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A harrow was used for breaking up the soil and covering over seeds. The harrow had between four and six wooden beams called bulls, into which were set iron or wooden teeth. The bulls were joined together by wooden cross beams.
The Development of Battle Tactics in the Hundred Years War
The Development of Battle Tactics in the Hundred Years War
Arms, Armies and Fortifications in the Hundred Years War (1994)
It is a common aphorism that the history of war is too important to be left to military historians. They tend to be seen as obsessed with battle with no further interest or wider understanding of the warring societies.1 In truth, they have done themselves no favours in the past by emphasising ‘decisive’ victories. This overvalues the long-term impact of even the most significant battle and distorts by undervaluing the other, far more common, activities of raid, attrition, fortification and siege in the warfare of any period.
By their very nature battles are ephemeral events, and historians have to rely upon largely subjective accounts in reconstructing them. Some consider this an uncongenial or even inappropriate task for their profession. `Real’ history is to be found in the study of `real’ information, such as can be found in the administrative records of governments: musters lists, tax records, accounts, diplomatic correspondence, building records and so on. Biased and `journalistic’ reportage of chroniclers and government propagandists or the partial and often confused recollection of participants scarcely qualifies as history. Furthermore, the study of battles has tended to be conducted by soldiers.
There may seem nothing wrong with this, but it has led to them drawing upon their own military experience of modern warfare without making due allowance for the differences of another place and time. Just as the historians might benefit from some practical experience of, for example, `living in the field’, the soldier historians’ often impressionistic accounts need more historical rigour. They tend to be critical of medieval commanders and their forces on grounds that are simply not valid for their times. This is true of Lt-Col. A.H. Bume, still the most well-known military historian of the Hundred Years’ War.2
He deserves credit for the work he did in exploring battlefields and his observations may be perceptive. But he was guilty of missing the point about how medieval warfare was conducted, by concentrating on battles alone. He was even capable of saying of the period 1369-1396 (when the bulk of the English king’s continental possessions fell into the hands of his French rival) that: `The war (was) lacking in military interest, for there was remarkably little actual fighting’. 3 When the fortresses which guarded Aquitaine were being lost this is nonsense! As a result historians have tended to see the study of battles as a field for cranks and `enthusiasts’. Since understanding a battle requires study of the tactics employed by the protagonists, tactics have been tarred with the same brush. Surely they cannot be important in comparison to the great moving forces of history exemplified by economic, demographic, medical, governmental and ideological factors?
Yet if it is valid to study the impact of religious reform movements in the later middle ages, then it should be acceptable to look at tactics, since both were important areas of intellectual concern. The former has a higher status, because intellectual religiosity has a long literary tradition and so it can be studied. In contrast, military theorising was part of an oral, vernacular and secular culture, which rarely survives in writing. In fact, from the early fifteenth century there is written evidence that military commanders were capable of innovating, experimenting and setting down how warfare should be conducted and how battles should be fought. 4 Above all they were capable of learning from experience, a talent which is almost never ascribed to the medieval military mind.
So tactics were important. They were important because failure to employ correct tactics could have a profound political impact, in a period when national leaders fought in the front rank of battle. In this context, clearly, time and intellectual energy were spent in discussing and attempting to put into effect, tactical variation. Attempting, for the medieval host was an unwieldly instrument for innovation. This not because it was made up solely of part-time soldiers the hunting classes and their retainers at war, although there was always an element of that, In England, especially, many men made war their trade, and by the mid-fourteenth century there were substantial groups of men-at-arms and archers who might be considered professionals: they fought for pay and made their careers in the military service of the state. The indenture system promoted this situation. (That is to say a system of raising troops by contracts with individuals and their followings, from simple squires to men of high noble rank.) Fighting together over a season or over years such men learnt how to deploy tactically, both quickly and efficiently, and how to combine horse, foot and missile weapons to best effect. This is what made the English and their (chiefly) Gascon allies such good soldiers during the Hundred Years War. The French and their allies rarely achieved the same level of battlefield efficiency, even after Charles V1I’s reforms of the 1440s. 5
It is important to identify what tactics are. A recent, most widely read and otherwise excellent textbook on the Hundred Years’ War confuses tactics with strategy. The chevauchee is explained in terms of ‘Fabian tactics’, which is to say: a policy of defeating an opponent without the risks of battle.6 But the chevauchee (literally a `ride’) was a raiding strategy, inflicting economic damage and so weakening an enemy’s political and moral authority in the ravaged region. The misuse of the word tactics in the strict sense means that they are not discussed as an important factor. As a result, the French reaction to English tactics which was a continuing development from the 1340s to the 1450s – the duration of the war – is not considered
A further definition of the various levels of military activity should help to make the role of tactics clearer.
1. The level of diplomacy, of political manoeuvering.
2. The organisation of forces, how they were raised and paid for.
3. Logistics, that is the movement and supply of these forces.
4. Strategy, both overall and specific to theatre.
5. Operational or campaign strategy involving chevauchee, sieges and battle-seeking or avoiding courses of action.
6. Tactics, or close-range manoeuvre and use of troops and their weapons.
7. Individual acts of bravery (the aspect usually celebrated by a chronicler like Froissart).
So, in relation to the campaign of 1346, Edward III: claims the French Crown (diplomacy) raises forces by indenture (organisation) moves them across the Channel to Normandy (logistics) sacks Caen and advances to Paris (raiding strategy) then falls back to Crecy (operational decision) deploys his host defensively to ambush the pursuing French (tactics) and Edward, Prince of Wales, `wins his spurs’ in the ensuing encounter (heroics).
This is intended to be no more than a crude outline, but it does put tactics into perspective. If the study of tactics is now despised, it is because A. H. Bume and Sir Charles Oman raised them above these other aspects of warfare as the decisive factor – which it sometimes was and more often was not.7 Their views are coloured more than a little by an anachronistic nationalism and affected by their belief in the superiority of English firepower `throughout the ages’. So Burne the Gunner sees English archery as a sort of battlefield artillery (which to an extent it was, but the parallel should not be over-stressed). Sir Charles Oman is clearly influenced in his interpretation by his reading of the Peninsular War. This is the now generally accepted (though recently criticised) view that British musketry in line was inevitably superior to French column attacks, because of the number of weapons that could be brought to bear. The English archer formations flanking their men-at-arms in Burne’s reconstruction perform the same role. This serves to confirm the eternal British-French stereotypes as well. The `Brits’ phlegmatic and well–disciplined the `Frogs’ excitable and uncontrolled as it seemed to Victorian English gentlemen at least!8
A brief survey of archery tactics in the `English’ tradition may help to set the subject in context. The archers’ role at Hastings in 1066, is well known, although the description of plunging `fire’ late in the day is only found two generations later in Henry of Huntingdon’s chronicle. 9 A detailed account of the Battle of the Standard, fought between a northern English host and invading Scots near Northallerton in 1138, places alternating bow and spearmen in the English line. This was enough to shoot down and hurl back the impetuous Scottish charges the day being won by a counter-charge of the English cavalry reserve.10 At Falkirk, in 1298, faced with stationary Scottish schiltrons of massed pikemen, Edward I’s archers ‘shot-in’ their heavy cavalry. Perhaps this was also the plan on the second day of Bannockburn, sixteen years later. But the `Hammer of the Scots’ had been succeeded by his ineffectual son, who mishandled his archers. Moving into a flanking position on the main Scottish, they fell into disorder crossing a stream and were then counter–charged and scattered by Robert the Bruce’s well-used cavalry reserve.11 As J.E. Morris has shown, Edward I built up his missile arm by recruiting large numbers of Welsh and English archers.12 Under his grandson they were to make English arms the most feared in Europe. How did this come about?
The most important short-term influences were probably the battle of Boroughbridge in 1322 and Dupplin Moor in 1332. On the first occasion, Thomas, Duke of Lancaster was in rebellion against Edward II and retreating northwards. Sir Andrew Harclay led the Royalist forces and defended the line of the river Ure with a combination of dismounted men-at-arms and archers. Lancaster needed to break through. He attacked the bridge with dismounted men and the ford with cavalry, but both attacks were routed by the archery of the defenders. T.F. Tout, who `discovered’ this battle, believed that the archers were interspersed amongst the men-at-arms.13
Ten years later, an opportunist expeditionary force led by Edward Baliol, claimant to the throne of Scotland, similarly thrashed a much larger host of Scots by defending a defile with archers on the flanks (fig. 1.1). 14 In the following year, Edward III repeated the medicine at Halidon Hill. His three `battles’ were apparently each flanked by archers. The Scots under Sir Archibald Douglas had unwisely committed themselves to raising the siege of Berwick by a certain day. Their attack, uphill, in the now traditional, close-packed `schiltroms’ of spearmen, was bogged down in heavy ground (the area is still called Heavyside today), shot to pieces by the English archery and then massacred by a counter-attack of English cavalry (fig. 1.2). This was the model for English tactics throughout the Hundred Years’ War. 1 4
Its first application in France was at Morlaix in Brittany in 1342 (fig. 1.3). The earl of Northampton was supporting the Montfort candidate to the duchy. After initial successes in Montfortian areas he bit off more than he could chew by besieging Morlaix. Charles of Blois, the French candidate, led a much larger force (perhaps 3,000 men-at-arms and 1,500 Genoese mercenaries) against him. Northampton fell back to a defensive position a few miles north. He had a wood at his back, into which he put his baggage and horses, and a stream on one flank, adding a concealed ditch to his front. Charles attacked in three `battles’, one after the other. First came native Bretons, on foot and probably quite lightly armoured. They were shot down and hurled back onto the men-at-arms. The second battle charged on horseback, but fell into the ditch. The few who managed to get through were captured. After a delay a third French attack was launched but Northampton had already drawn back his forces – by now running out of arrows – into the wood. Hampered by the desertion of their Genoese crossbowmen the French were unable to break into the thickets and drew off. Northampton’s men were short of food (and endured a siege of uncertain duration, perhaps for several days) before they charged out and broke through the encircling French lines. 15
This was no great victory, although the English were greatly outnumbered, but it prefigured in several ways their successes at Crecy and Poitiers, respectively four and fourteen years later. As Burne points out, Northampton commanded the left wing at Crecy, and his presence may have influenced the tactics on that day. Personal experience and the passing on of information between contemporaries and even down the generations was crucial in the development of tactics.
The next encounter where English tactics proved superior, was, of course, at Crecy in 1346. Perhaps the story is well known. Edward III was in Normandy attempting to bring the French king to battle. He had twice failed to draw Philip into a fight in Flanders half-a-dozen years earlier, and the cost of that expedition, involving as it did an ambitious political alliance against France, had beggared the English government. The stand-off at Buironfosse (1339), as it was called, should not be forgotten because Philip chose to create a sort of fortified camp, which Edward dare not attack. 16 So French commanders did not always opt for all out attack.
The situation was different in 1346. Edward had landed in western Normandy and chevaucheed to Caen, which he took and sacked. He then advanced toward Paris. It is not clear if he intended to bring the French on to him. He may have misjudged the vigour of Philip’s response. Faced by much larger forces Edward began to withdraw north east to the Somme. The English fought their way across the ford at Blanchetacque, near the mouth of the river, and withdrew to a strong hilltop position at Crecy in Ponthieu. This was in territory well known to Edward. A recent paper suggests that the site had been carefully prepared beforehand, as regards supplies and ammunition. In addition, the field was apparently sown with pits, on the flanks at least, where the archers stood. 17
This is perhaps the time to take a look at the old chestnut of how the English archers were deployed. Almost a century ago the pages of the English Historical Review were filled with debate on this subject. Froissart’s description of the English at Crecy laid out ‘i maniere d’une fierce’ has caused much controversy as to what he actually meant. It could be interpreted as referring to the branches of a candlestick, a harrow (the most popular choice) or possibly, by reference to ‘herrisson’ a spiky fence (like a hedgehog). The one which has found most favour is that the archers were deployed on the flanks of each battle of men-at-arms and sloping slightly forward in order to provide a crossfire in front of the main battle line.18 This has been elaborated by Burne into a formation with projecting `teeth’ of hollow wedges where two battles joined (fig. 1.4). There is a problem with this idea as it actually produces weak points in the English line, where, if contacted by heavily equipped men-at-arms, the archers would have been hard-pressed to defend themselves. In answer to this criticism proponents of Bume’s idea suggest that the impact of the English archery would be to drive off attackers and funnel them into positions opposite their own men-at-arms, against whom, for reasons of social status opposing the men-at-arms preferred to fight. 19 I am not convinced by this argument.
It seems that on most occasions the English took care to protect their front with ditches or potholes, suggesting that they did not trust to hold off an enemy by `firepower’ alone. This at least until they learned to use portable stakes as an obstacle. My theory is further reinforced by the advice of Jean de Bueil, in his treatise on warfare known as ‘Le Jouvencel’ (The Youth). This was written following personal experience in warfare, around 1466, and draws together the military lessons of the Hundred Years War. De Bueil advises deploying archers on the flanks of the main body, but protecting them by placing men-at-arms at either end of these wings (‘aux deux bouts’). In fact, this description, and my interpretation of previous deployments, is close to a sixteenth-century layout of a core of close–order fighting men flanked with `sleeves’ of shot (although studying the 1890s debate 1 found that I was not the first to see the parallel). 20
So, to return to Crecy. Edward seems to have formed his three ‘battles’ in the formation shown in fig. 1.5, although this is open to dispute. A recently published monumental work on the Hundred Years War to 1347, has the archers on the flanks surrounded by wagons for protection. I think that this is a misreading of Edward’s use of wagons to protect his flanks and rear from encirclement, an ancient device used successfully against French cavalry as recently as 1304, at Mons-en-Pevele by Flemish forces.21 The English archers had to be more mobile than this if they were to perform effectively. For as J.E. Morris pointed out, they were not ‘animated dummies’. Viollet-le-Duc’s comparison with Napoleonic ‘tirailleurs’ is a telling one. 22 These musketry skirmishers formed a screen across the battalions’ front, disrupting an enemy’s formation and chain of command with their sniping fire. Similarly the archers could have started in front of the men-at-arms before falling back to the flanks as an enemy approached. They could even have skipped between any potholes which had been dug while cavalry were brought down by them. 23
At Crecy then, the archers seem to have been deployed forward and on the flanks. Their crossfire may have only covered the front of their own battle, although they may have been able to shoot over the heads of their men-at-arms owing to the terraced nature of the hillside. 24 Whatever was the case, the French attack failed through lack of coordination. Philip VI is rarely given any credit for generalship. But it is worth pointing out that he had successfully defeated a Flemish force at Cassel in 1328 with a well judged cavalry flank attack. Further, his avoidance of battle at Buironfosse in 1339, and the following year at Bouvines, had proved masterstrokes in that Edward’s campaigns collapsed as a result. Such a policy took some nerve to carry through, though, as it meant accepting the ravaging of his lands without reply, and enduring the taunts of chivalrous young nobles that this was the behaviour of the fox and not the lion. When Philip came upon Edward’s army on 26 August, 1346, he may have thought that he finally had the English at a disadvantage (or that the humiliation outside Paris was too much to bear). I doubt also that he was the same man as at Cassel eighteen years earlier. 25
His dispositions, if he had any, involved deploying the Genoese crossbowman in front, while mounted men-at-arms formed the traditional three battles in the centre, with any infantry on the flanks. 26 But this may be all too neat a description of a force hastily deploying from line of march. Certainly the Genoese crossbowmen suffered from the lack of their `pavises’ (tall shields which protected them whilst they reloaded), as these wereon carts in the baggage train. They have been much reviled and hence misunderstood. My reading of Froissart suggests that they formed up under command and advanced with three great shouts to keep them in formation. That they were outshot was a function of their smaller numbers and more rapid shooting of the archers, both of which might have been remedied by the pavises. But it was the impatience of the French chivalry to be at the English which was the real disaster. Many and uncoordinated charges, delivered frontally, were no solution to the tactical problem, although apparently there was some breakthrough of the English archers of the Prince of Wales’ battle. Philip had no control over the action and was only involved in the fighting when the English mounted for the pursuit.
Crecy proved the superiority of the English tactical system. What attempts did the French make to counter it? Already outside St Omer in 1340, a flank attack had been used to turn the position of forces commanded by Robert of Artois. But the troops who ran away that day were his inexperienced Flemish allies, and Robert won the day (on that field at least) with a determined counter-attack to his front, combining archers and dismounted men-at-arms.27 In Tout’s collected papers, he draws attention to `Some neglected fights between Crecy and Poitiers’.28 At Lunalonge, somewhere in Poitou’ in 1349, an English force led by the Captal de Buch, was attacked by Jean de Lisle, seneschal of Poitou and Jean de Boucicault (fig. 1.6). The French sent part of their mounted force against the dismounted English, while another body galloped around the English rear to capture their horses. Unfortunately for the French their forces were defeated in detail, but they did drive off the English horses, forcing the victors to retire on foot during the night to a nearby fortress.
In 1351, on 6 April, near Taillebourg in the Saintonge, Guy de Nesle, marshal of France, chose to dismount most of his men-at-arms, except for two groups which he kept mounted on either flank of his main battle (fig. 1.7). It should be said that he still lost, and was captured, Tout surmising that the mounted flanks were still no counter to flanks of archers. In the same year, just two months later, in the northern theatre near Ardres, the lord of Beaujeu dismounted all his force to attack John of Beauchamp, captain of Calais, who was conducting a chevauchee (fig. 1.8). Beaujeu died, but the French triumphed taking Beauchamp with estimated English losses of 700 killed and captured. (We are not told who advanced to the attack although this might have been crucial, according to Jean de Bueil, below).
The following year, at Mauron in Brittany, there was a much larger battle between Guy de Nesle’s forces and those under the command of Sir Walter Bentley. The standard English formation was countered by retaining one `battle’ of 700 men-at-arms on horseback. These were successful in driving off the archers who opposed them. But in the centre and on the other flank the dismounted attack, although pushing Bentley’s line back as far as the cover to its rear, was defeated and de Nesle was killed. So the English had the victory, although the mounted French division was able to draw off unmolested. Bentley was so enraged by the failure of his right flank archers that he had thirty of them beheaded for cowardice (`pour encourager les autres’ presumably Burne believes this indicates that only thirty fled!).
The lesson of these encounters is that the French were thinking tactically, that they were experimenting, and that these experiments were carried out all over France. Guy de Nesle was a royal official as was de Lisle,so this looks like an official policy to seek a battle-winning tactic, not just inspired improvisation at local level. That it was not universally successful may be because, to paraphrase Jean de Bueil: `A dismounted force which attacks another dismounted force is beaten.’ 29 So much for the benefits of hindsight but the difficulty in maintaining formation was a real one, and disorder the main factor in defeat.
If King John had devised a plan to disrupt the English formation, he was unable to put it into effect at Poitiers, in 1356. His much larger force had caught up with Edward, Prince of Wales’ chevauchee a few miles south of the city, where the English were trying to get their heavily-laden wagons of booty over the River Moisson. All accounts of the battle are very confusing. It seems to have been what would later be called ‘a scrambling fight’. Edward certainly intended that this should be the case. For he brought his forces into an area of broken ground so unlike most of the plains surrounding Poitiers (fig. 1.9). The map is only one guess as to the dispositions, which were probably fluid during the battle anyway. The Prince’s three `battles’ (one of which may have been south of the river when the action began) were defending a position protected by hedges, trees and marshy land. The French, in much greater numbers, seem to have had only two avenues of approach.
After a day’s delay for negotiation, the French attacked. Edward may have been trying to slip away when this happened, which is why Warwick’s left `battle’ may have been across the river. But if it was, it soon returned to play an important part in the action. First, the French tried surprise, a rapid cavalry charge led by the marshals Clermont and Audrehem but this foundered due to the terrain and the English archery. Then the Dauphin’s vanguard battle attacked on foot, to be driven back after a hard fight. The defeat of this force seems to have caused the second `battle’ under Orleans, to flee. This suggests that it was mounted. But the third and largest battle, commanded by the king, arrived after some delay and also walked into the attack. The main problem for the French seems to have been the lack of coordination between their attacks, as well as the terrain which made it difficult for them to bring their greater numbers to bear. As it turned out, it was the exhausted English who took the initiative, Edward mounting some, or all of his men, to counter-attack. The crucial factor was the flanking movement led by Jean de Grailly, Captal de Buch, who led his mounted force into (probably) the left rear of the French force. The shout which his men gave when they launched their attack was crucial in breaking the French morale. Although it is likely that they still out-numbered the Anglo-Gascon force, they crumpled under the two-pronged attack, leaving King John and most of his upper nobility prisoners in Edward’s hands. 30
Poitiers was decided by one side having and keeping the tactical initiative. Valiant French attempts to wrest this from Edward failed because their forces were not flexible enough to cope with the situation which was presented. Once again French missilemen are notable by their absence, only featuring in the description of the final fight. While the English system could combine missile-power and shock, the product of good discipline, it could not be beaten. The result was that, for a generation, in France at least, the French went back to the successful strategy of avoiding battle. The battle of Auray in Brittany, in 1364, was an exception. Here Bertrand du Guesclin, the Breton mercenary who was to become one of chivalry’s greatest heroes, was in command. He tried the tactic of advancing his men-at-arms on foot behind pavises, in order to reduce casualties and disorder from the English arrows. Although it succeeded in this, the French still lost the hand-to-hand fight and Du Guesclin was captured. This fate was to befall him again three years later at Najera, in Spain, where he faced the Prince of Wales’s army fighting on the other side of the Castillian succession dispute. Du Guesclin’s caution, learned by hard experience, could not be impressed upon his allies, and once more the English tactical system was triumphant.
The battle of Aljubarrota in 1385, provides us with detailed information of how a defensive position was prepared to give a killing ground for the archers. To my knowledge, Crecy has never been excavated, so the field defences are unknown, but in the late 1950s an archaeological dig at Aljubarrota produced remarkable results (fig. 1.10). This shows the left wing of the position and possibly the centre too. Note the ditch, `not so deep that a dismounted man could not leap it’ (Froissart), and the V-shaped field of potholes about a foot square and deep, some 200 yards wide by 100 yards in depth, in rows roughly a yard apart. The Portuguese dispositions placed the English archers in two wings in front of the men-at-arms. They seem also to have been to the flanks, as Froissart describes them as shooting from there. The first attack was made by dismounted knights, who crossed the ditch, but having done so were attacked in the rear by lightly-armed troops, presumably swarming around them, and to the front by the defending men-at-arms. The result was a massacre of the supposedly 4,000 strong vanguard. When the Castillians arrived and delivered a mounted charge they were quickly repelled and the defenders mounted up to counter-attack in pursuit. What can be seen at Aljubarrota must have been reproduced on the many battlefields which are no longer visible. 31
The next phase of tactical development concerns the Burgundian experience, in which the battle of Nicopolis was crucial. 32 Nicopolis (in modern Bulgaria) was the place where the largely Burgundian and French crusaders of 1396 were totally defeated by the Ottoman sultan Bayezit (fig. 1.11). The battle map is taken from A. Attiya’s book on the subject and the best description comes from the ‘Book of the Deeds and Sayings of Marshal Boucicault’. Disdaining to take the advice of their Hungarian allies the crusaders attacked a defensive position. They were unaware that a light cavalry screen masked a field of stakes ‘a bowshot deep’ filled with Janissary foot archers. Brought to a halt by the obstacle, the crusader men-at-arms either tried to force their horses amongst the stakes, dismounted and tried to remove them, or just dismounted and pushed on up the hill. Eventually most seem to have chosen the last option. Contacting the lightly armoured Turkish foot they routed them. But breasting the rise after this victory they found themselves horseless and exhausted, faced by the cream of the Ottoman heavy cavalry. After some resistance there was a general surrender. 33
The importance of this battle relates to the role of the stakes. This is the first reference, as far as I am aware, to such a defence. What is more Froissart describes it as in the form of a ‘herce’. There is an alternative explanation for `harrow’ interpretation mentioned earlier – that it represents the spacing of men in the same way as the spikes of a harrow, that is to say alternately and not one-behind-the–other. If this is what Froissart meant all along, then it is not formation and not deployment which is important. It implies a loosely-spaced group of archers, all able to pick targets and shoot without obstruction, several ranks deep. The stakes add a further refinement in that the archers have a defensive belt within which they can manoeuvre or retreat to its cover. It is almost impenetrable to mounted men and can only be neutralised by the strenuous efforts of dismounted men whilst in close archery range. It was a mobile version of the woods and hedges which the English archers had previously sought on the battlefield.
According to the Gesta Henrici Quinti this is how Henry ordered his archers to prepare stakes.
As a result of information divulged by some prisoners, a rumour went round the army that enemy commanders had assigned certain bodies of knights, many hundreds strong and mounted on barded horses, to break the formation and resistance of our archers when they engaged us in battle. The King, therefore, ordered that every archer, throughout the army, was to prepare for himself a stake or staff, either square or round, but six feet long, of sufficient thickness and sharpened at both ends. And he commanded that whenever the French approached to give battle and break their ranks with such bodies of horsemen, all the archers were to drive their stakes in front of them in a line and some behind them and in between the positions of the front rank, one being driven into the ground pointing towards themselves, the other end pointing towards the enemy at waist-height. So that the cavalry, when their charge had brought them close and in sight of the stakes, would either withdraw in great fear or, reckless of their own safety, run the risk of having both horses and riders impaled. 34
It seems likely that Henry had heard of the success of this device at Nicopolis two decades earlier. If this is true then there is a delicate irony here. Marshal Boucicault owed his defeat and capture at Nicopolis to the tactical use of archery. At Agincourt he suffered the same fate. How did Henry learn the trick? Doubtless it circulated orally, but it was also `published’ (in the medieval sense of the word) in the book celebrating Boucicault’s career in 1411, just four years before Agincourt. What deepens the irony is that Boucicault had refined some tactics to defeat the English and intended to use them for the Agincourt campaign. Dr Christopher Philpotts only recently discovered this battle plan in a damaged Cottonian manuscript in the British Library.35
Bertrand Schnerb points out that at Othee in 1408, John the Fearless defeated the Hainaulters with a tactical plan that mimicked the English system. His main battle, dismounted, was flanked by 2,000 archers who poured arrows upon the surprised Flemings, meanwhile 400 men-at-arms and 1,000 `gros valets’ (more lightly equipped) remained mounted to sweep in on the flanks and rear. We have seen that this was a standard counter to English dismounted dispositions since the 1350s. Boucicault was attempting something similar, as fig. 1.12shows.
Dr Philpotts showed in his article that this was the plan, however ineptly performed, for Agincourt. It proposed cavalry charges upon the flanks and rear of the English with troops of more lightly armoured horse, while the heavy men-at-arms slogged it out in the main battle, on foot. But everything went horribly wrong for the French at Agincourt (fig. 1.13). The flank charges were undermanned and cramped for room and were effectively neutralised by the defensive stakes their missilemen were not utilised but were rather pushed behind the vanguard of men-at-arms whom they should have been supporting. The attacks on foot were swept by archery, blunted by the mud (with the resultant exhaustion of the men-at-arms) and repulsed by the relatively fresh English men-at-arms. To cap it all the English archers proved nimble, deadly opponents in the boggy ground, swinging leaden mallets which they used for driving in the stakes. National stereotypes dominate again!
It appears from the foregoing that chivalrous types learnt nothing but they did. The Burgundian Ordinance for John the Fearless’ advance on Paris in 1417 shows how. This was first published by J.E Verbruggen in 1959 (and later translated by Richard Vaughan in his book on the duke). It is well known, but Schnerb does not make the connection between the two plans clear, although he cites them both. 36 Duke John lost a brother and numerous other relatives and vassals at Agincourt. He must have pondered on what went wrong. So his plan stresses (Clauses 9 & 10) that there must be sufficient space to deploy the main battle so that it does not crowd the van or neutralise the bowmen, as happened at Agincourt. Furthermore, during his advance on Paris he practised his army in drawing up in this formation, in order that his men should be able to do it in the presence of the enemy. Monstrelet draws attention to the fact that John threatened strict punishments for anyone withdrawing from the battle. Clause 2 `. . . Everyone, of whatever rank, must keep to his standard or banner in battle, with no excuses to leave it. And, on the day of battle no-one, on pain of losing his life and possessions (sur peine de perdre corps et biens), shall flee … And (the duke) wishes anyone who discovers those in flight shall kill them and cut them into pieces and shall gain their pos–sessions. And, if by chance they should not be captured, the duke calls them traitors, evil men and committers of the crime of “lese majeste” ‘ (fig. 1.14). 37
This had been the case at Agincourt, when the third, mounted division, melted away it had been the case at Poitiers and it was the medieval general’s greatest problem. What John demanded was discipline. Vaughan does not realise the significance of the disciplinary clause, which he omits from his translation but battlefield discipline is crucial to success, upon it rests the proper execution of a tactical plan. Hence the Burgundian requirements of the creation of units with clearly distinguished standards and the requirement to keep to them. These new instructions gave the Burgundian – potentially at least – an effective battlefield weapon.38
The Burgundian encounter with the Armagnacs at St-Remy-sur-Plain in 1422, saw them deployed with 1,200 dismounted men-at-arms, supported by 500 missilemen flanking them and 2,400 mounted `valet d’armes’. The formation resembled nothing so much as the sixteenth-century disposition of a main body with `sleeves’ of shot, mentioned above. The Ordinance dictates small banners for missilemen (in order that they might operate separately in what were later called `commanded’ bodies of shot). A wagon-fort protected the rear of this formation an old tactic and a good one. When the enemy’s mounted charge was repelled the Burgundians counter-attacked with a loud shout. Co-ordinated shouting was another aspect of English tactics instanced at Poitiers and elsewhere. So when Burgundians and the English combined at Cravant to force the river crossing they were playing the same game. At Verneuil in 1424, the French flank attacks were neutralised by English stakes (although some fell down in the hard ground). The tactical debate was carried on both on and off the battlefield.
The English had a successful system and stuck to it. When it failed in the last two big battles of the war, at Formigny and Castillon, it was not because artillery blew the archers away, but because Kyriell and Talbot failed to employ the tactics properly. But artillery was beginning to make an impact in the field. When the Burgundians used it against the Barrois in 1430 they combined the shooting with great shout. Many of the enemy, ‘went to ground’ (in modern parlance) terror-stricken by the impact of the noise and blast.
So, in conclusion, there is a link to be made between the English archery of the Hundred Years’ War and British musketry of the Napoleonic Wars. But it is not solely ‘firepower’ that matters it is the combination of missile fire and shout – the first to shake the enemy, the second to let him know that you are still confident enough to close with him, which often decided the day. Nor should this be seen as a specific national characteristic, as nineteenth-century English historians saw it – three rousing British cheers to see off the excitable lesser breeds! It was a game to which anyone could learn the rules, if they were prepared to submit to the necessary discipline and to practice. Tactics were a transferable skill and central to the conduct of one aspect of medieval warfare.
1. Hence the growth of the ‘War and Society’ school of history, in which the study of warfare is `legitimised’ by reference to its social context. Unfortunately, and all too frequently, war often drops out of what become simply administrative studies.
2. A.H. Burne, The Crecy War (London, 1955) and The Agincourt War (London, 1956). This two volume work was republished as recently as 1991, but with no cautionary preface taking into account the extensive researches over the last half-century.
3. Bume, The Agincourt War, p. 20.
4. See M. Vale, War and Chivalry (Oxford, 1981), pp. 30-2.
5. The success of the reforms should not be over-rated, if we can believe the scornful comments of Philippe de Commynes about the battle of Montlhery, 1465, in his Memoirs: The Reign of Louis XI 1461-83, trans. Michael Jones (London, 1972), pp. 68-80.
6 C.T. Allmand, The Hundred Years War: England and France at War, c.1300-c.1450 (Cambridge, 1988).
7. Sir C. Oman, A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages, 2 vols, vol. 2, 1279-1485 (First pub. 1898, revised and enlarged 1924). This work has also been reprinted recently (1991), although it badly needs updating.
8. P Griffiths, Forwanl into Battle (Chichester, 1981), esp. ch. 3, The Alleged Firepower of Wellington’s Infantry.
9. Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. TA. Arnold, Rolls Series 74, VI, 28, pp. 203-4, stresses the role of the archers at Hastings.
10. J. Beeler, War/are in England 1066-1189 (New York, 1966), pp. 86-92 analyses the sources for the battlein describing the likely English formation.
11. See G.W.S. Barrow, Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland (London, 1965) pp. 138-46 (Falkirk), 290-332 (Bannockburn) a more recent account of Bannockburn with several detailed maps may be found in R.M. Scott, Robert the Bruce, King of Scots (Edinburgh, 1993) esp. pp. 150-1.
12. J.E. Morris, The Welsh Wars of Edward I (Oxford, 1901).
13. T. F. Tout, ‘The Tactics of the Battles of Boroughbridge and Morlaix’, Collected Papers, 2 (1934), pp. 221-25.
14. See R. Nicholson, Edward III and the Scots (Oxford, 1965), pp. 132-8.
15. Morlaix, after Burne, Crecy War, p. 38 and Tout, ‘Tactics’.
16. Comparison with warfare in the same area of Flanders in the eighteenth century is instructive, especially the campaign and battle of Malplaquet, 1709 see D. Chandler, Marlborough as Military Commander (London, 1973), esp. p. 253ff for the construction of an abbatis in wooded ground.
17. K.A. Fowler, `News from the Front: Letters and Despatches of the Fourteenth Century’, in Guerre et Socidte en France, en Angleterre et en Bourgogne xive xve slecle (Lille, 1991), ed. P Contamine, C. Giry-Deloison and M.H. Keen, pp. 63-92, esp. Document II, PRO, C 81/314/ 17803.
18. For the EHR debate, see E.M. Lloyd, `The “Herse” of Archers at Crecy’, July 1895, pp. 538-41 H.B. George, `The Archers at Crecy’, October 1895, pp. 733-38. J.E. Morris, ‘The Archers at Crecy’ July 1897, pp. 427-36 was the most influential. To him the ‘fierce’ was a wedge-shaped formation. Yet surely he nods when translating ‘deux battailes d’archiers i deux costes en la maniere d’un escut’ as describing shield-shaped formations and hence wedges?
19. See J. Keegan, Face of Battle (London, 1982), ch. 3 (Agincourt), esp. p. 100, for the supposed funnelling of the French men-at-arms.
20. Jean de Bueil, Le Jouvencel, ed. C. Favre & L. Lecestre, 2 vols (SHF, Paris, 1887-9) vol. 2, p. 37. See E.M. Lloyd, `The Herse” of Archers’, pp. 539-40 for sixteenth-century parallels.
21. J. Sumption, The Hundred Years’ War Trial by Battle (London, 1990), pp. 526-8 Annales Gandenses, ed. and trans. H. Johnson (London, 1951), pp. 66, 68-9.
22. See the EHR debate, note 18.
23. Geoffrey le Baker describes potholes one foot square and one deep (R. Barber, The Life and Campaigns of the Black Prince (London, 1979), p. 44) but according to H. de Wailly, Crecy 1346: Anatomy of a Battle(Poole, 1987), 51, 72-74, there is no indication from aerial photographs of any such defence.
24. De Wailly, Crecy, pp. 72-3, n. 2 & 3 mentions a terrace upon which Edward’s reserve ‘battle’ was positioned, but doubts that Prince Edward’s ‘battle’ had the same advantage.
25. See J. Sumption, Trial by Battle, p. 288, for accusations of `reynarderie’ made by young nobles against Philip VI in 1339.
26. Ibid., pp. 528, on Philip VI’s dispositions.
27. Ibid., pp. 341-3 on St Omer.
28. TF Tout, Collected Papers, 2 (1934), pp. 227-31.
29. Jean de Bueil, Le Jouvencel, vol. 1, p. 153. His full remark is: `Everywhere and on all occasions that footsoldiers march against their enemy face to face, those who march lose and those who remain standing still and holding firm win.’ (This translation is from P. Contamine, War in the Middle Ages, trans. M. Jones (Oxford, 1984) p. 231.)
30. For the most detailed map and description, see J.J. Hewitt, The Black Prince’s Expedition of 1355-57(Manchester, 1958), pp. 110-39, map p. 115.
31. A. do Palo, ‘The Battle of Aljubarrota’, Antiquity, 27 1963, pp. 264-69 and pls. 38 & 39a. The pits are variable in length, depth and distance apart laterally, but might have been drawn up on the rule of thumb of a yard long, half-a-yard wide and a foot deep. Certainly, the rows seem to have been consistently ten feet apart.(I understand that a more recent report on the battlefield was produced, in Portuguese, in 1993, but this had not come to hand at time of publication.)
32. B. Schnerb, ‘La bataille range dans la tactique des armees bourguignonnes au debut du 15e siecle: essai de synthese’, in Annales de Bourgogne, 71, 1989, pp. 5-32.
33. A. Attiya, The Crusade of Nicopolis (London, 1934), pp. 82-97 Le livre des fais du bon messiru Jehan Le Maingre, dit Bouciquaut, ed. D. Lalande (Geneva, 1985).
34. Gesta Henrici Quind, ed. and trans. F Taylor and J.S. Roskell (Oxford, 1975), pp. 68-71, slightly modified.
35. C. Phipotts, `The French plan of battle during the Agincourt campaign’, EHR, 30, 1984, pp. 59-68. For a translation and explanation of this document see M. Bennett, Agincourt: Triumph against the Odds (London,1991) pp. 62-6.
36. J.F. Verbruggen, ‘Un plan de bataille du duc de Bourgogne (14 septembre 1417) et le tactique del’epoque’, in Revue internationale d’histoire militaire, 20, 1959, pp. 443-51. This is translated by R. Vaughan,John the Fearless (London, 1966), pp. 148-50, although he omits clause 2 and confuses the issue by re-numbering the document’s clauses. Schnerb, ‘La bataille’, p. 32, mentions Nicopolis but does not understand the significance of the battle.
37. J.F. Verbruggen, `Un plan de bataille’, pp. 444-5.
38. See M. Vale, War and Chivalry , pp. 148-9, on the importance of units and flags. The Burgundian failures against the Swiss are not relevant here!
This article was first published in Arms, Armies and Fortifications in the Hundred Years War, edited by Anne Curry and Michael Hughes (Boydell, 1994). We thank Matthew Bennett for his permission to republish this article.
Arms, Armies and Fortifications in the Hundred Years Waris a collection of twelve papers that discuss warfare during the this period. The articles are:
Matthew Bennett, The Development of Battle Tactics in the Hundred Years War
Andrew Ayton, English Armies in the Fourteenth Century
Anne Curry, English Armies in the Fifteenth Century
Malcolm Vale, The War in Aquitaine
W.M. Ormrod, The Domestic Response to the Hundred Years War
Michael Hughes, The Fourteenth Century French Raids on Hampshire and the Isle of Wight
John R. Kenyon, Costal Artillery Fortification in England in the Late Fourteenth and Early Fifteenth Centuries
Robert D. Smith, Artillery and the Hundred Years War: Myth and Interpretation
Robert Hardy, The Longbow
Ian Fiel, Winds of Change? Ships and the Hundred Years War
Brian Kemp, English Church Monuments during the Period of the Hundred Years War
The Medieval Harrow - History
Much of East Ferry Rd – known as Farm Rd to many Islanders – follows the path of one of the oldest roads on the Island, the road from Poplar to the Greenwich Ferry. The ferry was operating as early as 1450, and this 1745 map gives a good impression of the path of the road (more a dirt track, really) from Poplar.
Arrow Lane – sometimes named King’s Lane or Road – was later more accurately spelled Harrow Lane (the name I’m sticking to). Probably the 1745 mapmaker wrote what he heard. This was not unusual – many place and street names were not written down before maps were created, and mapmakers had to use local or secondhand verbal knowledge to establish names. I have learned to treat early map information with caution it would be the end of the 1800s before the Ordnance Survey made the first accurate and reliable maps.
This 1790s map shows the path of Harrow Lane south from Poplar High St.
What the previous map also shows is a plan of the proposed West India Docks. The docks and the City Canal (further south) would cut Harrow Lane and other north-south roads in two.
Leaving the north end of Harrow Rd (or King’s Rd) as a short street, providing access to the docks.
The corner of Harrow Lane and Poplar High St in the 1930s, showing the working men’s club housed in the old Harrow Lane railway station.
The same view today. Strange to think that this forgotten little road marks the start of a medieval path which wound its way to the ferry at the southern tip of the Island.
It is very obvious in these photos (by William Whiffin) why the High St was so named – it was higher than the more southerly marshland, providing a dry route along the north bank of the Thames.
Looking north towards Poplar High Street). Photo: London Metropolitan Archives (City of London)
During much of the 20th century, there was a footbridge at the southern end of Harrow Lane, providing pedestrian access to the docks and Millwall Junction railway station.
This 1963 photo shows the footbridge looking north.
Looking south-southeast, the road leading away from the gate pillars towards the large crane is more or less following the old Harrow Lane path, a path that would be obstructed by the docks beyond the sheds in the distance.
But, before the opening of the West India Docks in 1802, Harrow Lane ran more or less parallel with the Thames until it reached a point not far from the present-day George public house. From there, it twisted its way in a south-westerly direction towards Chapel House.
This British History Online map shows the situation in 1740. Dolphin Lane was in the west of the Island, another road which was bisected by the arrival of the docks and which still exists as a short side road off Poplar High St. The present-day Alpha Grove also follows a short stretch of the old path of Dolphin Lane.
Superimposed on a modern map….
Don’t forget, for most of its ‘life’, Harrow Lane crossed marsh and pasture land with few inhabitants. This is an annotated extract of the view from Greenwich Hill painted by Hendrick Danckerts in 1670.
This late 1700s painting by David Cox shows the view across the Island (probably from somewhere close to the City Arms) to Greenwich during the construction of the West India Docks.
By 1860, Harrow Lane between the George and Chapel House was undoubtedly dealing with much heavier traffic than in medieval times, and was widened and straightened.
Chapel House was by this time a farm built on the site of the former St. Mary Chapel. British History Online:
The earliest reference to a chapel in the marsh dedicated to St Mary dates from 1380. This chapel may have been the old one, or perhaps a new chapel of ease had been erected for the marsh-dwellers: such a chapelry was founded in Stratford-at-Bow, Stepney, in 1311. The theory that it was an outpost of the Abbey of St Mary of Graces is founded on nothing more than the fact that the abbey owned land locally. Suggestions that it was a hermitage or penitent’s chapel are romantic guesswork.
When the chapel became a dwelling is uncertain, but the name Chapel House was in use by the late sixteenth century. Gascoyne’s 1703 map shows simply ‘the Chappell’ Maitland refers ambiguously to ‘the Chapel-house … the Ruins of a Stone Chapel’. Part may well have been in ruins, for in 1799, the owner, a Limehouse attorney, mentioned that a weather-boarded timber addition had been made to the building about 30 years before: this work appears to have involved the roofing-in of ruined stonework. By 1811 the building was a ‘neat farm-house’ a few years later the then occupier, a grazier and horse dealer, largely rebuilt it in brick on a long lease from William Mellish, afterwards making it into two dwellings. Two or three ‘mean and inconvenient’ tenements were later built on to it.
Remains of the chapel were still present on the construction of the Millwall Docks in the 1860s.
The remains were demolished during the construction of the docks. The site of the chapel is now mostly under the water of the former Millwall Dry (or Graving) Dock.
The former dry dock is now known as Clipper’s Quay.
It never was a quay, but at least one clipper spent some time there being refitted, the Cutty Sark.
The shed behind the Cutty Sark, and on the left of the following photo, mark the site of St. Mary Chapel (the later Chapel House Farm).
Harrow Lane would have passed close to the sheds on the right of the previous photo. However, the arrival of Millwall Docks meant that the road (by now a toll road named East Ferry Rd) would have to be rerouted again further east.
Looking south in 1970. ASDA would later be built on the land behind the fence on the left of this photo. St Mary Chapel was to the right of the fence at the top of the hill.
From its junction with Thermopylae Gate, East Ferry Rd, the road is of course wider and straighter than the medieval Harrow Lane, but closely follows its path.
Past the Lord Nelson at the junction with Manchester Rd and West Ferry Rd (1897 photo)…..
….as far as the Ferry House…
I’m saving the rich history of the ferry and the area around it for another article, but if you’re ever in East Ferry Rd, perhaps close to ASDA, why not take the time to stop and think about the past? This is the centre of the Island, geographically and historically.
The Medieval Tools
Viking axes dating to the 11th or early 12th century. / Creative Commons
In many ways the axe is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, tools in use during the medieval ages. The idea behind a simple, medieval tool like the axe is that its haft essentially works as a force multiplier, allowing its sharp, wedge-like metal blade to focus this force onto a very small amount of surface area. The axe was thus a very powerful cutting tool, that also slightly extends the reach of the user.
Villagers used the axe mainly for two jobs cutting wood and killing animals – primarily wild boars, which threatened their families or livestock. Cutting wood was essential for a variety of tasks, from providing their house with fuel for the hearth, to building structures and even other tools. Finally, the axe was also used to humanely end the life of livestock before bleeding them (to ensure that the meat doesn’t spoil).
An example of a grain flail / Photo by Schweitzer, Wikimedia Commons
The flail consisted of two pieces of wood – a longer handle and a shorter, thicker ‘striker’. The two wooden pieces were connected by a leather strap, passed through holes or metallic loops at their connecting ends.
The flail was used to separate the grain from the husks, in a process called threshing, after they were harvested.
The flail (medieval tool) also inspired the creation of the flail (weapon). Originally this was used as an improvised weapon, but later became a standard man-at-arms weapon. As a weapon, rather than a medieval tool, the flail would have been fashioned almost entirely out of metal.
Medieval tools: Harrow (Duke du Berry, Books of Hours, c. 1410) / Public Domain
After the soil has been turned using one of the ploughs (see below) and the seeds are sown, the earth must be smoothed so that the seeds are covered and protected. In order to achieve this, medieval farmers used a harrow. The harrow was essentially a wooden frame composed of four to six connected beams. The lower side was set with spikes or nails, made of either wood or metal. The frame of the harrow would be dragged over the ploughed, sown fields, and the spikes would comb the earth smooth, covering over the precious seeds.
Medieval pitchfork / Photo by Thomas Quine, Wikimedia Commons
The fork, or pitchfork, is probably the most popular of medieval tools today, because of its connection with rioting villagers “grabbing their pitchfork”. As with the flail, it was indeed used as an improvised weapon in many cases. The fork has a wooden handle of about five to six feet long, tipped with two or three prongs (or in some instances, as many as four or five), which were usually made of iron.
Medieval tools: Pitchfork, Rake and Haymaking (Duke du Berry, Books of Hours, c. 1410) / Public Domain
Forks were used to prepare the ground for seeding and covering, in the place of a plough or harrow, for small areas. They were also necessary for the process of making hay, which involved throwing the cut grass into the air in order to aerate and turn it. The aeration of grass prevented the grass from molding which meant that the hay dried and would have been usable as nutrition for the animals during the winter.
Light Plough (Ard)
13th-century depiction of a peasant with plough / Bibliothèque royale Espagne, Baudouin d’Arras, Wikimedia Commons
The ard, also known as the light plough or scratch plough, was a wooden tool that was dragged through the soil, usually by an ox or a work-horse (heavy horse), though sometimes by humans. The ard was similar to the handheld hoe, but because its wooden peak remained semi-buried in the ground it was much faster and more efficient than the hoe.
The plough was used to turn and loosen the soil, in order to bring the most fertile part of the topsoil to the top whilst, at the same time, creating a hole where the seeds could be planted. The ard was used with great success in southern Europe and around the Mediterranean where the soil is light and sandy, but was much less efficient in the heavy, clay-rich soil of northern Europe.
Heavy Plough (Mouldboard)
Mouldboard plough, from a medieval illuminated manuscript / Wikimedia Commons
The heavy plough was a significant improvement on the ard, with a much heavier blade which created a deeper furrow in the ground. Another vast improvement, due to its augmented design, was that the plough deposited the newly turned soil top-down, meaning that any weeds growing would be smothered without having to be removed.
Medieval tools: Heavy wheeled plough (Duke du Berry, Books of Hours, c. 1410) / Public Domain
Wheeled, heavy ploughs were the last upgrade on ploughing technology during the Medieval era. They were an adaptation of the heavy plough, which made it suitable for the lighter soils of southern Europe and the Mediterranean. The wheels prevented the heavy plough from burying itself in light soil, and the heavier plough blade led to increased crop yields by ploughing more deeply. Wheeled ploughs were not necessary in clay-soil areas, because the viscosity of the soil prevented the plough from burying itself, and nor were they useful the wheels ended up buried in the cloying soil, halting the plough. However, they were widely used in territories with more sandy soil to increase the fertility of the farmland.
The wheeled heavy plough replaced the wooden driver of the mouldboard plough, with two wheels left and right of the plough (see image above).
Wooden hand rake / Photo by Chmee2, Wikimedia Commons
For those who didn’t have the resources or the ability to use a harrow, or for smaller areas like vegetable gardens, the rake was a low-tech alternative. The rake worked exactly as the harrow, but on a smaller scale, covering over seeds and smoothing the topsoil. The rake was also used during haymaking to spread and collect grass.
Rattle, Bell and Drum
Birds – beautiful singing, heralds of spring, winged-disaster for newly planted seedbeds. The average yield of a good field was 1:5, meaning that for each planted seed, you would yield five (nowadays this is closer to 1 to several thousands). Birds could easily lower this proportion to 1:3, which would mean starvation for that serf’s family. In order to prevent this from happening, villagers would equip their children with all sorts of rattles and bells to scare away the birds. For all their simplicity, these medieval tools had a huge impact on the productivity of a field.
Medieval scythe / Photo by Thomas Quine, Wikimedia Commons
Barley, oats, grass (and the occasional soul) were no match for the mighty two-handed scythe. The scythe transformed the serf’s life, making it much easier and less tiring, when it appeared in Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries. With a scythe, one could reap a whole area of stalks quickly by using a simple circular movement the clever design of the bent haft and side handle made the movement quite intuitive.
Medieval tools: Scythe (Duke du Berry, Books of Hours, c. 1410) / Public Domain
Medieval shears / Creative Commons
Shears were mainly used to shear the adult sheep of the flock once a year, cutting their wool for spinning. They were designed like a pair of tongs with knives attached to their edges, and used the thin iron’s malleable properties to return to their original, open position. You can see them in action the picture above (bottom right-hand corner).
Medieval sickle / Photo by sogning, Wikimedia Commons
The sickle was used as a cheaper, more precision-centric scythe, probably for smaller areas and awkward corners. The inner side of the curved iron was sharpened. Sickles usually, as with scythes, had smooth blades for more robust or hardened vegetation, though, they would have used a saw-toothed blade.
Medieval spades / Wikimedia Commons
Spades were possibly the most versatile of medieval tools, and also have had the most iterations and specializations throughout their history. The shovel was a long, hardened wooden pole with a flat, and sometimes sharpened, metallic head, was used for shovelling manure, digging ditches, preparing vegetable beds in the garden, preparing irrigation and, in some cases when a plough was not available, in order to plough the fields.
Winnowing basket / Brooklyn Museum
After the grain crop was thoroughly flailed, the grain seeds were separated from their husks and chaff. The thresher would put all the material in the winnowing basket and then launch it up into the air. The heavy grain seeds would fall right in front of him on the ground (or back into the basket) while the chaff and husks, light as they were, would be blown a few feet away by the wind.
Beast of Burden
Though perhaps not technically a medieval tool, the ox was possibly one of the most significant forces that changed the landscape of the medieval world. Oxen were strong, hardy and unwavering beasts which worked all day, under almost any circumstance. As a serf, owning an ox was a indicator that things were going well. In many cases though, oxen could not be owned by just one serf and they were shared amongst the whole, or part of, the village – this was due both to their worth and their food requirement. Oxes were stronger than a heavy horse, and certainly indefatigable compared to any man. They were able to carry large weights and pull the heavy plough for hours every day. The domestication of oxen was an art that not many mastered, and required fine tuning in order to create a creature which was domesticated, yet still retained its raw strength and physique.
The Discovery of the Heavy Plough
We often talk about the importance of the industrial revolution and how it changed the world around us, but not many know that such a revolution occurred during the high middle ages. The invention of the heavy plough (described above) presented a unique implement which transformed the difficult, low-yielding, clay-rich soil of northern Europe from a clearly inferior soil to the most high-yielding farmland a farmer could wish for. Clay is naturally an incredibly fertile soil, but due to its heaviness it was difficult to turn and renew, and thus clay-rich farmland became gradually more infertile. The invention of the heavy plough changed this in fact it was, almost by itself, entirely responsible for an explosion of population in northern Europe. It was probably the reason that, even with the diminished number of farmers after the outbreak of the Black Death plague, the population managed to re-stabilise and eventually sky-rocket. You can read more about this phenomenon in the article “The Heavy Plough and the Agricultural Revolution in Medieval Europe”, linked in the references below.
Headstone Manor & Museum
Discover the intriguing tales and fascinating facts of Harrow&rsquos History with free museum entry and a host of exhibitions, family activities and community events at Headstone Manor & Museum!
Whether you&rsquove recently moved to Harrow, are just visiting, or have been a resident all your life, you can discover all the historical tales about the local area at Headstone Manor & Museum.
Founded in 1986 by a group of dedicated local residents and volunteers, the Museum recently reopened in 2017 after a large refurbishment, which saw the medieval Manor House open to the public for the first time.
The Museum tells the many stories of the people of Harrow from the ancient past to today. Explore Harrow&rsquos earliest history when you enter the Grade II listed Small Barn, followed by a time travelling tour of the borough along a guided path through the Grade I listed medieval Manor House. Families and children can explore, dress up, and craft in the Grade II listed Granary Learning Centre.
Headstone Manor & Museum regularly has something extra for you and the entire family to enjoy during your visit. Their busy programme includes talks, tours, exhibitions, events and family activities: discover all upcoming events and visitor information
When visiting, why not pick up a Nature Finders trail and explore the area and wildlife around Headstone Manor&rsquos unique medieval moat and beautiful park? Be sure to visit the stylish Moat Café and enjoy a freshly made coffee, a slice of cake, or a light bite while you spend some time enjoying the newly landscaped surroundings.
Headstone Manor & Museum also serves as the elegant, historic background for weddings and parties held in our stunning Grade II* listed Great Barn. The Barn is open to the public on special event days throughout the year. Find out more about The Great Barn here.
The Harrow Local History Archive
For those passionate about researching local history, The Harrow Local History Collection & Archive is also located at Headstone Manor & Museum. The Archive has a long history, being held in various borough libraries from 1948 until 2013 when it moved to the Museum. Containing over 60,000 documents, books, ephemera, maps, and visual material relating to the past and present borough of Harrow and its residents. The archive provides a wealth of information for various enquiries and research topics. Currently, the collection is undergoing cataloguing and other substantial changes in order to create a new research space to make the Archive more accessible to the public. For all updates, please visit the website.
The Harrow Museum is in a building called The Great Barn. The name fits as anyone who's been can tell you, the barn is impressive. It was built in 1506 by the then Archbishop of Canterbury and has a framework made entirely from English oak. It was used to store grains and stable horses, which begs the question as to why it used to be called the tithe barn — at no point did it have anything to do with tithes.
In Harrow-on-the-Hill, a plaque remembers the 'first recorded motor accident in Great Britain involving the death of the driver'. According to a local press report, 'While the car was going down Grove Hill at a high speed the front wheel collapsed, and the occupants were violently thrown out.' The driver, Edwin Root Sewell (31), died instantly. A passenger called Major Ritche died later from a fractured skull, and a further four passengers received minor injuries.
It was a tragedy, but the plaque is incorrect — the accident was not the first of its kind. A whole year earlier, one Mr Henry Lindfield lost control of his motor wagonette during a drive in Purley. His vehicle ran through a wire fence before hitting a tree, mortally wounding him. There is no plaque commemorating Mr Lindfield's crash, makes us wonder why Harrow was so desperate to claim the unenviable first motor accident, considering it isn't Harrow's to own.
Medieval elites used handwashing as a shrewd ‘power play.’ Here’s how.
The before-meal wash was an important ritual for peasants and nobility alike—especially since people often ate with their hands.
No everyday task has taken on more importance this past year than handwashing. From the beginning of the pandemic, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised “cleaning hands in a specific way,” lathering and scrubbing for 20 seconds has become a ritual, especially when returning home after a foray into the coronavirus-plagued world.
It’s the sort of ritual that medieval Europeans would recognize, although for them it was often a more social exercise than we are currently allowed. People living in the Middle Ages are commonly assumed to have had poor personal hygiene, but in truth many were well-practiced in cleanliness. Born of necessity, handwashing evolved into a highly choreographed demonstration of power and wealth. It was a “sign of civility,” says Amanda Mikolic, curatorial assistant for the Department of Medieval Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio. (Discover how pandemics changed medieval burial practices.)
Kings and peasants alike washed up before and after meals. Most people ate with their hands—cutlery was rare and food was often consumed using stale bread called trenchers. Washing away the day’s grime was necessary and a sign of respect for whoever was feeding you. "Let your fingers be clean, and your fingernails well-groomed," commanded Les Contenances de Table, a 13th-century medieval text on table manners.
Medieval nobility and clergy took hand and face washing to new heights, with the rituals around monarchs being especially elaborate. Those who dined with a medieval European king were greeted by minstrels playing beautiful music on a harp or vielle (a medieval ancestor to the violin) and ushered into a lavatory with “luxurious basins … fresh white towels, and scented perfumed water,” according to Mikolic. Surrounded by servants, guests cleaned their hands, taking great care not to sully the pristine towels. Women would have washed their hands before they arrived, ensuring that “when they blotted their hands on these white cloths, not a speck of dirt or soil would be there—proving their virtuous, clean nature.”
Once everyone was seated in the great hall, the king would enter. The guests would stand and watch as the king then washed his own hands. Only after the king had finished would everyone else take their seats. It was “a power play to show who’s in charge,” says Mikolic, “as most everything in the entire program was.”
Strict guidelines governed how the nobles ate, some of which would likely meet with CDC approval. Les Contenances de Table, as translated by Jeffrey Singman and Jeffrey Forgeng in their book Daily life in Medieval Europe, lists a whole range of dining rules:
“Once a morsel has been touched, let it not be returned to the plate.
Do not touch your ears or nose with your bare hands.…
It is ordered by regulation that you should not put a dish to your mouth.
He who wishes to drink must first finish what is in his mouth.
And let his lips be wiped first.
Once the table is cleared, wash your hands, and have a drink.”
Elaborate rituals required ostentatious tools. Crusaders brought luxurious Aleppo soap made from olive and laurel oils to Europe. Soon enough, the French, Italians, Spanish, and eventually the English all started making their own version of Aleppo soap with local olive oils rather than the smelly animal fat of centuries past. Perhaps the most well-known of these European versions is Spain's Castile soap, which is still made and shipped around the world today.
Ornate vessels such as aquamaniles (pitchers) and lavabos (essentially a hanging bowl with spouts) were filled with the warm, scented water used during handwashing. In the wealthiest households, servants would pour the fragrant water onto the hands of those dining. These receptacles were so prized that Jeanne d’Évreux, queen of France and wife to Charles IV, included several aquamaniles among the precious table decorations in her will.
But eventually handwashing began to fall out of practice. Many scholars blame the fork, which wasn’t commonly used until the 18th century. “The whole ritual nature around handwashing starts to fade when tableware starts to become more prominent, when households start having tableware for guests,” says Mikolic, “and then when you can actually eat while still wearing gloves.” (Modern table manners began in the Renaissance.)
It’s too early to say which pandemic-era rituals will stick with us. But today, long after aquamaniles and lavabos have gone out of fashion, handwashing can still be a way to show off one’s wealth. From hand-painted vessel sinks to costly soaps made with essential oils to plush Egyptian cotton towels, we continue to create luxurious rituals around washing our hands. Whenever she uses scented soaps, Mikolic says she’s reminded of the scented water of the Middle Ages. “I always chuckle.”
MIGRATION, TRADE ROUTES, AND ZONES AND MECHANISMS OF EXCHANGE
Sources on broad transregional and transcultural exchange.
Special Issue on Ivory, Curator: The Museum Journal 61, no. 1 (Jan. 2018)
Arnold, Lauren. Princely Gifts and Papal Treasures: The Franciscan Mission to China and its Influence on the Art of the West 1250-1350. San Francisco: Desiderata Press, 1999.
Baadj, Amar. “The Political Context of the Egyptian Gold Crisis during the Reign of Saladin.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 47, no. 1 (2014): 121-138.
Berzock, Kathleen Bickford, ed. Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa. Exh. cat. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.
Blier, Suzanne. “Imaging Otherness in Ivory: African Portrayals of the Portuguese ca. 1492.” The Art Bulletin 75, no. 3 (September 1993): 375-396.
Canepa, Matthew. “Theorizing Cross-Cultural Interaction among Ancient and Early Medieval Visual Cultures.” Ars Orientalis 38 (2010): 7-29.
Cutler, Anthony. “Significant Gifts: Patterns of Exchange in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Islamic Diplomacy.” Journal of Medieval & Early Modern Studies 38, no. 1 (2008): 79-101.
Dunlop, Anne. “Artistic Contact between Italy and Mongol Eurasia: State of the Field.” Ewha Sahak Yeongu [Bulletin of the Ewha Institute of History] 12 (2018): 1-36.
Flood, Finbar B. “The Medieval Trophy as an Art Historical Trope: Coptic and Byzantine ‘Altars’ in Islamic Contexts.” Muqarnas 18 (2001): 41-72.
Fromherz, Allen James. The Near West: Medieval North Africa, Latin Europe and the Mediterranean in the Second Axial Age. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016.
Guérin, Sarah A. “Exchange of Sacrifices: West Africa in the Medieval World of Goods, c. 1300,” The Medieval Globe, special issue on A World within Worlds? Reassessing the “Global Turn” in Medieval Art History, eds. Christina Normore 3.2 (2017): 97–124.
Guérin, Sarah A. “Forgotten Routes: Italy, Ifrīqiya, and the trans-Saharan Ivory Trade,”Al-Masāq, Journal of the Medieval Mediterranean 25, no.1 (April 2013): 71–92.
Haas, Christopher. “Mountain Constantines: The Christianization of Aksum and Iberia.” Journal of Late Antiquity 1, no. 1 (Spring, 2008): 101-126.
Hilsdale, Cecily. “Translatio and Objecthood: The Cultural Agendas of Two Greek Manuscripts at Saint-Denis,” Gesta 56, no. 2 (2017): 151-178.
Hilsdale, Cecily. “The Imperial Image at the End of Exile: The Byzantine Embroidered Silk in Genoa and the Treaty of Nymphaion (1261),” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 64 (2010): 151-199.
Hilsdale, Cecily, “Worldliness in Byzantium and Beyond: Reassessing the Visual Networks of the Greek Barlaam and Ioasaph,” The Medieval Globe 3, no. 2 (2017): 57-96.
Hoffman, Eva R. “Pathways of Portability: Islamic and Christian Interchange from the Tenth to the Twelfth Century.” In Late Antique and Medieval Art of the Mediterranean, edited by Eva Hoffman, 317-349. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Hourihane, Colum, ed. Interactions: Artistic Interchange Between the Eastern and Western Worlds in the Medieval Period. Index of Christian Art, Occasional Papers. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2007.
Hunt, Lucy-Anne. Byzantium, Eastern Christendom, and Islam: Art at the Crossroads of the Medieval Mediterranean. 2 vols. London: Pindar, 2000.
Hunt, Lucy-Anne. “Eastern Christian Art and Culture in the Ayyubid and Early Mamluk Periods: Cultural Convergence between Jerusalem, Greater Syria and Egypt.” In Ayyubid Jerusalem: The Holy City in Context 1187-1250, edited by Robert Hillenbrand and Sylvia Auld, 327-347. London: Altajir Trust, 2009.
Keshani, Hussein. “The ‘Abbāsid Palace of Theophilus: Byzantine Taste for the Arts of Islam,” Al-Masaq vol. 16, no. 1 (2004): 75-91.
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Krätli, Graziano, and Ghislaine Lydon. The Trans-Saharan Book Trade: Manuscript Culture, Arabic Literacy and Intellectual History in Muslim Africa. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2011.
Luyster, Amanda. “The Conversion of Kalila and Dimna: Raymond de Béziers, Religious Experience, and Translation at the Fourteenth-Century French Court.” Gesta 56, no. 1 (2017): 81-104.
Nelson, Robert S. “Letters and Language: Ornament and Identity in Byzantium and Islam.” In The Experience of Islamic Art on the Margins, edited by Irene A. Bierman, 61-91. Reading, UK: Ithaca Press, 2005.
Nelson, Robert S. “Byzantine Icons in Genoa before the Mandylion.” In Intorno al Sacro Volto. Genova, Sianzio e il. Mediterraneo (secoli XI-XIV), edited by Anna Rosa Calderoni Masetti, Colette Dufour Bozzo, and Gerhard Wolf, 79-92. Florence: Marsilio, 2007.
Peacock, Andrew C. S., “Black Sea trade and the Islamic world down to the Mongol period.” In The Black Sea: Past, Present and Future, edited by Gülden Erkut and Stephen Mitchell, 65-72. London: British Institute at Ankara and Istanbul: Istanbul Technical University, 2007.
Prazniak, Roxann. “Siena on the Silk Roads: Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the Mongol Global Century, 1250-1350.” Journal of World History 21 (2010).
Pruitt, Jennifer. “Method in Madness: Recontextualizing the Destruction of Churches in the Fatimid Era.” Muqarnas 30 (2013): 119-139.
Prussin, Labelle. “Judaic Threads in the West African Tapestry: No More Forever?” The Art Bulletin 88, no. 2 (Jun., 2006): 328-353.
Jennifer Purtle, “The Far Side: Expatriate Medieval Art and Its Languages in Mongol China,” Medieval Encounters 17 (2011): 167-197.
Schäfer, Dagmar, Giogrio Riello, and Luca Molà, eds. Threads of Global Desire: Silk in the Pre-Modern World. Woodbridge, UK and Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2018.
Seland, Eivind Heldaas. “Trade and Christianity in the Indian Ocean during Late Antiquity.” Journal of Late Antiquity 5, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 72-86.
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Walker, Alicia. “Meaningful Mingling: Classicizing Imagery and Islamicizing Script in a Byzantine Bowl,” Art Bulletin 90, no. 1 (2008): 32-53.
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Woodfin, Warren, Renata Holod, and Yuriy Rassamakin, “Foreign Vesture and Nomadic Identity on the Black Sea Littoral in the Early Thirteenth Century: Costume from the Chungul Kurgan,” Ars Orientalis 38 (2010), pp. 153-184.
Yakou, Hisashi. “Memory without Mementos: Franciscan Missions and Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s frescoes in Siena.” The Annual Report on Cultural Sciences 119 (2006): 1-14.
Medieval Food for Peasants
The consumables of a peasant was often limited to what came from his farm, since opportunities for trade were extremely limited except if he lived near a large town or city.
The peasants’ main food was a dark bread made out of rye grain. They ate a kind of stew called pottage made from the peas, beans and onions that they grew in their gardens. Their only sweet food was the berries, nuts and honey that they collected from the woods.
Peasants did not eat much meat. Many kept a pig or two but could not often afford to kill one. They could hunt rabbits or hares but might be punished for this by their lord.
The difference in medieval food consumed between peasants and lords can even be seen in the food vocabulary of English today. The lowered status of the defeated English after the French Norman Conquest of 1066 can be seen clearly in the vocabulary of meat. An Anglophone farmer used plain Saxon words for his livestock: cow, pig, sheep, chicken. Any animal eaten by a peasant had the same word used for whether the animal was alive or cooked.
But when these animals were butchered and found their way onto his Norman master’s plate, they acquired French-derived names: beef, pork, mutton.
This article is part of our larger selection of posts about the medieval period. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to the Middle Ages.
How Europe Learnt to Swim
For 1,500 years, Western Europe ‘forgot’ how to swim, retreating from the water in terror. The return to swimming is a lesser-known triumph of the Enlightenment.
A woman swimming in the sea in Margate, Kent, Thomas Rowlandson, c.1800.
H umans first learned to swim in prehistory – though how far back remains a matter of debate between the paleoanthropological establishment and the followers of Elaine Morgan (1920-2013), who championed the aquatic ape hypothesis, an aquatic phase during hominid evolution between 7 and 4.3 million years ago. Even though we may never have had an aquatic ancestor, compelling evidence exists for the swimming abilities of the representatives of the genus Homo since H. erectus, who appeared some 1.8 million years ago. In the historical period, the myths of the ancient civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean testify to a positive relationship with water and swimming, mediated until late antiquity by a pantheon of aquatic gods, nymphs and tritons.
By the medieval period, the majority of Western Europeans who were not involved in harvesting aquatic resources had forgotten how to swim. Swimming itself was not forgotten – but the ability to do so hugely decreased. Bodies of water became sinister ‘otherworlds’ populated by mermaids and sea monsters. How do we explain the loss of so important a skill? Humans have never given up running, jumping or climbing, so why did so many abandon an activity that was useful to obtain food and natural resources, vital to avoid drowning and pleasurable to cool down on a hot summer’s day?
The retreat from swimming began during late antiquity, as evidenced in the writings of the fifth-century Roman military writer, Vegetius, who bemoaned the fact that, unlike the hardy legionaries of the Republic, ‘whose only bath was the River Tiber’, the recruits of his day had become too used to the luxuries of the baths and had to be taught how to swim. Roman baths were furnished with large, shallow basins (piscinae), but these were designed for soaking and sitting and not swimming. Nevertheless, is it conceivable that the majority of the population of the Western Empire could forget how to swim? It is, if one considers the size of the urban bathhouse infrastructure and the concentration of the population living in inland cities in the late-imperial period. In 33 BC, Rome had 170 bathhouses by late-fourth-century, that number had grown to 856.
Improvements in bridge and transport infrastructure and the changes in agriculture that reduced dependence on aquatic resources meant that fewer and fewer people needed to know how to swim. The swimming skills of the Germanic peoples who hastened the collapse of the Western Empire in the fifth century had impressed the Romans during their first military encounters in the Republican and early-imperial periods. Yet over the centuries, as they became Latinised and, crucially, urbanised, they adopted the Roman custom of going to the baths, until they, too, forgot how to swim.
If the growth of bathing culture provides the practical explanation for the retreat from swimming, religion explains the transformation of attitudes towards it. After the abolition of pagan cults in the fourth century, the pantheons of aquatic deities were first demonised and then quickly forgotten, breaking the positive link with water and swimming. The only survivor of this religious cull was the human-fish hybrid, the mermaid. According to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid (1837), mermaids were sentient but soulless, existing somewhere between humans and animals. Andersen drew on medieval traditions that portrayed mermaids as morally ambiguous beings who sometimes fell in love with and married mortal men, passing themselves off as humans, and sometimes as beguiling monsters who lured mariners to their deaths. During the Middle Ages, the mermaid symbolised an ambiguous relationship with water, especially among the mariners and fishermen of coastal communities, for whom they represented both the sea’s allure and its mortal dangers.
The French historian Jules Michelet described the Middle Ages as ‘one thousand years without a bath’. We might revise that statement to read ‘fifteen-hundred years without a swim’. The absence of bathing and swimming cultures in Western Europe predated the middle ages and outlasted them by several centuries. The elegant courtiers of 17th-century Versailles stank from lack of bathing and insanitary habits, simply because the opulent halls and apartments of the Sun King’s palace had not been furnished with bathrooms and toilets.
The only times when members of the Western European elite bathed regularly was during visits to inland spas, seeking cures for the maladies of excess. Medical bathing, though it signalled a return to the water and to a very limited amount of swimming, was not a rekindling of the positive relationship that had existed during antiquity. In some places, as in the city of Bath, the original Roman bathing infrastructure was restored, but bathers, tightly corseted in linen replicas of 17th-century fashions, complete with jaunty hats, sank and sweated rather than swam in the heated waters of the Great Bath.
The return to swimming in Western Europe was an excruciatingly slow process that began in the 16th century. Although we have no statistics for deaths by drowning in Tudor England, their number was probably greater than in the UK in the late-19th century, when between 2,264 and 3,659 people drowned annually. You might think that the only sensible countermeasure against drowning would be to teach people how to swim. But in the 1530s, German schools and universities decided that the best remedy would be a total ban on swimming, which, in the university town of Ingolstadt on the Danube, was punishable by the whipping of the drowned offender before burial. A similar ban on swimming in the Cam came into force in Cambridge in 1571, with severe punishments for infringements: two public whippings, a fine of ten shillings and a day in the stocks for a first offence and expulsion for the second.
Despite this hostile environment, several leading Tudor scholars, including royal adviser Thomas Elyot (1490-1546) and headmaster of St Paul’s Richard Mulcaster (1530-1611) recommended swimming as a form of exercise and as a means of saving lives. Most influential of all was Everard Digby (c.1550-1605), fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, who published De arte natandi (The Art of Swimming) in 1587. A prize eccentric, Digby was expelled from the university: not for his swimming nor for his habit of jumping out on fellows and scholars loudly shouting ‘Hallo!’ and blowing a trumpet. The real reasons for his downfall were his Catholic sympathies in a Protestant-run college. Digby’s disgrace notwithstanding, updated and translated editions of his book remained the go-to text for swimming in Western Europe until the 19th century.
Like many modern swimming manuals, De arte is divided into two sections. Book I covers the theory of swimming, which Digby defines as a mechanical art whose purpose is ‘to improve health and prolong life by preventing drowning’. He referred to Julius Caesar, who, we learn in Plutarch’s Life, had escaped an Egyptian ambush on Pharos by swimming, and other heroic ancient swimmers.
Book II focuses on technique: safe entry into the water, propulsion, turning, floating, swimming underwater and diving. The text reveals Digby’s passion for swimming and his delight in amusing his friends by performing ‘decorative feats’ in the water. Digby had read ancient military and medical treatises that mentioned swimming, but in terms of its practice, as his is the earliest known formal teaching method, it is likely that he was self-taught. What makes the book particularly significant is not just the author’s modern approach to his subject matter, but also the medium of its delivery: De arte has the distinction of being the first illustrated how-to book in the English language.
The swimming breakthrough occurred in England, at the North Yorkshire coastal spa town of Scarborough in 1667, when Dr Robert Wittie recommended bathing in seawater for a wide range of ailments. The advent of medical swimming coincided with the implementation of the educational reforms proposed by Enlightenment thinkers John Locke (1632-1702) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) to include play and physical exercise to create a healthier and more balanced, child-centred curriculum.
Soon, the English schools public schools of Harrow and Eton were encouraging their students to learn to swim to prevent incidences of drowning, a particular concern for Eton with its rowing tradition on the Thames. The school had designated several bathing spots as early as 1727, but not all students learned to swim. The first swimming test at the school was instituted in 1836 in response to several student drownings. In the 1780s and 90s, Harrow School taught its students to swim in the ‘Duck Puddle’ – a natural pond on the grounds of the school. In 1810 or 1811 this was superseded by a second manmade Duck Puddle – a large, unlined pool that the students shared with fish, frogs and waterfowl, which was probably the first purpose-built swimming facility at an English school.
In Germany, Johann Guts Muths (1759-1839) wrote Gymnastik für die Jugend in 1793, published in English as Gymnastics for Youth in 1800, with a chapter on swimming and bathing. This was followed in 1798, by a specialist swimming book, Kleines Lehrbuch der Schwimmkunst zum Selbstunterricht (Small Study Book of the Art of Swimming for Self-study). At a time when there was little or no physical education provision in Western European schools, he wrote: ‘For my part, I consider the cold bath as an essential object in good physical education and a bathing place, as an indispensable appendage for a public school.’ He associated bathing with swimming, thus the benefits of its practice were first, hygiene, second the saving of human life and third, exercise. Like Digby, he favoured swimming in flowing river water, but unlike his Tudor predecessor he did not allow his charges to swim naked. His students wore ‘linen drawers, reaching halfway down the thigh’ – possibly the first reference to practical male swimwear in Europe.
Guts Muths based his teaching methods on those promoted by his near contemporary, the American polymath, statesman, diplomat and accomplished swimmer, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90). According to his autobiography, Franklin learned to swim as a boy, later improving his technique by studying a French translation of Digby’s De arte natandi. In 1724 the 18-year-old Franklin moved to London to work as a typesetter. After he had succeeded in teaching two friends to swim, Franklin considered setting up a swimming school in London, thinking that he could make his fortune in a city with so many non-swimmers. Fortunately for his native country, Franklin returned to Philadelphia, but in 1726, before he left London, he gave one final demonstration of his swimming skills to several friends with whom he travelled by boat to Chelsea. Needing little encouragement, Franklin: ‘stripped and leaped into the river, and swam from near Chelsea to Blackfryar's, performing on the way many feats of activity, both upon and under water, that surpris'd and pleas'd those to whom they were novelties’.
While Franklin had performed for his friends for free, others staged swimming challenges and races for wagers and prize money. The press account of one race held in 1791 merits inclusion because of its outcome: ‘Tuesday afternoon three men, for a wager of eight guineas, swam from Westminster to London Bridge. The victor was carried on shoulders of porters to a public house in Borough, where he drank such a quantity of gin, that he expired in about half an hour after his victory.’ Gender was not a bar to taking part in such events. In 1806, a young woman swam a mile in Norwich’s River Yare ‘for a small wager’. If she swam in the female undergarments or clothing of the day, the feat is all the more impressive.
Enlightenment teachers and doctors may have led the vanguard of the swimming revival, but it was the military who initiated a systematic programme of swimming education. In Ancien Régime France, after a naval disaster had taken the lives of many naval and marine cadets who could not swim, Barthélémy Turquin opened the first École de Natation in a floating pool anchored by one of Paris’ bridges. But it was the European campaigns of Napoleon I (1769-1821) that really spurred the development of swimming. In response to repeat defeats at the hands of the French, Prussia, Austria and several major German states opened military floating pools to train both men and horses in aquatic warfare.
Humans dipped their toes in the water during the Renaissance and relearned to swim during the Enlightenment in schools, spas and barracks, but mass-participation swimming finally took off in the 19th century when the development of the railways gave millions of city dwellers access to seaside resorts and the enactment of the Baths and Washhouses Acts of 1846 and 1878 enabled English municipalities to build in-ground, heated pools in deprived urban areas.
Today, billions swim for fitness and leisure in their own or public pools and take waterside summer or winter holidays. For the growing number of wild swimmers, any body of water is a swimming opportunity. In addition to leisure, competition and health, humans swim for scientific exploration and underwater building, mining and engineering. Our dependence on swimming will only increase as we expand further into the 71 per cent of the earth’s surface covered by water. There may have never been aquatic apes in humanity’s past, but there will surely be aquatic humans in its future.
Eric Chaline is the author of Strokes of Genius: A History of Swimming (Reaktion, 2017).