Todd Cutler et al. just presented a video proving what every serious scholar of the period already knows: That arrows rarely injured men at arms in plate. The records of the period make this extremely clear, and only the confirmation bias of the archery fan boys combined with the general ignorance about the actual function of archery in late-period medieval battles made this video necessary at all. If you seriously don’t understand what archery was for, ask me privately and I will reluctantly explain it again, but when you are finally forced to admit that it wasn’t about killing men at arms (and after this video, no one with even a shred of intellectual honesty can possibly doubt that), it should be obvious.
This essay is really about a separate issue: Arrows penetrating mail (if you’re ignorant enough to think there’s such a thing as “chain mail,” don’t bother reading this, you need more education first). When you finally prove to the archery fan boys that arrows didn’t penetrate plate, they immediately harp on the false notion that only a few men at arms had plate, and arrows could still penetrate mail, so archery stilled RULED! So there, you mean old pedant! Of course, how much plate was worn depended upon the period, but here we’re discussing the Age of Plate (roughly c. 1375 until the end of the period), and more specifically the Hundred Years War; after that things changed quite a bit as men at arms became less important on the battlefield because they were replaced by common soldiers (NB: A man at arms was anyone who was able to arm and equip himself as a knight in full armor—get over your mistaken belief that the term refers to common soldiery with an iron cap and ratty-looking leather armor).
The simple truth is that arrows of a certain type could penetrate mail, but most people miss the most important fact about that seemingly simple statement. The arrows that could penetrate mail were those of the bodkin type—slender points with little or no blade. Anyone who has ever looked at hunting arrows, however, will immediately notice that they are invariably broadheads—wide blade-shaped points, not narrow spiked points. That’s because arrows kill by causing blood loss, not through the percussive effects we associate with firearms. The wider the blade, the more it cuts, and the more blood loss it causes, so the faster the target dies.
We start seeing these bodkin points in the early 14th century, coincidental with the development of the Age of Transition when men at arms started adding plate armor to their mail. We have plenty of accounts from the period prior to this in which arrows had almost no effect on men at arms in full mail; in one famous episode, King Louis IX of France wrote that after fighting a battle in their hauberks on one day, he and his men elected to fight in just their aketons and gambesons (another word almost everyone gets wrong) on the next day because the pinprick wounds caused by (broad-headed) arrows against their mail made the mail painful to wear—which means that they were hit a lot and didn’t die. The reason the bodkin point was developed may have been to solve this problem, or it may have been to pass more easily between plates of Transitional armor, or (probably) both.
But think about this: If arrows killed by causing wide cuts that led to severe blood loss, how did that change with the transition to bodkin points? Ah, comprehension starts to dawn in those readers not utterly blinded by confirmation bias! Right, they no longer did a very good job of killing at all. Wounding, certainly, possibly even rendering combatants hors de combat, but rarely killing except in exceptional and unlikely circumstances.
So yes, arrows could penetrate mail, but the key point is that mail forced archers to use a type of point which would rarely cause a fatal wound (barring long-term infection, of course). That’s the important lesson to take from this: Armor worked, even when it didn’t fully protect the wearer.
Readers of this blog may wonder why this subject is even being discussed since it has absolutely no relevance to Fechtbuch combat, which has nothing to do with archery or to war (Fiore’s hubristic claims to the contrary notwithstanding). The reason is that the same revelation applies to swords (and, to a lesser extent, spears) in Harnischfechten. When people look at early-period swords they are often struck by the very broad points exhibited by such weapons, comparing them unfavorably to the more acute points on later swords (starting with the Type XV). In fact, as with arrows, those earlier points were intended for use against unarmored targets and were actually far more deadly than the narrower later style points, just as broadheads are more lethal than bodkins.
As armor changed through the Transitional Period, the old percussive blows favored in the Age of Mail were discarded in favor of thrusts into the gaps of the plates, just as Ringeck taught (NB: Percussive blows didn’t normally penetrate mail, but they could break and damage the parts under it). They first tried to overcome plate defenses with bigger, heavier swords (e.g., Types XII and XIII), but these proved inadequate to the task, so narrower points that were capable of passing into the small gaps between plates and then penetrating the links of mail underneath were required.
So when people studying Harnischfechten today wonder about the lack of effectiveness of mail at stopping sword thrusts from 15th-century swords, they entirely miss the point, just as the archery fan boys miss the point about arrows penetrating mail: The mail forced the use of less-effective points on swords, thus making combat safer despite not being able to stop the pointier sword types. Armor worked—get over your misconceptions.
Note: If this essay (or others on this blog) seems harsh or angry, blame the confirmation-bias plagued idiots who keep shouting false information to push their notions of how things “must have been.” If not for literal decades of having to correct them endlessly only to have them throw screaming tantrums when exposed to facts which disprove their ignorant and baseless theories, this essay would no doubt have been far more gentle and mild, but enough is enough.