Five Fun Facts About Medieval Archery

By Danièle Cybulskie

I recently spent some time learning all about medieval archery, and found some really interesting and odd facts to share with you. Here are five fun facts about medieval archery which you can use to impress your friends:


1. Medieval archers liked to wear decorative bracers.

As any archer will tell you, it’s very handy to wear a bracer (or armguard) on the inside forearm of your bow arm for those times when your form starts to slip and the bowstring can whack you as you release. This is a very painful occurrence, and can leave a big, long-lasting bruise. Like modern archers, medieval people wore bracers, some of them very fancy indeed. Bracers could be made of leather (the most common), but also horn, silver, or even ivory, as Erik Roth notes in With a Bended Bow: Archery in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. These could be carved or decorated to suit the taste of the archer, or of the lord he served.


2. Some feudal agreements required the service of a badly-equipped archer.

Feudalism was centered around the basic concept that people were permitted to own land under the condition that they owed military service in return. Feudal agreements spelled out each lord’s obligation to the king, often in very specific terms, and sometimes these obligations seem a little strange. For some lords, land ownership was contingent on providing an archer to the king when he requested it, either for military duties, forestry duties (like hunting with or for the visiting king), or both. In some agreements, the archer in question was to appear when summoned without working equipment. As Richard Wadge notes in Archery in Medieval England: Who Were the Bowmen of Crecy?, the weirdest of these is in a record from the fourteenth century: “In 1342 Hugh de Grey was recorded as having held the manor of Waterhall in Buckinghamshire for the service ‘of finding a man on a horse without a saddle … a bow without a string and an arrow without a head in his army when the king shall order’”. This poor archer might have felt pretty nervous at the prospect of battle if he was ever summoned.

3.  An increase in archery meant an increase in archery-related crime.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as emphasis was placed on training soldiers to be proficient in using longbows for The Hundred Years’ War, perhaps a predictable outcome was the increase in crime related to archery. As Wadge notes, bows and arrows seem to have been mostly used for premeditated crimes, as “a bow has to be strung first before it is used,” but an unstrung bow could also inflict some serious damage when wielded as a club. We also have records of bows and arrows being stolen, and of bows and arrows being used to apprehend criminals. Everyone was being encouraged to have these weapons around and to know how to use them; it seems that they were definitely using them, for better and for worse.


4. Medieval archers often shot barefoot.

Medieval shoes didn’t have the advantage of modern rubber grips; instead, most of them were leather soled. When archers shot a bow that was the same height as they were, with a draw weight in the neighbourhood of 100 lbs, it helped to have a little bit of grip to keep the bow and the arrow steady enough for an accurate shot. There’s nothing quite like bare toes to keep you hanging on. (This factoid was brought to you by Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World.)

Everyone used a bow and arrow in the Middle Ages ;) - from British Library MS Royal 10 E IV
Everyone used a bow and arrow in the Middle Ages ;) – from British Library MS Royal 10 E IV

5. Medieval fire arrows were pretty impressive.

In his book, Roth gets into a pretty great discussion of fire arrows, which were used to devastating effect with some regularity. After all, many medieval structures and all medieval boats were made of wood, and therefore were extremely vulnerable to fire. Roth notes that European fire arrows had arrowheads in an s-shape (in cross-section) to better hold onto thatch, and used “pitch, resin, oil or naphtha on cotton or tow.” Apparently, the Muslim armies had even more impressive fire arrows which featured glass vials of naphtha at the tips that would ignite as they flew, allowing the arrows to explode in fire on contact. These must have been terrifying weapons, and the fear of every sailor.

For more on medieval archery, you can check out my post on the longbow, and have a browse through the great books mentioned above.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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