Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

16 April 2012

Bows and Arrows

Of all the sports in the modern Olympic programme, archery is perhaps the one which most conjures up images of the Middle Ages. (Synchronised swimming, anyone?) Today archery is a recreational activity, introduced to the Olympics at Paris in 1900 and reinstated, after a 50 year hiatus, at Munich in 1972. (Useless fact of the day: Belgium is ranked the third best nation in Olympic competition, behind South Korea and the United States of America.)

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady shooting an arrow at a rabbit, from the Taymouth Hours, England, S. E. (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century: London, British London, MS Yates Thompson 13, f. 68v.

In the past, of course, archery had its origins in hunting and warfare. But archery was first recognised as a sport in 14th-century England, when males aged between 7 and 60 years were required to take part in tournaments, so important was it considered to the defence of the realm. Meanwhile, the first organised "modern" archery contest is reported to have taken place in London in 1583, attended by 3,000 spectators.

Detail of a miniature of the Christian fleet approaching Gaeta with archers poised to defend the city, from the Romance of the Three Kings' Sons, England (probably London), c. 1475 – c. 1485: London, British Library, MS Harley 326, f. 29v.

Most medieval depictions of archery illustrate warfare or hunting, as in the miniature above, taken from Harley 326, a 15th-century English copy of the Romance of the Three Kings' Sons. It's important to remember that the longbow (popularised in England) and the crossbow (invented in France) were both deadly weapons, responsible for the deaths of thousands of men on the battlefield.

Detail of a miniature of a battle with archers and riders in armour, at the beginning of book 7, by the Master of the London Wavrin, from Bellum Gallicum (Les commentaires de Cesar), France (Lille) and Netherlands (Bruges), 1473-1476: London, British Library, MS Royal 16 G VIII, f. 189r.

We are equally amused, however, by medieval depictions of archers in other contexts. The first image in this post is taken from the Taymouth Hours, and shows a noblewoman shooting a rabbit at point-blank range. And here is another comic image, of an ape aiming his arrow at a tortoiseshell butterfly, taken from the margins of a 14th-century French copy of the Estoire del Saint Graal. An unfair contest!


Detail of a marginal miniature of an ape archer aiming at a butterfly above, from the right margin of the folio, from the Estoire del Saint Graal, France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), 1st quarter of the 14th century: London, British Library, MS Royal 14 E III, f. 89r.

This is the second in our series of posts relating to the Olympic games. You can read the first, London Games and "Sicilian Games", here.


Note the oddly-shaped arrow heads used by the lady hunting the rabbit and the monkey hunting the butterfly--those arrow heads are for small game. If you were caught using a normal arrow-shaped arrow-head, which can bring down a deer, you could be accused of poaching. I learned about that on TV show about archery.

I recently came across a book or article about illuminated manuscript marginalia where the rabbit was used as a symbol for reading. It was the first time that I had heard of this symbolism.
I have gone and lost the reference. Can anyone give me some help with this?

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