Saturday, February 14, 2015

Before Ascham: Early Works on Archery

Livre du roy Modus et de la royne Racioa mid 14th century book on hunting, contains a brief section on archery. The advice is specific to hunting: the author advises "his bow should be very weak and gentle, so that he may hold it drawn a reasonable space".

Le livre de la chasse was written by Gaston Phoebus, count of Foix, between 1387 and 1388. It discusses archery briefly, closely following Modus.  George Agar Hansard offered a translation in his The book of archery.


"The sportsman's bow should be of yew, and measure twenty palms (five feet) from one notch to the other, and, when braced, have a hand's breadth between string and wood. The string must ever be of silk. The bow should be weak, because an archer over-bowed cannot take aim freely and with address; besides, such a bow may be held half-drawn a long time without fatigue, whilst the hunter stands in wait for the deer.

"The wood of a well-formed arrow measures eight handsful in length from the end of the nock to the barbs of the head, which will be exactly four fingers broad, from the point of one barb to the point of the other. It must be duly proportioned in every part, well filed and sharpened, and five fingers in length. 
"When a deer is discovered approaching the archers, as soon as they hear the hounds are slipped, they ought to set their arrows on their bows, bringing the two arms into such a position as to be prepared to shoot. For, should the animal espy the men in motion whilst nocking their shafts, he will assuredly escape in another direction. Thus, a keen sportsman is ever cautiously on the alert, ready to let his arrow fly without the slightest motion, except that of drawing with the arms." 
He then goes on to describe the different modes of shooting at game in every possible position, somewhat after the fashion of the text; and gives a remarkable reason why an archer should point his shaft in a rather slanting direction when the aim is at the stag's broadside, in preference to straight forwards. He says,-- "There is peril to him who shoots directly at the side, independently of great uncertainty of killing when the arrow does prove fatal, it sometimes passes through and through the beast, and may thus wound a companion on the opposite side. Such an accident I did myself see once happen to Messire Godfrey de Harcourt, who was pierced through one of his arms."
L’Art d’archerie was printed around 1515. In 1901 Henri Gallice published the text of a manuscript of the work in his possession that he believed dated somewhat earlier, to the end of the 15th century. Henry Walrond published an English translation in 1903.

Walrond''s translation contains several errors. What Walrond translates as "target shooting" is some variant of "au chapperon" in the original French, and shot at ranges of 300 or even 400 paces (about 240 or 330 yards). It is better translated as clout shooting in English. "Arrows are likewise made hollow, like balista arrows" should be "Arrows are likewise made hollow, like crossbow bolts".

He explains waxed arrows, trait cyre in the original, as where the feathers are "fastened with waxed silk". This probably an oversimplification.

Our best candidates for waxed arrows are the many arrows recovered from the Mary Rose, sunk in 1545. At the shaftment, where the fletchings would be attached, archaeologists have identified traces of wax, tallow, copper, and the imprints of thread that they believe to be silk.

I think that that a plausible reconstruction is that the fletchings were first tacked down with hot wax and then secured more permanently with thread wound first about the trimmed spine of the feather, spiral wound for the rest of the untrimmed fletching, and then wound about the trimmed spine at the rear of of the fletching.

A final application of hot wax and tallow to the shaftment would have further secured the thread and ensured that the thread was not disturbed as it slid down the bow. Copper acetate would have discouraged vermin from eating the tallow.

Walrond translates tacles in the original as sheaf arrows, but it seems more likely that he is simply using takel, a Middle English word for arrows as well as archery equipment more generally.

L’Art d’archerie gives us insight into European archery at least a generation before Ascham, and it shows how the author thought three different sorts of sports archery, butts, clout and flight, had different optimal gear, which were in turn distinguished from what was best for war. And the earlier texts show that optimal hunting gear differed from all of these.

Interestingly, the author of L’Art d’archerie claims the the English found glued fletchings truer than waxed. Perhaps eagerness to base all reconstructions of longbow arrows entirely on the Mary Rose is misplaced.

9 comments:

The European Historical Combat Guild said...

Hi
Thanks for sharing the thoughts on the translations
where do you base your translation of takel specifically for an arrow? my sources suggest use referring to equipment involved in shooting but seems to be crossbow related...

bookandsword said...

Don't forget sources from Greek Christendom and the Moslem world. The earliest archery manuals which I know are in Greek from around the sixth century CE. Composite and sinew-reinforced bows were used all over Europe even if long self bows appear to have been more common and short self bows may have sometimes been used as well based on two finds from Britain. See eg. the Turkysh bow in that English inquest circa 1300, or the hornbogen in the Norwegian King's Mirror.

The European Historical Combat Guild said...

True though the insights here are in to shooting with self bows, or of the what we would now consider longbows, (knowing that of course that term is not used before the 15th century).
It also can throw an extra bit of spice into the pie, when we add the potential kof bows being backed with velum etc, and then the steamed tip self bows.
While interesting in themselves, and not informative about some of the more important but obscure aspects that apply to archery in Northern and Western Europe

While intriguing the mentions of other bows don't of themselves indicate what or how the bows themselves were made but only that they appeared different enough for some note to be made... Calling something a Turkish bow in the 14th century England doesn't necessarily mean it was a Turkish pastries. Danish Pastries aren't danish... and things that we might call a Danish in Denmark are called Viennese...

bookandsword said...

What evidence do you have of bows being shaped by steaming in medieval Europe? If you have some, that would allow another interpretation for the short recurved bows in art.

bookandsword said...

When the author of the King's Mirror speaks of a "horn bow" that is pretty clear to me. "Turkish bow" is one of those phrases which needs a medievalists to sit down with a lot of texts, hundreds of images, and the "Traditional Bowyer's Bible" to unpick, but we can infer that it was relatively short and relatively curved.

The European Historical Combat Guild said...

There are images of bows with recurved tips, in Northern European art, there one or two surviving bows in germany, a few researchers and authors have information on them and some bowyers have made them, Chris Boyton he in the UK, I have shot a couple of the reconstructions.
There are also images of recurved bows in other parts of Europe, generally in Italy, that are painted with light and dark , sides, in shades similar to the heart and sap wood of yew

bookandsword said...

Thank you. That gives me one name to look up, and maybe I will read "steaming" in an encyclopaedia of medieval technology and see if it was common in other areas of life.

The pictures of recurved bows a little shorter than the user are definitely mysterious, but they do not show how such bows were made. A bow with a light side and a dark side could be painted (or be an artist' attempt to show a flat belly and a curved back) as easily as being of yew. I think that I have seen one of those paintings in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum Munich.

The European Historical Combat Guild said...

No they don't show how they were made, and yes they could be showing other things, but those uóther thing are supposition too! The joy of studying history! ;) O until we find more surviving examples we will be in a similar position we were until the bows on the MAry Rose were found, using the evidence we can.. and some of that is the fun!

Erik Roth said...

Sufficient evidence for bows shaped by steaming is their existence, as well as Ascham's advice that bowyers should use enough heat. A bowstave does not grow with equal curves conveniently at both prescribed ends. Curvatures were more common in smallbows [bows of ca. 5' as opposed to longbows, at least as long as the shooters height]. Waxed arrows would have been fletched with sealing wax to fuse feather, shaft, and thread binding rather than the laborious ineffective processdetailed above.