Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Aristocrats, Then & Now (Part 2)

Aristocrats, Then & Now (Part 2)

Others have pointed out that Henry VIII's prohibition of poor people having handguns was not so much driven by hostility towards these new weapons, but a desire to get the militia practicing with the more practical weapon: the longbow:
In the sixteenth century we meet with heavy complaints respecting the disuse of the long bow. In the reign of Henry VIII. three several acts were made for promoting the practice of shooting with the long bow; one prohibiting the use of the cross-bows and hand-guns; another was occasioned by a complaint from the bowyers, fletchers or arrow makers, stringers, and arrow-head makers, stating that many unlawful games were practised in the open fields, to the detriment of the public morals and the great decay of archery. These games were, therefore, strictly prohibited by parliament, and a third act followed, which obliged every man, being the king's subject, to exercise himself in shooting with the long bow, and also to keep a bow with arrows continually in his house. Fathers and guardians were also commanded to teach the male children the use of the long how, and to have at all times bows provided for them as soon as they arrived at the age of seven years. Masters were ordered to find bows for their apprentices, and to compel them to learn to shoot with them upon holidays, and at every other convenient time. [Remains, Historical and Literary, Connected With The Palatine Counties of Lancaster and Chester 41[part 2]:459 (1856)]
Oh yes: the law subsidized the longbow, so that everyone could afford it.

I've just finished reading Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, which I highly recommend, but I thought that I would share another nugget of how aristocrats never seem to change. As you are doubtless aware, one of the big differences between England and France during the Hundred Years War was that the English relied much more heavily on the longbow and peasant infantrymen to shoot them. Tuchman makes rather a point of how the French were still so wrapped up in their fantasy of chivalry that they were unprepared to see the utility of their peasants in warfare, except as servants, suppliers of food, men to humiliate, and women to rape (and vice versa for a few nobles).

The Battle of Crecy (1346) and even more so, the Agincourt (1415), demonstrated the foolishness of this approach. Those peasant English archers were quite effective because if you were practiced with it, you could unleash an incredible storm of arrows with an effective range of hundreds of yards from the longbow. But to be practiced, you needed to let your archers have those longbows available to them. By comparison, the French, when they deigned to make any use of peasant infantrymen, were issuing them crossbows. In theory, the crossbow is a formidable weapon because it is so powerful. But the range wasn't so impressive, and the French nobility weren't generally thrilled about confronting uppity peasants if they were armed. Consequently, in much of this period, crossbows were issued by the government to peasants for war--but they weren't generally left in "unreliable" hands.

The series of disasters during the Hundred Years War (of which Crecy was one of many) finally seemed to have taught the French aristocrats a lesson that the English aristocrats knew. (And those English aristocrats weren't any nicer; they just needed the peasants to help them beat impudent French knights on the battlefield.) Tuchman describes how in the last quarter of the 14th century:
In a renewed effort to train archers, an ordinance was issued prohibiting games. Tennis, which the common people were adopting in imitation of the nobles, and soules, a form of field hockey popular with the bourgeois and seldom played without broken bones, as well as dice and cards, were banned in the hopes of encouraging practice in archery and the crossbow. The was the same effort Charles V had made in 1368 and it shows that the rulers were acutely conscious of the failure of French archery.

Skills were not lacking; the trouble was that French tactics did not allow archery an essential place. Combined action of archers and knights was not adopted; crossbow companies were hired and barely used. The reason was clearly a mixture of contempt for the commoner and fear for chivalry's primacy in battle. By 1393 the added fear of insurrection caused the new ordinance to have a short life. After a period during which practice with the bow and crossbow became very popular, the nobles insisted that the ban on games be revoked, fearing that the common people would gain too effective a weapon against the noble estate. [p. 519]
It is worth noting that the Jacquerie Rebellion of 1358 was put down with considerable brutality--perhaps simplified by both the limited weaponry of the French peasants, as well as their lack of experience fighting. Perhaps there's a message for our aristocrats today: at least part of what drove that uprising was exorbitant taxes that the nobles imposed on the peasants, but didn't bother to impose on themselves. (Like Leona Helmsley, "only little people pay taxes.")

No comments:

Post a Comment