War and you get a well established tradition.

Missile weapons may have become more visible and/or more respected in the medieval period, and so more likely to be mentioned by chroniclers etc. Weren't many of the crossbowmen mercenaries? Possibly a really effective archer arm needs semi-professional troops because of the training required, so it had to wait for the economy to develop to the point where people could be hired for military service and paid in money to reach its full potential.

Barbara Martin said...

Very interesting post and commentary on bows, Carla.

Gabriele C. said...

I think missiles always played a role in battle, but it's only with greater, organised armies that you get specific contingents.

7th century English yeomen might have hurled whatever they could find at the enemy in those many skirmishes and 'battles', probably including some arrows and javelins. :)

But the Romans had every legionary trained in the use of the javelin (pilum) and and lots of archer auxiliary mostly from the east - light mounted archers with composite or recurve bows from Numidia, Osrhoene and Parthia, foot archers from Syria, even specialised slingers from the Balearic isles.

The Medieaval development goes towards larger armies again, and so it's no surprise specific archer contingents would pop up, which in turn would lead to more people specialising in it.

Carla said...

Barbara - thank you

Gabriele - Absolutely, missile weapons must surely have always been used. Archery figures in plenty of the Norse sagas, not to mention the Battle of Maldon, and there are lots of archers in the Bayeux Tapestry. Plus the story of Harold's death from an arrow in the eye, even if legendary, would surely not have gained traction unless archers were known to be a real danger on a battlefield. I am sure the fyrd turned up with whatever they had that could do damage to an enemy, and anyone who could shoot for the pot would surely not have wasted that skill. Your point about the (re)appearance of specialist contingents as armies got larger in the medieval period is related to my comment above about the (re)appearance of professional or semi-professional soldiers who could afford to invest the time in training as the economy moved back towards more of a money economy and away from a subsistence agriculture economy.

I wonder if missile weapons may have been more important in the early medieval period than the surviving sources would suggest. Heroic poetry has a tendency to focus on the aristocratic classes (on the very reasonable basis that they were the ones who could afford bards) and one might expect it to over-emphasise aristocratic weapons such as swords, at the expense of more egalitarian weapons like spears and bows that were available to more of the population. And a wooden bowstave would be less likely to survive to be dug up by archaeologists, even if one was buried with its owner. Wooden shields normally vanish completely in burials, leaving only the hefty iron shield boss to show they were ever there. Metal arrow points are quite small and less likely to survive in a recognisable form than a bigger object like a spearhead.

Gabriele C. said...

I wonder if bows were buried regularly anyway since they were not special the way a sword was. More likely the son would keep it and rather bury the best bronze brooch with daddy because that was special.

Arrowheads can be found. You can trace the arrow salvas on the recently discovered Roman battlefield at Kalefeld; the finds are so rich.

Carla said...

Entirely possible, especially if bows were regarded as rather low-status hunting implements rather than as "proper" weapons in their own right. Arrows and arrowheads certainly can survive, and some are known from Anglo-Saxon contexts. It's just that in situations where a lot of corrosion has happened they may have dwindled down to unidentifiable scraps of corroded metal or disappeared altogether, whereas a bigger object has a bit more chance of retaining enough of its shape to be recognisable, so arrows may not have been quite as rare as they look.

I think Daddy was more likely to get a spear and/or shield and a belt buckle, and Mummy to get the brooch(es). Somewhere I remember reading an academic discussion about why there were comparatively few brooches in male graves; did it mean that men used something else to fasten their cloaks, or that the cloak was buried unpinned like a blanket or shroud?

Gabriele C. said...

That's true. The conditions at Kalefeld are exceptionally good - good enough that even some pieces of wood have survived.

Rick said...

In Europe, the bow seems to have been a generally non-aristocratic weapon. I imagine this was different in horse archery cultures.

As compared to the longbow, the crossbow takes much less training to use - basically it is like a gun, just point and shoot. But they are more expensive and complicated to make, because you have to affix a bow to a stock and provide a trigger mechanism.

The Genoese were particularly noted as crossbowmen. They had been a maritime power, and the crossbow may first have become widespread as a naval weapon. A maritime community would also have the proto-industrial base for large scale manufacture of them.

The longbow, or any high power hand bow, you have to pretty much grow up using, so while 'casual' archery was widespread, it took a whole social structure, with archery competition as a sport, etc., to make it a primary weapon system.

The rise of professional or semi-professional soldiers also goes with the late medieval trend toward 'combined arms,' with mutually supporting units of pikemen long- or crossbowmen, lancers, sword & buckler guys, and so forth.

Carla said...

Gabriele - how very fortunate that the conditions at Kalefeld are so good, so that the course of the battle can be reconstructed! It really is an amazing site.

Rick - that may also be related to the availability of the technology; horse archery cultures tend to use compound bows to get sufficient power from a short bowstave, and compound bows are very complicated and sophisticated things. A good one might be highly expensive and a mark of aristocratic status, a bit like the sword in Europe. Whereas a self bow is, basically, a piece of wood, requiring the same sort of skills in selection and manufacture as making other wooden implements and with the corresponding social cachet (or lack thereof). But I'm just speculating here!

Don't crossbows take a while to wind up as well, thus reducing the fire rate on the field compared to a longbow? Robert Hardy's book has a medieval illustration of a crossbow-longbow battle, and the longbows have scored a lot more hits. All things being equal, being able to throw more missiles at the enemy than they can at you is always a good start.

Can you expand on why a maritime culture would be especially well placed to have proto-industrial manufacture?

Also worth bearing in mind that there was a sort of arms race between armour and longbow power during the High Middle Ages. An ordinary draw weight bow (say 50 lb or so) will kill an animal or an unarmoured man; a bodkin point with the same can kill a man in mail; but when plate armour appears on the scene you need a much higher draw weight bow to penetrate it, and consequently more powerful bows and the archers to go with them are needed. Some of the Mary Rose longbows are supposed to be well over 100 lb draw weight; no wonder the archers to go with them had developed extra-strong bones with big attachments for the shoulder muscles! Gerald of Wales' Monmouth archers in 1190 could have played havoc with mail-clad knights and horses using bows (and archers) that were a lot less powerful than the armour-piercing longbow of Agincourt or the Mary Rose. So archery didn't have to spring onto the scene fully formed, as it were, there was time for the social structure to grow up to support it.

Good point about the rise of combined arms with specialist units in the High Middle Ages. It all goes together.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Aren't there different varieties of yew? (talking from memory here). Wasn't Spanish yew the better one because it was less knotty than English? Also, how many bows can you make from a yew tree? Given their slow rate of growth, how did supply and demand stand up? I don't know the answer - just askin' :-)

Carla said...

Elizabeth - Good questions. There are several species of yew, though I don't know much about the distinctions. I think European yew is all one species but there may well be different varieties within that, or the different growing conditions in Spain could produce wood with different characteristics. Your guess is as good as mine on that one!

No idea how many bowstaves you can get out of a yew tree. I should think it would be a fair number, though presumably you'd have to take them from a sort of ring around the junction of the heartwood with the sapwood, since a bowstave was supposed to have both types of wood in the right positions. I don't know whether a bow that was all heartwood or all sapwood would still work, if not quite as well, or if it wouldn't work at all. I have read somewhere that the massive growth in archery in the Middle Ages resulted in a major depletion of yew trees in England. Which would suggest that supply-demand was operated on the time-worn principle of "Grab everything you can until it runs out". I daresay it was considered bad form to nick the yew trees from the local churchyard...

Rick said...

Belated reply: Can you expand on why a maritime culture would be especially well placed to have proto-industrial manufacture?

Shipbuilding is more demanding than ordinary construction, ensuring a concentration of specialized skills. And in the medieval Mediterranean, naval construction especially called for large scale fabrication of fairly standardized parts, e.g. oars and rowing benches.

The Arsenal of Venice was exceptional in this regard - in the 16th century, to impress a VIP visitor, it built a galley in an hour. (!) Rivals like Genoa had similar facilities, if not quite so developed, and the capability could be readily adapted to turning out lots of crossbows.

Regarding horse archer cultures, a compound bow would indeed be expensive, rather like a sword in that regard. I imagine that in horse archer cultures they were celebrated in a similar way. In the chariotry age, New Kingdom pharoahs like Rameses were portrayed as archers, which is indicative.

Carla said...

Rick - a galley in an hour? That's impressive, even if it was carefully stage-managed for the benefit of the VIP! (Whom I imagine went away thinking he would rather not challenge Venice's naval power). Presumably it was a sort of giant kit of parts and all they had to do was knock the nails in (or the shipbuilding equivalent).

Rick said...

You're exactly right; the timbers and planking were pre-cut and had only to be nailed/pegged together.

But the beauty of it is that even as a gimmick it is persuasive - only a very well organized shipyard could put on that kind of show!

Carla said...

Yes, absolutely. Hence my comment about the VIP's likely reaction :-)