Some Speculations on the Nature of Longbowstrings

by Philip D. Hartley

This article was first published in the Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, volume 27, 1984.
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So much new information is now at hand concerning the longbow - that remarkable weapon which is English so much a part of English history -- that the whole study would seem to have reached a new level of understanding.

Even so, as often proves to be the case in matters of history and archaeology, answers to long-standing questions bring further questions in their train, and the exact nature of the longbowstring of the early and mid-XIVth century is just such a case.

Nobody will question that bowstrings were "hempen" or made of hemp, but a further question immediately arises, what is -- or in those distant days what was -- hemp? Today the word suggests species of the genus CANNABIS and there is no doubt that the best fibres of C. indica, C. gigantea, C. sativa and such could be and indeed have been used in the production of threads, strings, and yarns, but there was no species of the genus Cannabis at hand in the British Isles (or for that matter Northern Europe) when the availability of reliable bowstrings in great quantity was of such importance in a nation's history.

The list of bast fibres -- those long, tough, resilient cellular structures which lie between the epidermis and the central woody core of a variety of dicotyledonous plants is long, and their distribution worldwide. In general study and nomenclature the bast fibres are invariably related to the production of yarns for the weaving of fabrics, and textiles in general; the bowstring no longer plays a significant role. Even so, it was largely if not entirely when the bow was used as an instrument of war or chase that bast fibres of one kind or another formed the material for the bowstring.

The list of "hemp" fibres alone is impressive, ranging through a full twenty genera, as far apart in distribution as Sanseveria ("Mother- in-Law's Tongues" -- seven species!), Phormium tenax -- the New Zealand Flax, Hibiscus species to URTICA DIOICA, the common stinging nettle.

Out of ail the commercially-recognised bast- fibre producing plants, only two would appear to be relevant in the present context, these being flax (Linum) and the stinging nettle (Urtica). Of these two -- and I would certainly welcome any corroborative evidence -- it is my belief that the nettle is of significant importance.

The Rules of the Ancient Company of Longbowstringmakers, so I am told, specify "well chosen" English hemp -- not "tubbed" hemp, not "Colleyn" hemp. The process of "tubbing" is certainly the equivalent of retting. "Retting" took two forms, one consisting of soaking the plant in ditches, pools, or dykes of water and the other -- Dew-retting -- of exposing them to the effects of rain, dew, and climatic conditions generally, on grassy banks. It is interesting to note that retting dykes (and one once existed in my own village of Staveley outside the ancient township of Knaresborougl in North Yorkshire) were stinking, evil places. This may account for the fact that "tubbed" hemp was produced in such a place and that the word "tubbed" may be of celtic origin -- DUBH -- a deep, dark pool in a river or stream.

However, to return to "tubbed" hemp. For textile fabrics generally, although the strength of the subsequent yarn was important the tolerances for yarn strength could afford t( be wide. Unless the degree of degradation of the fibres in the retting pits was excessive, the ultimate dimensional strength of a fabric (i.e. both in the direction of the warp and the weft was of little consequence, providing it con- formed with certain minimum standards. Not so with bowstrings. Here, maximum strength was of cardinal importance and it could not be too great.

The purpose of retting is to separate by natural agencies the individual bast fibres, by degradation of the gums and waxes which bind them together in the living plant, whilst at the same time preserving as far as possible the maximum strength and elasticity of individual fibres. Thus, it seems logical to suppose that dew-retting, although a much slower process, gave the fibre producer a far greater control over the quality of the end-product. It is not difficult to envisage the uncertainty of the deep, dark, noisesome retting dykes. In cold, dull weather the process could continue for days and weeks and yet, one short burst of hot, thundery weather could, in a matter of hours, bring about such a proliferation of bacterial and infusorial activity that the all-important bast fibres -- certainly as far as bowstrings are concerned -- could be seriously impaired.

What has been said applies to the production of bast fibres generally, and it is certainly true of both hemp nettle and flax. It should also be remembered that just as with bowstaves, our ancestors were quite prepared if necessary to import from surprising places and over con- siderable distances materials of superior quality, and this could equally apply to bowstrings, or the materials for their manufacture. It has been established from old records that nettle hemp was used in Germany and Russia, and in the Middle Ages it was certainly used as a textile fibre in Italy and France. Three species of Urtica are known in Europe -- U. dioica, U. urena and U. pilulifera but of these, the one giving the biggest yield of the strongest fibre is that known in industry as Swedish hemp -- Urtica dioica, which is exactly the same plant as the familiar stinging nettle of the fields and hedgerows of the British Isles.

Finally to the matter of flax and rather imaginatively -- very imaginatively in truth -to the mysterious word "Colleyn". Bast fibres from the flax plant, Linum usitatissimum, were known and extensively used in the days of Moses and Solomon. Indeed, the Pharaohs went into their tombs tightly swathed in bandages of flax. Linum was (and in many cases still is) grown in Europe virtually from the toe of Italy to the Baltic States and over the centuries the fibre from certain areas (Russia in its mediaeval sense being a good example) has been particu- larly esteemed. The list of flax-producing countries is a long one and in Ireland alone, at least eleven county areas are known to have given their regional name to the product. One such is Coleraine, where in recent decades the mighty ACRYLAN-producing plant was sited by Monstanto Chemicals. Was Coleraine chosen by coincidence, or because of some lingering association with fibre-producing skills? Was Coleraine the "Colleyn" whose flax, though admirable for woven textiles, was sub- standard for bowstrings?

That this may be drawing a very long bow I will readily agree, but all things have to be considered, and possibly some reader in Northern Ireland may have something to add!

Editorial Comment
The use of nettle hemp fibre is supported by Chinese bowstrings made from ramie or "China Grass" - of which there are examples in the Simon Collection at Manchester Museum. Botanically it is related to the common nettle and produces a very strong, silky, white fibre, well suited for this purpose. It presents a small problem as it is a non-stretch material, and extra care needs to be taken to ensure the tension in each strand is the same.

The reference to "well-chosen" English hemp, not "tubbed" hemp or "Colleyn" hemp, is quoted by J.E. Oxley, The Fletchers and Longbowstringmakers of London, (1968), p.120, relating to rules issued on 21 st March, 1499.