The Crooked Stick: A History of the Longbow
This is a history of the long bow (and its indispensable companion devices, such as bow strings, arrows and arrowheads) over 8,000 years of human history; if it tends to concentrate on the bow in Britain, in the eleventh through sixteenth centuries of the Christian era, that is not surprising and it does contain interesting analysis of bows in earlier centuries. However, this is of course not the first history of the long bow, as readers of the De Re Militari website will be well aware. Robert Hardy’s popular though patchy Longbow: A Social and Military History (Cambridge: Patrick Stephens, 1976; 3d edn 1992) also covers the entire human history of the subject (though also focusing on medieval England). In addition, Hardy has more recently co-authored, with academic historian Matthew Strickland, The Great Warbow (Stroud: Sutton, 2005), which examines its subject in eleventh–sixteenth-century Britain -- the same period covered by Jim Bradbury’s fine study The Medieval Archer (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1985) and Donald Featherstone’s enduringly popular but unscholarly The Bowmen of England (London: Jarrolds, 1967; repr. by Pen & Sword as a ‘military classic’ in 2003). All these books testify to the grasp the longbow still has on the popular mind: in Anglophone societies at any rate! The weapon that won Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt is still iconic and the publicity for Soar’s book reflects that fact, with frequent references to the Hundred Years’ War. Given that Soar is a frequent contributor to the Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries (articles in which are frequently cited in his references) and a former General Secretary of the British Longbow Society, he can hardly be unaware of Longbow, The Medieval Archer and Bowmen, but he makes no reference to these works. One gets the sense that he (or his publisher) is trying to corner the market, at least in North America, where The Crooked Stick (unlike its predecessors) is published.
How does it compare to the existing historiography? Is it worth purchasing for those who have read the earlier books on the subject? Does it say anything of value about medieval military history more generally?
Soar, plainly a skilled archer himself, focuses very much on the bow itself and its associated technologies; this may explain the lack of reference to Hardy and Bradbury, since their books were more on the people who used the long bow. That said, while Soar is certainly a toxophilist (i.e., ‘bow lover’) he is not a complete ‘techie’ and there is plenty on the human side of archery. Particularly interesting was his revelation of the important role of the specialist guilds founded to service the longbow in medieval England -- not only bowyers but also fletchers and stringers. Soar also reminds us that the history of the bow is as much about hunting as war -- a point that gets lost in the general obsession with the archers of the Hundred Years’ War.
Nevertheless, the strength of this book lies (as far as this reviewer -- a general military historian, not an archer -- can tell) in what it reveals about how bows and their associated technology worked. It is sobering to be shown, more completely than by Hardy or Bradbury, the minutiae of archery: one appreciates even more the real complexity and difficulty of training, supplying and maintaining (and therefore of raising or utilising in combat) bodies of archers. In addition, by taking the story of the bow from the Neolithic to the Postmodern, from hunter-gatherers to recreational archers and re-enactors, he performs a valuable service for those who are simply enthusiasts and wish a one-stop history of the development of the bow.
Regrettably, however, The Crooked Stick is of little value to academic historians or more serious military history enthusiasts. Soar skilfully analyses visual evidence (including Neolithic rock paintings), surviving examples of bows, arrows and arrowheads, and reconstructions. However, when he departs from analysis of artefacts and attempts broader analysis his evidence base is far too limited. When considering medieval English archery, there is too much uncritical use of literary sources, including late versions of the Saxon conquest and the Robin Hood legend. Both here and elsewhere, Soar simply perpetuates myths. His discussions of the battles of the Hundred Years’ War are based on a narrow range of sources and contribute nothing new to our knowledge of medieval warfare. When he comes to the period of the long bow’s decline, the perpetuation of myths is especially marked. He is in good company here, since Hardy and others, too, are reluctant to admit that changes in warfare, not least in armour technology, may have made the longbow obsolete. Soar purports to examine the very interesting pamphleteering ‘war’ waged in Elizabethan England over the bow’s future, but misses the key text arguing for the abandonment of archery by England’s armies, Roger Williams', A briefe discourse of warre (1590). He apparently does not realize that many early-modern bowyers made crossbows; these seem to have been used for hunting, but this itself surely deserves some consideration. His examination of sixteenth-century (as opposed to early fifteenth-century) armour is naïve, and he simply accepts the estimates of Elizabethan archers about the slow rates of fire of the arquebus or musket, ignoring the estimates of men who actually used firearms.
On the plus side, in tracing the history of archery in England as a recreational pursuit, from the later early-modern era to the present day, Soar breaks new ground; but this is material more relevant for historians of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century culture than for those interested in medieval military history. The index is short and erratic––technical terms and the various components of a bow are well served, but most personal names that appear in the text are not indexed.
The Crooked Stick, then, will interest recreational archers wanting to
know the history of their hobby; medieval re-enactors wanting to get
their period detail right; general military history buffs, for whom the author’s
easy prose style and the numerous illustrations will be attractive; and those
interested in the history of hunting. Professional historians may want to dip
into it for its technical information and for its often informative illustrations,
but it has nothing new to add to debates about how important archery was in
English victories in the Hundred Years’ War, or about the existence,
nature or periodisation of ‘military revolutions’; also, it is
insufficiently reliable to be set as a textbook.
A truly authoritative, overall history of the long bow, even just in Britain, has yet to be written. The best one can say of The Crooked Stick is that it will be helpful to whomever writes that history.