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Archery Archive: Making the Maciejowskie (part one)

Updated on January 14, 2012

By Nils Visser

You might know the feeling, wandering about an encampment, meandering between the tents at a leisurely pace, and then that glimpse of a new and shiny bow. Sweet. You want it. Badly. You start to salivate and calculate. Possibly you’re in the position to purchase it. Otherwise it will haunt your thoughts for a few days, weeks or even months, especially if you handled it and felt its weight in your hand, conceivably even sensing the first indications of the character of the wood fibers: masculine, feminine, obstinate, willful, wild, temperamental, obedient; to name but a few descriptions I’ve heard fellow archers use to describe their bow’s character.

Have you ever wondered though, what long and winding road that bow has travelled ere it was ready to catch your eye and enchant you? Some of it we may guess at, the price being indicative of the many hours a bowyer spends sawing, carving, planning, filing, sanding and tillering to entice that final shape from the initial stave. But there is more to the development of a bow than the skills of a bowyer. Take, for example, the “new” Maciejowski Bow, developed by the Magén Klomp. I stumbled upon the story of this bow earlier this year and have been fortunate enough to play a small part in it since.

In January, my partner gave me a very special birthday gift, I was to make my very own Longbow under the guidance of Magén Klomp at the Fairbow workshop in Amsterdam. At the end of the first long day we had a well-deserved dram of a quality single malt. Klomp then took a composite bow from a bow rack, a paradoxical mix of seductive curvature and sleek menace.

“This one has a special story.” Klomp said with a wry grin. “Ever heard of the Maciejowski Bible?” We professed our ignorance.

“It’s a medieval manuscript containing scores of pictures. They’re very detailed, and often used as visual source material. But there’s something odd in it, namely the bows.” Klomp launched into a relished story, “I first noticed it in one of the battle scenes, when you’re in my profession it’s more or less the first thing your eye is drawn to.”

He produces a piece of well thumbed A4 paper containing a colour printout of a medieval battle scene. We peer at it, and nod politely, seeing very little that seems remarkable, beyond armed warriors busily carving each other into smaller pieces in a scene showing an attack on a castle gate.

“There’s an archer on the gatehouse tower.” Klomp nudged us in the right direction. “I call him the Maciejowski Bible Archer. You’ll note that there’s something odd about his bow.”

“It’s got thingies.” I suggested. “At the end, both of them.” I added helpfully, earning a withering glance.

“Siyahs. Probably spliced into the tips.” Klomp elucidated my description. “Ever heard of a Longbow with siyahs?”

I didn’t have a clue what he was on about. My mind identified a combination of ‘rice’ and ‘spice’ in ‘spliced’. The word ‘siyah’ evoked an image of an oriental dancer, curvaceously clad in a silk sari. I added a bowl of spiced rice to the picture, which seemed apt enough. But how to fit in a six foot English Longbow? Klomp stared at me with a bemused look, seeming to read the utter nonsense and being none to impressed. I concluded that Longbows are unlikely to accompany voluptuous dancing girls, and answer truthfully:

“No, I can’t say that I have ever seen a Siyah with a Longbow.”

Klomp was satisfied with this answer. He proceeded to explain that the type of bows we usually associate with Medieval Europe have a very simple D-shape when strung, a shape that becomes more pronounced when the bow is drawn. The bow held by the Maciejowski Bow Archer, however, had clearly been recurved, it appears to have the shape of an Eastern composite bow, to judge by the fixed shape of the ears (siyahs). Such bows were in use further to the East, on the steppe of Hungary, in the Sultanates and Caliphates of the Middle East and in Persia.

“My first thought was that this was a lucky accident,” noted Klomp. “The illustrator messing it up, and by happy chance managing to produce a bow that was being used in Asia.” But, intrigued by the sight of a type of bow in a place where it shouldn’t be, the Dutch bowyer started to look for other pictures of archers in the Maciejowski Bible, and to his surprise, stumbled upon more bows resembling Eastern composite bows.

By the by, the name of the Maciejowski Bible derives from Cardinal Bernard Maciejowski of Cracow in Poland, who made a gift of the bible to Shah Abbas the Great of Persia, in 1608. However, the bible predates that event by many years, having been commissioned by King Louis IX of France and generally believed to have been initiated between 1244 and 1254, started in Paris and completed in Naples at the turn of the 13th century. As mentioned the Maciejowski Bible is special because it contains highly detailed and colourful illustrations, albeit that the biblical scenes drawn therein are depicted in contemporary medieval architecture and dress.

It is generally believed that the pictures in the Maciejowski Bible were drawn by up to 6 different artists. Nonetheless, many show the same distinctive bow shape, whether used for battle or hunting. It’s been suggested that this is not all that surprising, the artists knew that the Biblical scenes were set in the Holy Land, a place where composite bows were in use, as the West Europeans had discovered during the crusades.

“Humbug,” snorted Klomp. “Have a good look at those pictures, they’re very much influenced by Western Europe. These pictures are renowned for their detail, people study all sort of minute details in these pictures. It seems unlikely that they would choose to give the bows, and only the bows, a foreign flavour. Why should I be able to make accurate claims about ankle-boots, belt-bags, falchions, even braises (underwear) from these pictures, but not about bows?”

Klomp had a point, the details in the illustrations point at an artist relating to the world he knows, i.e. France in the High Middle Ages. If the pictures of the bows are based on crusader’s descriptions of Saracen weaponry, then it would stand to reason that other items would also have emphasized an Eastern setting, for example, distinctive Saracen scimitars, helmets or shields.

Nonetheless, the Saracen connection, in the light of King Louis IX own crusade experiences, makes more sense than the next argument, the suggestion that this particular style of drawing Longbows had become stylish. This would be an odd anomaly within pictures that aren’t abstract in nature but instead contain almost photographic detail.

“Those bows are part of the local context,” concluded Klomp. “I don’t know how they got there, but they are there, to judge by the pictorial evidence.” Being a man of action Klomp started to experiment till he arrived at a model which he has aptly named the Maciejowski Bow.

“The Maciejowski Bow shoots like a dream, fast and powerful, but Magén stirred up a hornet’s nest there,” grinned Chris Verwijmeren, lawyer and archer, who conducts historical research on behalf of the Dutch War Bow Society. “The accepted view of archery in the Middle Ages is based on the hundred years war, or more specifically, the dominance of the English Longbow starting at Cadzand in 1337 and culminating at Azincourt in 1415. So that’s less than a century, based on which it is generally assumed, quite accurately, that the English were formidable archers. However, it is also assumed that there wasn’t much of an archery tradition on the continent bar a few Italian mercenaries who could shoot a crossbow. To draw an Orwellian parallel: Longbow good, crossbow bad, composite bow non-existent.”

“And that is so far removed from accuracy that it becomes ludicrous, the Middle Ages lasted a bit longer than that,” added Gert Pancras, Secretary of the Dutch War Bow Society. “So you get this dogmatic view on the one hand, then comes along Magén who suddenly starts to go on about composite bows on the other.”

“There are other archery traditions in Medieval Europe.” Verwijmeren commented. “According to the Oxford Companion to Military History, the composite bow was a significant weapon in Italy and in France.”

“But to some such a suggestion is akin to using ill-placed expletives.” Pancras grinned. “Anything that doesn’t fit in the accepted version of events is a no-no. They say that composite bows simply couldn’t be used in the North because the glue would deteriorate in the wet climate.”

This is where I fit in. Intrigued by this particular story, I carried out some initial research, and quickly deduced that the climate argumentation doesn’t bear close scrutiny. For starters many crossbows of the High Middle Ages were also of a composite nature, i.e. consisting of various parts that were glued together. Crossbows were imported and constructed in Northern Europe, not just by the French, but also by the English. King John, for example, employed one Peter the Saracen to make crossbows in England. The composite nature of those crossbows made them just as vulnerable as regular composite bows. Quite possibly it is that very vulnerability that causes the contemporary perspective.

For when we buy a bow these days, we see it as an investment. It’s a statement, to indicate that we appreciate a genuine handmade product in a world filled with soulless plastic. It’s also a chance to participate in a very ancient tradition. As a matter of course then, we take good care of our new bow, it’s given a protective bag to keep it dry and warm, a horizontal and dry storage place, new coats of wax, and more often than not a name to boot. As mentioned in the introduction, we even ascribe human characteristics to our bow.

For the Medieval archer, however, the bow was an item meant to be used, and wear and tear or breakage and subsequent need for replacement was considered normal.

The Romans stationed the First Cohort of Hamian Archers (Cohors I Hamiorum Sagittariorum) at Hadrian’s Wall, a location which certainly lives up to the wet and windy reputation of the northern climate. To replace the composite bows which didn’t survive those conditions, the Romans had built an arms “fabricae” near Pavia, where replacements were crafted by Eastern bowyers. By the by, the Romans were well aware of averse climatic circumstances, and waterproofed the bows with bark and lacquer.

The Mongolians were expected to bring to a campaign their horses, sixty arrows and no less than 3 to 4 bows. Because their empire was so vast, campaigns could last for years, and the light cavalryman was thus geared to deal with wear and tear. The Moors in Spain were also resupplied by means of mass production. The factories in Cordoba in Andalusia produced up to 1,000 bows and 20,000 arrows on a monthly basis. The Weapons of Warre: The Armaments of the Mary Rose also mentions numerous inventories of armaments on Tudor ships where record was made of archery equipment lost during combat operations.

There are instances where the composite bow appears in Northern Europe during the High Middle Ages before the Maciejowski timeframe. None other than Richard Lionheart, King of England, employed Saracen mercenaries from the Holy Land. Richard had 120 of these mounted archers at his disposal and used them during his campaign to re-conquer Normandy (1195-1199). This might also well be the origin of Peter the Saracen, bowyer in the service of John Lackland a few years later.

My initial conclusion then, was that there was no physical reason why composite bows couldn’t make a northern appearance. This added validity to the pictures in the Maciejowski bible, there was a definite possibility that the French did have access to composite bows somewhere between 1250 and the early 1300’s. This raised the question, of course, as to what happened to these type of bows, for they sure weren’t to be found during the initial battles of the Hundred Years War at Cadzand, Sluys, and Crecy.

To be continued in Part Two

Recommended Reading

Your Opinion Matters

Have you ever seen a longbow with siyahs?

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    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 

      4 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear Nils,

      Following a long and difficult illness my wife and I are about to re-start our shooting hobbies. Time to dust off our bows (re-curve and longbows) and our clay shooting guns and section 2 weapons.

      An interesting article.

      Voted up and interesting.

      Kind regards Peter

    • profile image

      Inge van Dijk 

      7 years ago

      Prima stuk Nils, met veel plezier gelezen en ik de bijbel nog eens goed bestuderen :)

    • Nils Visser profile imageAUTHOR

      Nils Visser 

      7 years ago from Brighton UK

      Thanks Bob. There is so much more than the Longbow, much as I love it. Part 2 has been completed already, but a couple of folks are publishing it online or on paper, so it's probably polite to wait till they had their go. It should become available somewhere in October, and actually has a few interesting answers to the questions posed.

    • profile image

      bob the warbow 

      7 years ago

      Great story Nils- very intriguing and pretty controversial to the communis opinion that medieval archery was longbow archery. Can't wait to read part 2.


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