I am fascinated by history. The past was so much like the present in some respects and very different in others. Today, soldiers get hit by bullets. In medieval times, the worst that could happened was to be hit by an arrow … but they were just as lethal.
The longbow was devastating. Archers in the service of the English kings were a formidable force. Once in place, their fire power was overwhelming. An enemy’s best chance was to send in the cavalry, at an early stage, and stop the archers forming into massed ranks. Eyewitnesses report that the sky was blackened when their rain of arrows came down.
In most countries, ordinary citizens were banned taking up arms. In England and Wales, archery was compulsory. Boys trained from an early age and some acquired the sort of skills that we see in elite forces today. Not surprisingly, their services were much sought after and they were well paid.
The French used crossbowmen against the English. A bolt from this weapon is as effective as an arrow from a longbow. But the crossbow takes a long time to load and has a correspondingly low rate of fire. Top bowmen could have five or more arrows in the air at once.
The longbow remained supreme until the handheld gun came along. The big advantage of this weapon is that it requires relatively little training and does not involve the feats of strength demanded by a longbow. Despite their inferior performance, the early guns displaced the longbow on the battlefield.
Longbow men carried the signs of their trade in their bones. Forensic studies have shown powerful muscle attachments and a tendency for the bones in the shoulder blades not to fuse normally. This latter characteristic is attributed to the heavy strain put on the bones during adolescence when the body was still forming.