The Right to Bear Longbows

I’m teaching two sections of Western Civilization this semester at a local community college, along with a full-time software engineering job.  As you might expect, I’m busier than a one-armed paperhanger—and so when I prepare a lecture for my students that fits the readers of my column—I’m not too ashamed to let you share with my students!

In 1347, one of the great catastrophes of human history started: the Black Death reached Italy.  How?  Because a Central Asian tribe, the Tatars, besieged a town named Kaffa on the Black Sea.  When bubonic plague started to kill the Tatars, they catapulted their dead over the walls—the ultimate major caliber.  (Or perhaps the ultimate minor caliber, if you consider the size of the bacteria that caused all this death.)  Some Italian merchants inside the city appear to have picked up the disease (or at least the rats carrying it), and returned in safety (they thought) to Italy.1
The Black Death caused the death of 1/3 of Europe in a period of about four years—and as a result, labor was soon in short supply.  Peasants and skilled craftsmen across Europe took advantage of this once in a millennium opportunity to demand—and get—higher wages.  The nobility, of course, did what they always do: passed laws to stifle the free market.  How dare those peasants ask for a living wage?2

Inevitably, the peasants revolted.  Two of the biggest and most well known are the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, and the Jacquerie Rebellion of 1358 in France.  There are similarities in these revolts—but also large differences.  Perhaps the most noticeable difference is the savage actions of both the peasants and the nobles in France.  

The French nobility treated its peasants with astonishing contempt.  As one tale told to the nobility described it, the peasants had become absurdly rich in the aftermath of the Black Death: “Should they eat meat?  Rather should they chew grass on the heath with the horned cattle and go naked on all fours.”3  That contempt showed up in brutal treatment of the peasants—and the peasants, when they finally rose up in rebellion, were frighteningly brutal in response.  When the nobility finally defeated the peasants, the punishments were also severe.

By comparison, in England, the government managed to suppress its rebellion with relatively little loss of life.  The government even met the main demand of the peasants—repeal of a newly adopted poll tax.  (Don’t get any ideas for today from this, of course.)  Only a few of the leaders were executed; the rest were pardoned.  

What’s the difference?  Why did the French nobility treat their peasants like animals, while the English nobility only treated their peasants badly?  I think one explanation has to do with the weapons systems and tactics of the two nations—and how this influenced the relative power of nobles and peasants.

France made less use of peasant infantry than England during this period.  At the Battles of Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415), the English longbow archers played a critical role in the defeat of the French.  The French had archers, too—but they were crossbow archers—and that makes all the difference.

The crossbow is a very deadly weapon—capable of killing at 600 yards.  But it was slow.  Pulling back the string required leverage, and sometimes a mechanical device.  If you got off three shots a minute, you were doing very well.  It did not require enormous practice to use—and so the French government issued them only when the peasants were called to war.

By comparison, the longbow had a shorter range—about 300 yards.  Still, archers were capable of firing ten to fifteen arrows a minute—and being on the receiving end of an “arrow storm” was likely to ruin your day, if it didn’t kill you, or your horse.4  But the longbow required practice—lots of practice.  You could not just issue a longbow to an infantryman and expect him to march into battle.  One consequence of this was that starting with Edward IV, the English government required peasants throughout the kingdom to own a longbow—and required them to practice with it on Sundays.5  Similar laws appear into the time of Henry VIII,6 with subsidies to make sure that all could afford the M-16 of its day.7
Now, the French government wasn’t stupid.  After several of these disastrous defeats during the Hundred Years War (of which Crecy and Agincourt are both part), they did start to encourage peasants to learn to use the longbow—in the hopes of not getting their butts kicked by those English archers, who spent every Sunday shooting at the village butts (as the targets were called).  In 1393, the French government issued a similar order about being armed and learning to shoot.  But the French knights soon began to fear for the skill that the peasants were beginning to show—and this practice came to an end.8

Think about this for a minute: in France, the peasants aren’t issued crossbows except when going into battle.  In England, the peasants are required to own a military grade weapon—and required to practice with it, every week.  It is certainly true that a single English peasant with a longbow wasn’t much of a threat to an armored knight—much like a single upset American with a rifle isn’t much of a threat to a SWAT team—but large numbers of angry English peasants, armed with longbows—well, they could make life short and miserable not only for French knights, but also for English knights, too.  Can you see a reason why the English government didn’t go out of its way to upset its peasants—while the French government might not have cared as much?

I tell my students that history matters, at least partly because history repeats itself.  The big ideas, the common human motivations, don’t change much from century to century.  Right now, the future of being armed in America is looking very good.  And when I look at the idiocy being imposed by our power-mad Congress—I’m rather glad about that, aren’t you?


Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer and historian. His sixth book, Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie (Nelson Current, 2007), is available in bookstores.  His web site is

1 Arno Karlen, Man and Microbes: Disease and Plagues in History and Modern Times (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 87.

2 Bertha Haven Putnam, The Enforcement of the Statutes of Labourers During the First Decade After Black Death, 1349-1359 (New York: Columbia University, 1908).

3 Jackson J. Spielvogel, Western Civilization, 7th ed. (Belmont, Cal.: Thomson Wadsworth, 2009), 309.

4 Christopher Rothero, The Armies of Crecy and Agincourt (Botley, Oxfordshire: Osprey Publishing, 1981), 23-24.

5 David N. Durant, Where Queen Elizabeth Slept and What the Butler Saw: A Treasury of Historical Terms From the Sixteenth Century to the Present (New York: St. Martins Griffins, 1998), 8.

6 Charles Arnold-Baker, The Companion to British History (London: Routledge, 2001), 48.

7 Paul Van Dyke, Renascence Portraits (New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1905), 193.

8 Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteen Century (New York: Random House, 1978), 519; “Bows and Arrows,” Chambers Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Arts (London: 1860), 11:170.