Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Archery for Pleasure or Practice in 14th-16th Century England

There were at least two different ways of shooting bows for recreation or practice in fourteenth-century England. The first was shooting at the butts. The mark to be shot at was set in front of or on the front of a bank of turf or earth. Butts were most useful at shorter ranges since they stopped a flat trajectory miss from passing far beyond the target. In the 18th century butts were shot at distances from 30 to 120 yards.

The second was shooting at a mark or "prick" without a butt behind it. This avoided the trouble of cutting and maintaining butts, but worked best for longer range shooting when the arrows fell at a steep angle, far enough that significant draw and strength was required. A twelvescore prick could be 240 yards from the shooter, and some marks were even further. In 1478 twelve married staplers of Calais challenged a like number of bachelor freemen of the Staple, with the challenge recorded in the Cely papers:

“If it would please you for your sport and pleasure to meet with us next Thursday (on) the East side of this town in the place called 'the Pane', you shall find a pair of pricks (marks), the length betwix the one and the other being thirteen score tailor’s yards, mete out (measured) with a line. There we, the underwritten, shall meet with as many of your order and shoot with you at the same pricks for a dinner or supper, price 12d a man. And we pray you for your goodly answer within twenty-four hours. Written at Calais the 17 day of August, anno Jesu, ‘78”

Recorded marks of London’s Finsbury archers during the 1500s ranged from 180 to 380 yards. Butts and pricks often used a pair of marks as in the 1478 Calais challenge, so the archers could shoot from one mark to the other and then back again, to reduce the time spent walking.

Other formats were recorded in the 1400s, and may have been used earlier. In shooting at rovers, archers would shoot from mark to mark, choosing the second mark when they reached the first, selecting some feature within range to shoot at like a tree or bush. Because the distance varied at each shoot, rovers was seen as better training for combat or hunting.

Henry VIII's law of 1541, 33 Henry VIII c. 9, attempted to mandate archery practice that required both long ranges that required powerful bows useful on the battlefield and the ability to shoot at varied ranges useful in war.

"That no Man under the Age of twenty-four Years shall shoot at any standing Prick, except it be at a Rover, whereat he shall change at every Shoot his Mark, upon Pain for every Shoot doing the contrary, iv. d. and that no Person above the said Age of twenty-four Years shall shoot at any Mark of eleven Score Yards or under, with any Prick-shaft or Flight, under the Pain to forfeit for every Shoot, six Shillings Eight-pence"

The mark itself could take a number of forms. The early fourteenth-century Luttrell Psalter shows a garland or circlet set against the butt about chest-high, and garlands were also the mark in the fifteenth-century Gest of Robin Hood. Other early marks were small circular pieces of paper or pasteboard, fixed to the butt or a post in front of it by a wooden pin or wand, or peeled willow or hazel wands set up as marks. An alternative mark was the “clout” (cloth), a piece of white fabric large enough to be seen from the shooting distance, fastened to a sharpened stick driven upright into the ground so that the bottom of the clout almost reached the ground. The modern archery target of concentric circles seems to have been a seventeenth-century innovation.

For most marks the winner was simply the closest arrow to the mark, and at longer ranges, the mark itself would rarely be hit. The garland was probably scored similarly to eighteenth-century “shooting within the inches”: each shot that hit within a twelve-inch diameter circle counted at thirty yards. At sixty yards the circle was twenty inches. Typically, each archer shot two arrows at the mark, the arrows were collected and scored, and then the bowmen would shoot at the next mark. The heads of arrows for shooting at marks had a specialized shape that differed from heads used for hunting or war: barbless and streamlined with a swelling shoulder so the archer could consistently draw to full length by feel. When shooting at rovers, archers might carry more than one pair of arrows so they could have arrows suited for different ranges.

In shooting at the popinjay, archers took turns attempting to knock an artificial parrot off the top of a church steeple or tall pole. This was popular on the continent perhaps as early as the 13th century, and Stowe reports that crossbow-makers had brought the sport to London by the 16th.

Alternatively, arrows could be purely for distance, either with lightweight flight arrows or the heavier standard arrow.

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