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    Unstriniging medieval crossbows and Cercy

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    Post by HeroSK Tue Apr 08, 2014 1:31 pm

    Hi all,

    The well known historical records of Genoese crossbowmen at Cercy, triggered my curiosity about how it was in those ages arbelesters were unstring their crossbows. Some experts blame heavy rain before battle that caused string of crossbows getting wet thus ineffective while longbowmen could easily unstrung their bows and hide cords under their helmets. I assume Geneoese at Cercy using composite bows on their crossbows since steel prods are a later invention.

    So the question is what was to methods used to unstrung a crossbow in middle ages ?

    Thanks in advance.


    Last edited by HeroSK on Thu Apr 10, 2014 2:20 am; edited 1 time in total
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    Post by mac Tue Apr 08, 2014 2:46 pm

    Hero,

    Two things....

    First, your question. 
    Crossbows at that time would have been organic materials, either wood, or horn and sinew.  Leaving them strung continuously is detrimental.  Therefore they were equipped with a second  "nock" just past the the nock that the working string sat in.  This allows the archer to put a second, longer string called the "bastard string" on the bow.  Drawing the bastard string takes the tension off of the working string.  The loops of the working string are big enough to slide out of the nocks and down the limb of the prod while the tension is off.  The length of the bastard is such that it can be removed while the prod is relaxed. 

    Second, my rant about Crecy.  
    I never liked the whole "wet bowstring" explanation.  For starts, if you wet a string made of linen or hemp, it does not get longer.  In fact is gets shorter.  I learned this the  first time I thought I would bind in a prod with damp linen so that it would shrink down tight.  It didn't. It got looser as it dried. 

    Now, on the other hand, dampness is very detrimental to the performance of sinew backed bows.  If we assume that most of the crossbows in Genoese hands had composite horn and sinew prods,  then a good rain might have given them trouble.  This is not really a satisfying explanation, though.  The composite prods that have come down to us all have or have had a covering of painted birch bark to prevent water from soaking in. 

    Then there is the question of why this story is told only of Crecy and no other battle.  Surely there were many medieval battles fought in the rain.  Why would Crecy be the only one where this is a problem?  If makes the whole story sort of suspect, and I am inclined to distrust it.

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    Post by HeroSK Tue Apr 08, 2014 3:47 pm

    Thanks for super fast and informative answer Master Mac.

    I am not sure about what is used as string on crossbows of Genoese arbalesters at Cercy but sinew is also used as string material. If that was the case maybe "wet string" theorists could be right.

    Apart from string, as you duly pointed composite construction bows were vulnerable to humid conditions too yet "wet string" theorists never mentioned about it which is quite strange.
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    Post by Hotspur Tue Apr 08, 2014 9:09 pm

    If I was at Cercy with a crossbow, I would have waxed the hell out of couple of strings the second it looked like rain and kept them dry until the main event.

    I strongly suspect the professional medieval crossbowman had rainy days figured out.  His life depended on it.
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    Post by Stonedog Wed Apr 09, 2014 7:10 am

    I agree with Hotspur.  The Genoese were some of the most sought after and highly paid soldiers of their day.

    From what I have gathered the most popular theory is the "wet string and prod (composite of horn, wood and sinew) theory ", but as a professional, highly trained soldier that has trained and fought as a unit, there had to be a work around for rain....you cannot control the weather, but you can control how you deal with the weather...I cannot imagine the Genoses Crossbowman saying, "Oh well....our strings and prods are just going to get wet"

    Personally, I believe, that while the rain could have been a factor, it was not the determining factor.

    The ELB was the "assault rifle" of its day and able to unleash a torrent of the "Devil's Rain" due to its fast shooting....the Genonese were (take this with a grain of salt) simply out shot and the amount of arrows (not bolts) in the air crushed the French army.

    AS far as the original question:  A bastard string and what ever device the Crossbowman used to draw back his cord in combat.
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    Post by Geezer Wed Apr 09, 2014 2:03 pm

    On the question of 'sinew' bowstrings, I wonder if we're not running into a liguistic problem rather than a materials question.  So I wonder... is the basic word-sinew simply a common term for any sort of cord?  Did medieval bowyers or stringers have specific terms for animal-sinew strings or hemp strings or linen or silk?  I know we run into problems of definition for bronze/brass/ or other copper alloys.  So maybe they didn't actually make bowstrings from animal sinew.  I've seen a lot of hemp, and Payne Gallwey used shoe-makers flax (linen) for bowstrings... but can anybody actually document Animal Sinew as used for bowstrings, or for tying in prods/laths?  Mac, do you know any cunning linguists who are up to this sort of investigation?  Geezer... perplexed.
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    Post by Geezer Wed Apr 09, 2014 2:08 pm

    To be more specific concerning bronze/brass: medieval sources usually seem to use 'laton' or 'latten' for copper-alloys in general.  Gun makers preferred 'gun-metal' which seems to be halfway between brass and bronze... copper-tin-zinc alloy.  Bells were apparently made of similar alloys.  Modern sources are much more specific about manganese-bronze boat propellors, bright-brass decorative fixtures, gun-metal  cannon castings, etc. 
    Perhaps Socrates was right: first we must define our terms.  Then again perhaps we oughta just let-fly in the face of adversity and have a nice word-duel.  Geezer
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    Post by mac Wed Apr 09, 2014 2:27 pm

    I would not think that animal sinew would be a good material for bow strings, but then again, neither would I think the silk or hair would work well.  Yet, both of those are said to be used at least occasionally for hand bows.

    I get the sense that the word sinew is a fruitful field for confusion.  I will see what I can find out and report back.

    In the mean time, can anyone produce a reference to sinew bowstrings in the original language?  Context may mean everything here. 


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    Post by Geezer Wed Apr 09, 2014 2:50 pm

    Thanks Mac:  You probably have the best connections for this sort of inquiry.  It's perhaps analogous to the horn/antler question.  They're not at all the same thing, yet in modern English, there's little differentiation made.  I look forward to hearing what you find.  Geezer
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    Post by Jason D Wed Apr 09, 2014 6:22 pm

    The "wet string" theory has been discounted for a while now. The new(ish) tentatively accepted theory is that the Genoese were tired from having marched most of the day, were ordered to engage while their pavises were still with the baggage, advanced into the sun, and were shot down. After taking casualties to no good effect, the crossbowmen began an orderly withdrawal from the field at which time the "kill me this rabble" order of Charles de Alencon was issued. The French then launched headlong unorganized attacks against the prepared English positions and in the words of Jean Froissart in his Chronicles, "The lords and knights of France came not to the assembly together in good order, for some came before and some came after in such haste and evil order, that one of them did trouble another." The French forces threw away what should have been an assured victory (the French love affair with the "arme blanche" lasted until WWI) through arrogance and a belief that the cavalry charge would carry everything before it.


    The above is a gloss of current thought. As to the the sinew issue, I have never seen in a period source anything other than linen/hempen in reference to a crossbow string or linen/hempen/silk for a bowstring.
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    Post by hullutiedemies Thu Apr 10, 2014 2:41 am

    At least German "Sehne" can and Finnish "jänne" does mean both sinew and bow string.

    Anyway Bowyers Bible authors Jim Hamm and Tim Baker have succesfully used sinew for bow strings. This was apparently the favored string material for North American natives.
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    Post by Jason D Thu Apr 10, 2014 1:11 pm

    To be more specific, I have not seen it in English, French, or Italian sources. I have no doubt that sinew will make a perfectly functional string, the local museums have both Cree and Blackfoot bows with sinew strings, I believe that the Athapaskans used sinew as well, but I have little knowledge about it.
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    Post by Hermit Thu Apr 10, 2014 7:06 pm

    Just a few thoughts................hunting was the sport of the aristocracy around that time,and there were savage punishments for poaching in England,and possibly in the rest of Europe.Sinew comes from  animals,one use I know it was put to,was to bind flint arrowheads to shafts,when sinew dries,it goes hard,when it gets wet it softens.Flax fibers on the other hand were known about 8000 or more years B.C.The Egyptians made linen,so knew about spinning and weaving.This suggests to me,that the knowledge,technology and availability would make it the most commonly used material for the making of bowstrings.Flax will grow just about anywhere in Europe and Asia.The logistics of linen thread,as opposed to that of sinew,would seem to me to make it the most common material for the use of bowstrings at that time.
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    Post by HeroSK Mon Apr 14, 2014 2:17 am

    Agree with Hermit, it is most logical to use common and cheap materials rather than expensive and hard to find, if not quite rare sinew fibers.

    Thanks for answers.

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