The Medieval Review 11.06.01

Soar, Hugh D.H. Secrets of the English War Bow. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2010. Pp. 245. $19.95. 978-1-59416-126-1.

Reviewed by:

Valérie Serdon-Provost

This 245-page book, with black and white figures and a eight-page color section, is the latest book published by historian Hugh D. H. Soar, coming after three books among which is the noticeable Croocked Stick: a History of the Longbow. The latter aimed to study the different uses of the bow--in addition to its use during wartime--in the context of hunting and entertainment from its origins in the Neolithic period.

Hugh Soar is frequently presented as a user of archery, a traditional archery expert in all its aspects (history, manufacturing techniques and use). He is a member of the Royal Society Toxophilite and the General Secretary of the British Longbow Society. He regularly contributes to the publication of articles in the Journal of the Society of Archer- Antiquaries. For this work, he benefited from the expertise of three other people. Joseph Gibbs, a bowyer who specialized in manufacturing replica war bows, and Christopher Jury, a master fletcher, have helped to mainly provide the photographs illustrating the book. Mark Stretton, a master blacksmith and an outstanding archer has meanwhile written two chapters about manufacture of arrows, their design, their performance and their ability to penetrate in different situations and against different targets.

Published in 2010, Secrets of the English War Bow is evidently not the first book published about the longbow. Among the publications from the recent decades which have enjoyed great success among specialists but not especially among academics, one could cite: Jim Bradbury, The Medieval Archer (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1985); Donald Featherstone, The Bowmen of England (London: Jarrolds, 1967 repr. 2003); Robert Hardy, Longbow: A Social and Military History (Cambridge: P. Stephens, 1976 repr. 1992); Matthew Strickland, The Great War Bow (Strout: Sutton, 2005). The plethora of published writings on this topic, particularly by Anglo-Saxon authors, demonstrates that the passion for this weapon has not weakened, especially regarding the Hundred Years' War. Furthermore, the same references are still too often repeated, in spite of the recent publications on this subject from academics who have dealt with the historical sources in a scientific way.

We can bemoan the lack of historiographical analysis in the introduction (indeed, the bibliography as well as the notes are quite undeserving). Additionally, the subject matter is unfortunately not set in a wider context: What are the criteria which define the commonly called war bow, what was its genesis, what were its links with the development of powder artillery, body protection items and crossbows? Those are rarely mentioned in this book, although the transitional period under study is essential for the evolution of fighting modes.

The author's preconception is obvious from the beginning: indeed, in the introduction the author announces that the book is devoted to the "most effective and charismatic Weapons of War". This complacent approach explains that the book only partly meets its stated aim, namely, to expose recent research on the bow in military context in the whole territory of England in the late medieval and early modern period from various sources and approaches but also with examples of reconstructions and experiments.

The various contributions of four authors around this unifying theme, however, do not mask the great diversity of historical, archaeological and experimental studies which cover very different realities. The relative disconnection between the different chapters also reinforces this impression. However, the choice of a thematic classification according to the different parts of the bow, arrows, arrowheads and other accessories such as quivers gives unity to this volume while the variety of approaches makes it possible to understand these multiple aspects in their complexity.

The first chapter, which claims to be a general introduction to the English war bow, pays exclusive attention to the period of the Hundred Years' War (with some confusing forays on the early Middle Ages when mentioning Saxon and Welsh weapons). All sources are second-hand, from Anne Curry's book (The Battle of Agincourt: Sources and Interpretations (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2000)) or from older books lacking proper study of the sources. The printed sources taken into account mainly consider the recreational use of the bow at the end of the Middle Ages and in the early modern period, as in Roger Ascham's Toxophilus, and they refer to a bow used in another context than war; we can therefore legitimately ask what differentiates them. Regarding the manufacture of bows, the author does not seem to know the rules of trade or the accountant documents, which, thanks to serial studies, supply extensive information. The few images in this chapter, including representations of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, are intended as mere illustrations rather than as real sources. Moreover, the written sources used have not been subjected to the necessary historical criticism and they are more akin to myth and folklore. The author asserts that no genuine medieval bow has survived and he does not seem interested in bow fragments discovered in archaeological contexts, which can deliver substantial information; he insists right away on the actually exceptional interest of the discovery of hundreds of bows from the Tudor era in the shipwreck of the Mary Rose. His collaboration with the excavation team and work in the Portsmouth Museum leads the author to stimulating and highly detailed technical descriptions of bow varieties and their types. Then follows a section on experimental shots with longbows, detailing the range of lengths contingent on the respective power of each bow at variance with their design and their material.

The second chapter is devoted to the design and the manufacture of the war bow through the study of artifacts found in the Mary Rose. H. Soar is not the first researcher to work on them (see Pope) but he draws new conclusions. He presents some interesting findings on the section of bows. He focuses on a multitude of details such as the species of wood, the power of the bow, shooting distances, which vary according to different parameters. His reconstitution work, conducted with J. Gibbs's assistance, leads to accurate descriptions (including photographs) with some pedagogical value.

The next chapter (3) brings him to detail the arrow shafts thanks to different sources: protective horn nock pieces and completed fletchings. The reconstitution experiments were conducted with Christopher Jury.

The fourth and fifth chapters are respectively devoted to the mode of production and the evolution of war arrowheads by a master blacksmith. He develops a typology of arrowheads from artifacts discovered during excavations in England and then proceeds with more technical issues such as forging. The author of the chapter reminds that arrowheads were massively produced in England during the Middle Ages and he details how to forge all types. The following chapter describes the effects of these arrowheads, when shot with a rather strong yew bow, on body protections, chainmail and other protective equipment (plate armors and brigandines). He makes some very interesting remarks on his experimental protocol and the variability of the results, depending on the different metals used for the arrowheads and for the protections (their carbon rate in particular). The author details the various injuries and any trauma caused; some other approaches are relevant such as the moving target shooting, which by varying the penetration angle can produce some widely different results.

Chapter six is devoted to string bows and associated equipment. Particularly relevant is the study of the design and decoration of the archer's armguards (present in the iconography only from the mid-fifteenth century) and of the quivers from the Mary Rose.

In the next section, the author also insists on specific requirements of archers' training and the variations in results depending on conditions (the importance of the practice of archery by the author is tangible).

In the last part, as a conclusion, the author attempts to place the war bow in the broader context of the Hundred Years' War in analyzing, through his practical knowledge and his technical tests, the successes and failures of this weapon on different major battlefields. This part is not very convincing for lack of use of major books published on the topic and it overplays the role of the bow by neglecting other aspects.

The scope of this work is limited for academic historians and specialists of military history and medieval society. However, archaeologists, to some extent, fans of archery, bowyers and reenactment amateurs can draw some lessons from some very insightful remarks and relevant technical characteristics for bows and their accessories.

To conclude, the book helps strengthen the legendary status of the longbow, in the tradition of many other books on the subject. The author takes over the arguments of the proponents of the great war bow. The emotional criteria and moral intentions somewhat blur military technique considerations, while the latter aspect is made very relevant with Hugh Soar.