Issue: 27

Not just a string & a bent stick...
More thoughts on archery in a wargames context
by David Brewer

One thing that I have noticed among historical wargamers is that the content of debate is often confined to technological and military history, with scarcely a thought to the cultural and political context. This often leads to strange discussions and arguments. One opinion I saw recently on the net was that longbows could not have been as "good" as crossbows because top French mercenaries did not trouble themselves to use them!

Considerations of a soldier's equipment, morale and tactics ought not to be separated from the cultural circumstances of his origin. A sweeping generalisation applicable to all periods of history would be the more suicidal the role, the more social kudos is derived. Another would be that a soldier's social class is a good indication of his battlefield utility. No successful army ever depended on grotty bow-wielding peons. No one would expect such levies to be of use and no social disgrace would be incurred when they fled. On the other end of the scale the elite, war-winning troops are those who do not break and run, else how could they have earned such status?

The core of medieval re-enactors come from a culture of hairy machismo and heavy metal. The natural emphasis of these types is toward melee combat, clashing polearm and sword to impress each other and pose in front of the girls. Those who prefer archery tend to be drawn from (and derided by the macho as) the timid, the old, the partially sighted, the female (yipes!) and the hen-pecked husbands. Not to mention the Comedy Bishop...

This is far from analogous to those lusty yeoman archers who need to maintain their face among their peers and in front of their feudal superiors. Gary Hughes' comments in his article in Ragnarok 19, concerning how battles fought by English armies dominated by archers were settled in close combat should have suggested to him that the archers were getting well stuck in! Fortunately for re-enactment, New Wave Archers with the historically correct sword and bucklers ad the temperament to use them are coming forward, so perhaps re-enactments will see some more entertaining bowmen in future!

Another mistaken impression comes some-times from seeing fine arms and armour in museums. Such pieces have been kept beyond their obsolescence as objects d'art: livery - and ammunition - quality kit sadly have not. Modern soldiery in combat seem to have little moral trouble losing equipment when it be-comes inconvenient. By their natures wooden bows are strong and resistant to damage when trodden into soft ground. However, if the bow is provided by your paymaster, what care you?

When applying historical prototype to fantasy stereotype we would do well to consider the cultural circumstances that are postulated and throw in huge dose of creative exaggeration.

Orcs and goblins are usually drawn as a hierarchical and tribal society with the orcs on top. If goblin archers were a devastating force to be reckoned with then they would surely have a higher status; but no, they are not expected to win glory or battles. If that was the role of the bow in that culture, you can be sure it would be the orcs who would wield them.

The elven longbow stereotype usually places such troops in the high social order, and when the alternative to staying put and fighting to the last pointy-ear is to allow the Forces of Evil to Plunge the World into Eternal Darkness... well I leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

See also: