In 1346, Edward III, King of England, attacked the French at Crécy. Edward III was known as a brash, calculating, and above all ambitious man. The conquest of Normandy was his goal in France and to win it Edward brought with him a new and terrible technology. Alongside his lines of men-at-arms, knights, and longbowmen, Edward III brought the first regiment of European gunmen in history. Trained commoners, they stood, guns in hand, ready to fire upon the advancing French cavalry. And while their guns were laughably inaccurate compared with the longbowmen, the sheer destructive power of gunpowder would more than prove itself on the battlefield. Soon the era of the archer would be over.
In some ways, this was a shame, because while the history of gunpowder is itself endlessly fascinating, the archer has left an inerasable mark on the history of warfare, culture, and even on the very bones of the men themselves.
The first thing to understand that, no matter what popular culture would have you believe, bows were in no way a weapon for willowy, weak characters. These weapons, especially the ultra-high load bows drawn by English longbowmen and Mongolian archers, delivered incredible power. An account from 12th century Wales illustrates the damage an arrow could do.
… [I]n the war against the Welsh, one of the men of arms was struck by an arrow shot at him by a Welshman. It went right through his thigh, high up, where it was protected inside and outside the leg by his iron cuirasses, and then through the skirt of his leather tunic; next it penetrated that part of the saddle which is called the alva or seat; and finally it lodged in his horse, driving so deep that it killed the animal. -Gerald of Wales, 1191
These arrows could puncture plate armor. In order to use these weapons the archers often had to train for their entire lives. Edward III formally declared: “Whereas the people of our realm, rich and poor alike, were accustomed formerly in their games to practise archery –… that every man in the same country, if he be able-bodied, shall, upon holidays, make use, in his games, of bows and arrows… and so learn and practise archery.” He liked to experiment with gunpowder, but Edward III knew the power of the bow.
This lifelong training left its mark on the archer. We can actually identify a longbowman’s skeleton by the damage they have done to their bones; otherwise rare defects show up along the shoulder blades, wrists, and elbows. The act of drawing back hundreds of pounds of force every day, hundreds of times per day, strained ligaments and bones to such an extent that some skeletons even started growing extra bone to compensate. Their devotion to their skill permanently changed their bodies enough that we can still identify them hundreds of years later. Few other professions can so easily claim the same.