Study Reveals Medieval Longbows Were As Devastating As Modern Guns

Updated
7 May, 2020 – 23:04
Ed Whelan
Study Reveals Medieval Longbows Were As Devastating As Modern Guns

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A study has revealed the amazing power of the English medieval longbow. British researchers have found that they caused horrific injuries, based on their study of human remains. They have likened the wounds inflicted by longbows to those inflicted by modern guns. These findings are helping to explain why the English army was so successful in the Middle Ages.
Between 1997 and 2007, archaeologists excavated the burial site at a Dominican friary in the historic city of Exeter, in the southwest of England.  It was unearthed as part of the construction of a shopping mall. At the site “archaeologists discovered at least three teeth and 22 human bone fragments, including near-complete parts of the skull, leg bones, and upper arms,” reports IFL Science. Many of the bone fragments show evidence of trauma. A team of researchers from the University of Exeter studied the remains, which carbon dating revealed to be from the 13th to the 17th century.
Super-Weapon That Caused Horrific Wounds
They established that the trauma on many of the bones was probably the result of arrows that came from a longbow, which was renowned for its power. According to the University of Exeter, “arrows fired from a longbow could penetrate right through the human skull.” These weapons were often six feet (1.8m) in height and made of yew, which made them strong and flexible.

The English longbowmen were greatly feared during the Middle Ages and they proved decisive during the One Hundred Years War. Documentary records indicate that they inflicted heavy casualties on the French and they often caused appalling wounds. They could even pierce armor and at the Battles of Crecy and Agincourt, longbowmen killed many knights. Professor Oliver Creighton, an archaeologist who led the study, told The Times that when the English employed the weapon “the psychological advantage would have been apparent” on the battlefield.
Depiction of the Battle of Agincourt during the One Hundred Years’ War, where the medieval longbow is believed to have been very effective in helping the English Henry V win the battle. (Public domain)
Depiction of the Battle of Agincourt during the One Hundred Years’ War, where the medieval longbow is believed to have been very effective in helping the English Henry V win the battle. (Public domain)

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Arrow Pierced Skull Reveals Clues
The study of a skull dating to the 14 th century showed the sheer power of the longbow. It was evident that an arrow from the weapon went straight through the right eye of the person and left a large entry and exit wounds. The damage to the skull is indeed similar to that inflicted by a gun blast. According to The Times, researchers believe that the damage inflicted by the weapon was as severe as the wounds caused by “sub-machine guns and hollow-point bullets.”

Exit wounds inflicted by a medieval longbow. The wound can be seen on the cranial remains used in the study. (Oliver Creighton / University of Exeter)
Exit wounds inflicted by a medieval longbow. The wound can be seen on the cranial remains used in the study. (Oliver Creighton / University of Exeter)
A wound to the eye would have had a particular significance to the medieval mind. IFL Science quotes Prof Creighton as stating that “in the medieval world, death caused by an arrow in the eye or the face could have special significance. Clerical writers sometimes saw the injury as a divinely ordained punishment.” Those who died from this wound, such as King Harold at the Battle of Hastings (1066) were often viewed as great sinners.
It is believed that the type of arrow that caused the hideous wound was a bodkin. This had a square or lozenge-shaped arrowhead and was often used to penetrate plated armor. The evidence suggests that the arrowhead passed through the head of the victim, but the shaft remained fixed in the skull and when it was extracted, it caused further trauma. A tibia found at the burial site showed that an arrow from a longbow could penetrate flesh and go straight into the bone.
A square-shaped wound seen just over the right eye on the cranium, which was inflicted by a medieval longbow. (Oliver Creighton / University of Exeter)
A square-shaped wound seen just over the right eye on the cranium, which was inflicted by a medieval longbow. (Oliver Creighton / University of Exeter)
Fallen in Battle
The arrows from the longbow were so effective because of the ingenious way that they were made. They were made, or to use the technical term fletched so that they were accurate. The University of Exeter reports that the study “provides evidence this arrow at least was fletched to spin clockwise as it hit a victim.” This meant that the arrow hit its target with great power. The design of the arrow has been likened to the spinning of a bullet as a result of the rifling in the barrel of a gun.
It appears that the human skeletons examined had been buried elsewhere but had been reburied in the friary at some later date. This burial site was preserved for the elite in Exeter, including local knights. The remains may be of those that had been killed in battle and reburied in a family plot in their native place. This study is helping researchers to understand how those who fell in battle were buried in the medieval period.

The study confirms the medieval chronicles’ description of the longbow, as a fearsome and highly effective weapon. Professor Creighton told the University of Exeter that “these results have profound implications for our understanding of the power of the medieval longbow; for how we recognize arrow trauma in the archaeological record.” Now we have a better insight into the brutal nature of medieval conflict. A full report on the study has been published in the Antiquaries Journal.
Top image: Main: Representation of a man firing a medieval longbow. (Oksana Volina / Adobe stock).     Inset: Exit wounds seen on the cranium used in the study. (Oliver Creighton / University of Exeter)
By Ed Whelan
 

Section: NewsHistory & Archaeology

Tags: englandEnglishLongbowmiddle agesDark Agesmedievalbowarrowweapongunbullet

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