- The Romance of Archery: A Social History of the Longbow
Hugh Soar is, by anyone’s standards, an expert on archery, particularly the history and development of the English longbow. His earlier books, The Crooked Stick—A History of the Longbow (2004), which detailed the description of the weapon from its earliest use to the present and Secrets of the English War Bow (2006), which used recent discoveries to examine this most English of weapons, set the stage for his most recent exploration of the uses for the longbow. Based on his earlier research, Soar has taken an unexpected route this time. He has decided to investigate how archery moved from the practice of war to its use in recreation and social diversion. Soar traces the longbow’s path from the early sixteenth century up to the latter part of the twentieth century.
Soar does not hold the reader in suspense as to the impetus for the transformation of the longbow from weapon to article of social enjoyment. He states in the introduction that only when the war bow ceased to be mandated as the national weapon, with the attendant compulsion of practice for martial excellence, could the longbow be viewed as a fully recreational pastime. This conversion was actually a long time coming since it was a tradition, and later English law, that every boy be provided with a bow and two arrows from the age of seven with the responsibility of instruction and practice falling to the boy’s father. Soar does point out that, even though the law required all males to have bows, many did not practice religiously. This is where the archery societies came in. Getting groups of men to form clubs and even wager during mandated practice provided a much better environment in getting them to follow the statute. As the handgun and crossbow replaced the longbow as weapon of choice by 1541 and the law was relaxed, these societies remained and, in some cases, flourished.
As with all recreational forays in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, these archery clubs were dominated by the leisure class—the only segment of society that had the time for such pursuits once the statute law was abolished. They were broken down into two main types of shooting, target and roving. Roving was a golf-like activity that consisted of groups of archers shooting at fixed marks with known distances. This required access to a large open area (not unlike a golf course), which is another reason that these clubs became the province of the landed classes. Like golf, roving consisted of special attire, eating and drinking before and after competition, the use of a warning (“Fast”) for errant shots, and no women—at least for the first two or three centuries. Though mixed clubs formed as early as 1787, it was not until Princess Victoria became queen in 1837 that women were allowed to join the archery societies en masse. This transformed these clubs from a raucous entity to elegant propriety almost immediately. Since archery was a relatively undemanding activity, men and women could compete side by side for the most part. This added the unintended benefit of affording the young a chance to meet prospective partners in a much more relaxed environment than society at the time usually afforded—thus, the romance of archery in its most literal of definitions. [End Page 347]
Soar uses much of the middle chapters of this book to describe the evolution of longbows, arrows, and manner of dress of the archers, both men and women. He has done an immense amount of research and writes with incredible detail. All this detail is used to set the scene for the following chapters that deal with the progress of competition. Once contests became more mainstream and inclusionary, especially after acceptance into the Olympic games, equipment began to change. The venerable longbow, made of wood and placing a premium on style and form, started to fall...