I’ve always been fascinated by medieval archery. It is a skill I would love to learn one day, but until then, I’ll just have to shoot vicariously through my book characters and marvel at the real-life abilities of others.
Several types of bows were in use during the Middle Ages. The short bow was predominant during what we would consider the Dark Ages, but mainly for hunting. It was not an especially powerful weapon, and had difficulty going through battle armor.
Crossbows came into use after the 11th century and were more powerful and more accurate. They could shoot 100 meters further than the short bow. However, there was some controversy surrounding the crossbow’s use. The Lateran Council of 1139 put a ruling into effect that would excommunicate anyone using a crossbow against Catholics or Christians. Even though this was not generally enforced, there were still consequences for using one. One source I found cited that “despite the eagerness of most kings to use crossbowmen and despite the wage of a crossbowman being twice that of normal footsoldiers in France, they were treated as common criminals if ever captured in battle. In fact, during the Baronial revolt, when one baronial garrison surrendered to King John, he was willing to ransom all men-at-arms except crossbowmen, whom he ordered to be hung for killing so many knights.”
By the 13th century, it had been refined and reduced in size, becoming a popular weapon for hunting that could be used while on horseback.
The bow that really changed history was the longbow, which could shoot long distances and was powerful enough to penetrate all types of armor. A law was passed by Henry I declaring that any archer who killed a man when practicing should be absolved. Mandatory archery practices were enforced under the orders of Edward III. And in 1365 good archers were of such value that a royal license had to be granted before any archer was permitted to leave England.
Enjoy this short video where medieval weapons expert Kevin Hicks demonstrates how to handle the longbow—an amazingly graceful, fast, and deadly weapon. I really want one of these!