Part 4: Missile Weapons
Bows And Arrows
Although bows were widely used by the continental Saxons, the Anglo-Saxons seem to have used the bow mainly for hunting, displaying a certain disdain for it's use in battle. The bow was more widespread as a weapon amongst the Vikings, but even then was not terribly common. Bows were mainly made of yew, elm or ash, 'D' shaped in section and tapering from the centre to the tips. Near the tip, the bow could either taper to a point in the traditional style, or swell to a 'spade' end as evident in some manuscripts. Bow from Nydam stick to the former pattern, and also incorporate a small iron peg as a string keep lodged in the side of the bow end. The grip was left bare without any leather or cloth for grip, and the 'knocking point' of the arrow didn't have a sliver of horn to protect the bowstave as can be seen on later bows. The spade ended types have what is known as a side nock, that is a slot on only one side of the bow to anchor the string. Knotting styles of the string varied from region to region.
The bows tended to be between 1.65 - 1.9m (66" - 76") long, reflecting the height, reach and preference of the user. Depending upon the quality of the wood that the bow was made from, it could be smooth and regular along it's length, or quite knobbly where knots had to be accommodated in it's design. They were sometimes bound every few inches with linen or sinew to help prevent the wood from splitting as can be seen on the examples from Nydam. Some of these earlier bows had horn or metal nocks which could be sharp enough to possibly use the bow like a spear in an emergency. Reconstruction of these types of bows have demonstrated that they had a draw weight in the 50lb - 70lb range making them quite powerful enough to kill an unarmoured man.
These are quite adequate to hunt animals, and are also perfectly suited for use in battle. The only hindrance being the armour and the shields that warriors of the period carried. Mail armour is sufficient enough to prevent a broadhead arrow from penetrating the skin, even though it's arrival would be very apparent. The bodkin with it's plain pointed head is much more likely to burst through the links, however, a shield of only 1cm thickness in Lime (or Linden) wood will stop all of the arrows, whatever their type as the bow wasn't powerful enough. Again practical demonstrations bear this out.
The only exception is where a shield may be so battered that there is a soft or 'sweet' spot in the wood. A good archer will seek this out, but in the heat of battle there would be little time to pick and choose. Most archery in set piece battles would no doubt have followed the Norman example at Hastings, with arrows lobbed into the mass of enemy, and good fortune guiding the arrow to a target.
Arrows were generally broad headed and made of Iron, with sockets or tangs on cheaper more quickly made arrowheads. Some arrowheads of antler have been found, these were probably intended for hunting. Earlier arrows tended to be almost purely of the tanged type. Bodkins (armour piercing arrows) were known and became more common in the eleventh century. By then, arrowheads were normally socketed, but it is a matter of conjecture as to how many arrows were expected to be recovered, even if you were the victors.
Arrow-shafts were usually of ash, willow, aspen or pine although other timbers were used. The long fletchings were of goose or swan feather, either four of three flights per shaft, these being glued and bound with a spiral of linen thread onto the shafts. Whilst paint was presumably used to mark the shafts of the arrows, we have as yet to demonstrate that the fights were in some fashion coloured too. The nock of the arrow (the point where the string sits), was either cut out of the end of the shaft, made out of bone and mounted in the same manner as the head was with a short tang, or in the case of a series of finds from Hedeby, cast out of bronze that mirror the bone type exactly.
Thrown spears are probably the first weapons to arrive amongst the opposing side, other than shouted insults. Javelins were used universally on foot, on horseback and onboard ship if needed. The art of the javelin is to throw them in a mass. This ensured that despite their slow speed through the air, some or all could not be avoided. The overall weight of the thrown spear is small by comparison to the fighting spear, however the added pace that the thrower imparted to the shaft, more than made up for it's lack of weight. In simple terms, weight plus speed equals mass, and this equation was easily sufficient for the javelin to burst open any mail shirt and quite possibly arrive via the shield as well.
It's difficult to say how far the sides were apart prior to the launching of the javelins, but around 30 to 40 paces would seem to be a good distance for most men to throw. This was done from the rear of the ranks in most circumstances, and over the heads of the shield wall of the thrower. This would make the javelin a fairly indiscriminate weapon designed to arrive with little or no warning.
Oddly enough, a single javelin is easy to side step, and depending upon how it was thrown (a fairly flat trajectory), it can be caught and thrown back. The man in the shield wall didn't have the luxury of space to move or the choice of only one javelin to avoid. Tests we have carried out demonstrate all of these aspects, resulting in some sickening findings.
The Romans promoted the use of a particular type of javelin called the 'pilum', or 'angon' as the Saxons would have called it. This type of spear is identified by it's longer iron shaft and barbed head. The idea was that the pilum would strike the target, ideally the shield, and lodge there. The barbs helped to lock it in position, and the thin iron shaft would buckle preventing the pilum from being thrown back should it be removed. However, the key part that it played was to weight down an opponents shield rendering it either useless or extremely difficult to wield. With his shield effectively down, he was then open to attack from other weapons. The significant thing about a javelin is that it didn't matter where it struck: in an opponent, in a shield or even in the ground causing people to lose their footing.
Although used primarily for hunting small game the sling could have been used in war. Against an armoured man it would have little effect unless a lucky shot hit his face. Against an unarmoured target at close ranges it could break bones and crack skulls.
Ammunition seems to have been rounded stones gathered from river-courses or the sea shore, and if the user was in a field scaring birds off, any stone that suited his purpose. Lead shot of the type used in the Roman and Greek periods is unknown in Anglo-Saxon times, and was probably thought to be far too expensive and useful to be put to such a purpose.
The sling was at some time upgraded by placing the essence of the sling at the end of a staff or shaft. This is known as a 'Staff Sling' and is able to propel the projectile over much the same distance as a normal sling, however the projectile could be several times heavier. It operates in much the same fashion as a 'trebuchet' would, with the sling opening and releasing the missile near the top of the swing.
There are no known examples of such a tool from the period, but this does not preclude it's use. There are a few medieval manuscript of the staff sling in action against the enemy in siege situations.
Other thrown items
It goes without saying that rocks and other detritus was thrown at the enemy. This though wasn't an organised part of the battle, and may just be an example of men venting their frustration at not getting to grips with the enemy. Although overused as an example, the Bayeux Tapestry shows what has been interpreted as 'stones tied to sticks'. They are without any kind of parallel anywhere else in Anglo-Saxon art. Another description of them has them being maces, which did exist in the period, but are so far and few, and rather small in any case, that this seems unlikely. The existing maces have far more in common with the same item that Kings of the period are shown holding when crowned or seated in state.
To this authors mind, they would be better described as 'staffs of state' rather than maces. Whilst it, whatever it really was, is shown over the heads of the Saxon army directed at the Norman force, no less than three are being seen carried off the field by men at the end of the battle. The image of the mace overhead in the battle scene, could be some symbolism indicating the transfer of power or initiative to the Normans, or are change in the balance of power for all we can say.
Quite what the significance of these items are, nobody as yet is sure, but I do not believe they were stones on sticks, a tool that went out of use 4000 years ago with the advent of bronze for weapons and tools that clearly surpassed rocks.
Original article by Ben Levick, 1991
Revised by Roland Williamson, 1999