Further Speculations on the Nature of Longbowstrings

This article was first published in the Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, volume 29, 1986.
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A year has passed since "Some Speculations on the Nature of Longbowstrings" appeared in Vol. 27, 1984 of this Journal. Since then information has come my way altering my opinions at that time.

In the article I stated that in the early Middle Ages "there was no species of the genus Cannabis at hand in the British Isles (or for that matter in Northern Europe) ...". This statement has since proved to be quite wrong.

Firstly I think it is important to look at Cannabis in its present-day context. Leaving aside the matter of narcotic properties, the commercial use of the fibre as the raw material for textiles and cordage has brought about a quite unwarranted proliferation of specific names -- C. gigantea, C. indica, C. sativa and such, whereas in truth the plant is monotypic, all other so-called species being simply variants of the Cannabis sativa of Linneus which is in itself a readily adaptable, highly variable plant.

Originating in Western Asia, C. sativa appears to have been cultivated there for both its fibre and for its narcotic properties for 1,000 years BC and more. The spread of cultivation would appear to have come westwards through ancient, Scythia into the Middle East and by about the beginning of the Christian era it was being grown as a crop in Sicily and Italy, the earliest mention being made by Lucilius (100BC approx.) and later by both Cato and Pliny. By about AD850 there is evidence that Cannabis cultivation may have reached Scandinavia. Certainly textiles and cordage of Cannabis fibre seem to have been well-known.

From the Viking ship-burial at Oseberg in the Oslo Fjord of Norway, seeds of the plant associated with bed-coverings have been found and possibly more importantly in the present context, in other Viking graves in southern Norway both textiles and fishing line of Cannabis fibre have been identified.

At this point the etymology of the word hemp as outlined in the "Century Dictionary" may be illuminating. It states that Greek and Slavic forms appear to be derived independently from an ancient Scythian or Caspian form to which the Sanskrit cana appears to be connected. From such comes the Greek KavvapBis, the Latin Canabis, the Russian konopha or konop, the Anglo-Saxon/German henep/henf, which is but a short progression to the Scandinavian hamp and our own hemp.

In the prologue to his piece "The Ancient Cultivation of Hemp", Antiquity, March 1976, Vol. XLI) Professor H. Godwin of Cambridge states that his interest was "stimulated by the discovery in a pollen diagram from East Anglia of a curve for Indian Hemp ...". The core from which the pollen analysis was made was taken from Old Buckenham Mere near Thetford during the hard winter of 1962/3 by Professor J. Gordon Ogden III and Dr. R.G. West and would appear to span a period in excess of 3,000 years to the present. The pollen curve for C. sativa suggests continuous cultivation from early Saxon times when pastoralism gave way to increasing deforestation and arable culti- vation, peaking by approx. AD800, followed by a gradual decline until the end of the 16th Century.

What a pity that amongst the mass of textiles and cordage recovered from the "Mary Rose", no bowstrings have been forthcoming! They must have been there, in great numbers. Pondering this enigma a possibility comes to mind which would fit neatly into the situation, little as we know of it at the present time. This is that whilst largely the supply of spare bowstaves for the bowyers, arrow-making materials for the fletchers, spacers of ready-to- use arrows and such were the responsibility of the armourers, bowstrings were the personal responsibility of the archers. Bowstring yarn would most certainly be waxed or glue-sized; quite a small spool in the pouch or pocket of an archer would supply enough material to make a dozen or more strings -- and such a material, when lost on land or in the depths of the sea would make a readily acceptable feast for the agents of decay.

Thus, although evidence for the presence of Cannabis sativa as a crop under cultivation in the British Isles over such a long period of time introduces a new dimension, it does not neces- sarily rule out the use of nettle fibre (or for that matter, flax). In my last article on this subject I quoted The Fletchers and Longbow- string Makers of London, 1968, which as the Editor pointed out in his comment, related to rules issued on March 21st, 1499, and I quote again: "Well-chosen English hemp -- not 'tubbed' hemp, nor 'Colleyn' hemp". It has been pointed out to me by the President of the Society that 'Colleyn' was almost certainly Cologne in Germany, with which city trade relations were continued even during periods of disaffection with the cities of the Hanseatic League. Is it too imaginative to interpret this important quotation as implying "know what you are getting and how it has been prepared -- your country and your life may depend on this and the spinning wheel -- and don't trust imported, foreign rubbish!"?

In conclusion I would like to express my grateful thanks to Mrs. G.L.R. Bromley, Higher Scientific Officer, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for her enthusiastic help in researching the palaeobotany of this matter. The following list of references kindly supplied to me by Mrs. Bromley will be of great interest to those who may wish to pursue this matter further.

Editorial Comment

The subject of medieval bowstrings is an interesting one and, regarding the materials, some interesting comments have been received by our President, Lt. Cmdr. W.F. Paterson from Miss Alison J. Carter, Keeper of Costume & Textiles at the Hampshire County Museum. She writes:

"It appears to me that there is a problem of terminology: true hemp is clearly obtained from Cannabis Sativa, although certain other plant products have at various times been described as hemp. These include the fibres of several species of the nettle family. However, there are a number of references in medieval accounts to Canabo, which certainly represents a tough canvas as it was used for tents, ships' sails, etc. (ref: K Staniland "Clothing 8 Textiles at the Court of Edward III, 1342 - 1352", Museum of London publication).

I am inclined to believe that hemp was indeed grown fairly commonly throughout the British Isles from medieval times onwards, although there is certainly a lack of hard evidence and research detail to confirm this."