Technological innovation in Europe, as elsewhere, was partly driven by warfare. Warriors wanted stronger offensive weapons, such as swords, pikes, bows and arrows, and cannon. When craftsmen produced or improved these weapons, that generated demand for better defensive technology, especially armour of various kinds, for man and horse. The result was a positive feedback loop of innovation, which relied upon the larger peaceful economy but also stimulated it.
What we see as a modern “arms race” has ancient origins.
One of the most spectacular windows into the late Medieval arms race is the wreck of the Mary Rose, the flagship of Henry VIII’s navy. The Mary Rose sank off the southern English coast in 1545, taking around 500 men to their deaths. When the ship was raised in 1982, its complete armoury could be inspected by scholars. In its stores were found war bows as well as the latest bronze cannon, high tech in the 16th century.
War bows became an English specialty by the late 14th century, though they originated among the Welsh, who also provided many of the best archers. Massed formations of British archers defeated French cavalry in such epic battles as Sluys (1330), Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415). Long bows and crossbows penetrated the best body armour, and with the emergence of gunpowder weapons, warriors shed their metal skins, in effect admitting vulnerability.
These victories were renown. The one at Agincourt formed the backdrop to Shakespeare’s Henry V. In the play as in real life, the English were vastly outnumbered by the French, and king Henry urges his men to seek glory in defeating a superior enemy. Shakespeare penned one of the most famous war speeches, which includes immortal lines such as:
The fewer men, the greater share of honour …
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother
If sisters are added, these words could be applied to the BAC.
But I digress.
So important were war bows to English warfare, so thorough the training needed to produce a proficient archer, and so heavy their draw weight (circa 100-200 pounds or 45-90 kg) that the strain changed the skeleton. Professional archers can be identified as such from inspection of their skeleton, namely thickened bones of shoulders and arms. Human arms became part of the arms race. Technology could change warriors’ bodies, not just kill them.
War bows were not in military service by the time the British colonized Australia more than 300 years after Agincourt and 200 years after the Mary Rose. The marines on the First Fleet did not carry bows. Their weapons were high-tech at the time – cannon and flintlock firearms. Technological change was accelerating, as it still is, due to the unfolding of the Industrial Revolution.