9th Grade: The Social Revolution of the Longbow


This week we looked at the beginning of the 100 Years War (1337-1453), and especially the Battle of Crecy in 1346. The battle, though a major victory for England, did not prove decisive in the long run.  However, it is perhaps the most famous battle of the war because it foreshadowed the beginning of the end of chivalry, and with it, the feudal system as a whole.

As we noted a few weeks ago, the Church in particular, and the feudal system in general, tried to limit the possibility of conflict.  So, only a certain group of people should fight, and then, fight in a certain way with certain weapons.  Riding on horseback with lance and sword required a great deal of training, which in itself restricted who could possibly fight.

This is part of the reason why the Church tried to prevent the widespread use of the crossbow.  The simplicity of the design meant that anyone could use this weapon, a kind of medieval version of point and click.  And, at close enough range, a powerful crossbow could pierce a knight’s armor.  Some suggest that the Church sought only to protect the privileges of the nobility in their attempt to ban the crossbow, but I believe it’s more than that.  The crossbow posed a threat to limited warfare, restricted to a narrow class.  With a crossbow almost anyone could join the fight.

The English had a tradition of using the longbow.  Though simpler in design, longbows had much more power than crossbows, and could be fired more quickly.

Another difference between them, however, is that longbows require much more developed skill than a crossbow.  Like riding and swordsmanship, it required time and practice to attain proficiency.  Hence, longbowmen, though peasants, became a kind of privileged nobility.

At Crecy the English had longbows, but the French did not, and this proved decisive in the battle.  Muddy ground, combined with French disorganization gave the English bowmen plenty of shots at the French forces.  The French suffered untold thousands of casualties and had to flee the field.  We might be tempted to chalk this up to the ‘fortunes of war, but if we peel back layers, we see that it was no coincidence that the English had longbows and the French did not.  Armies that take the field are a byproduct of specific political cultures, and the battle at Crecy was no exception to this.

Longbows posed an even greater threat to the knightly nobility than crossbows, and the longbow could be expected to meet with the resistance of the nobility.  It would take a strong central government to allow for the longbows development.  The king would need a great deal of authority over local nobility to make this happen.

Since the Norman conquest, England had in fact this tradition of strong kingship, starting with William the Conqueror himself, but also Henry II, Edward I, and Edward III, who many believe started the 100 Years War.  These kings created special laws to further ensure the longbow’s use, including

  • Protecting forests with yew trees
  • Giving peasants with longbows time off from certain feudal duties to practice their skill
  • Giving longbow hunters the right to hunt in some normally protected forests
  • Finally, those who accidentally killed or injured others with the longbow were exempt from legal punishments.

Clearly, the longbow was not just a technological innovation, it was an innovation of a particular political environment.  To raise the longbow to the status of the sword meant elevating the status of peasants, or at least some peasants.  The longbow was not just a weapon, it foreshadowed a social revolution.

The Church found out that stemming innovation is a fruitless endeavor, but they correctly judged the consequences of the introduction of these weapons.  The feudal system could approach fairness if each group in society served legitimate needs of other groups.  The nobility had certain privileges, but also difficult military duties that endangered their lives, took them away from home frequently, and so on.  But if the peasants did not really need them for protection anymore, what was the reason for the existence of the nobility and their privileges?

Next week we will look at how Crecy may have spurred on peasant revolts in France, and the devastation of the Black Plague.

Thanks so much,