The limits of HEMA—Archery in group combat

When you think of reconstructing medieval combat, the first thing you think of is probably going to be sword fighting. Either that or jousting. If you take a bit longer to think about it, you’ll probably get to massed battles with spears and shields and that kind of thing. We look to HEMA clubs and teachers as the supreme authorities on medieval combat. And yet, there are some things that they completely overlook and that less prestigious groups such as SCA or, dare I say it, LARP get much better. The key thing being archery in group combat.

Hang on, what do you mean? How can you shoot someone with a bow? Won’t that kill them? Well, by using a mixture of low poundage bows and blunted or even padded arrow tips, we can make it safe enough relative to the level of protective equipment being used. In short, we can shoot each other with bows these days which adds a variety of extra experiences to the mix.

Firstly, you get to shoot your friends with a bow! Now to anyone who might think this is barbaric or cruel, just think of laser tag or paintball. You’re doing a very similar thing there except there’s something so much more rewarding in needing to put effort into actually pulling back the string, and seeing something physically hit them. In short, because there’s so much effort and skill that goes into it, it has an incredibly rewarding pay off when you get your opponent.

But it’s also deeply rewarding being on the receiving end as well. How so? There’s something insanely brave about running towards someone who’s just fired an arrow and might be able to hit you with another one if you don’t close in on them fast enough. You raise the stakes and, if you succeed, can feel incredibly proud of your feat and if you don’t you can feel, albeit in a safe way, what it’s like to be unfairly cut short.

Fine, it sounds fun, but where’s the practical application for all this? How does this teach us more about medieval combat? This is where group combat comes in. If you have two armies fighting each other and one or both sides has archers, you suddenly appreciate shields a lot more. Now shields are incredibly useful no matter what and those who say their primary purpose is to protect you from arrows don’t know what they’re talking about. But it is a very useful aspect to them. You learn to appreciate group cohesion in forming a proper shieldwall when a sloppy one with gaps gets exploited from a distance. If you’re not using a shield but something two-handed (like a longsword…) then you appreciate group cohesion even more. You might be able to help out incredibly well at close range but without the protection of your comrades, you won’t get close enough to your opponents to make a difference. Archery instils a fear of being hit not just from those directly in front of you but in a wider sense from across the battlefield. It emphasises the need to work together and, yet, also how bad luck from factors outside of your control can still be your undoing.

There is great worth, I would argue, in experiencing multiple forms of medieval reconstruction. If you want to perfect your skill with a particular weapon or system, then by all means study HEMA for most of the time. And if that’s all you want to do, fine, do that but you are missing out. It is not only fun but deeply informative to experience other aspects of medieval combat, as best as we can reconstruct them. Group combat is especially useful and within that, as I hope I’ve demonstrated here, archery should not be overlooked. There are some things it teaches you that you can’t quite get from anything else.

(Photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Original by RX-Guru)

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