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Crossbow competitions and civic communities

By Laura Crombie


In the popular imagination, tournaments feature prominently as the greatest spectacles of the Middle Ages. If archery competitions are thought of, it is probably in the context of Robin Hood films or the great English longbow (and the successes it brought, particularly Agincourt). Yet the archery and crossbow competitions organised by guilds across Northern France and the Low Countries had dramatic entrances with dragons and play wagons, took over marketplaces for weeks (even months) at a time, and allowed princes to interact with townsmen. In studying the guilds and their competitions, I have tried to understand why such elaborate and exciting events were staged.

Image courtesy of City of Ghent, City Archives, Fonds Sint Joris, 155, 1.
Photo by Laura Crombie. Reproduced with permission of City of Ghent, City Archives, Fonds Sint Joris, 155, 1.

One of the earliest crossbow competitions was held in Oudenaarde, in central Flanders, in 1328 with local teams shooting for a few days and rewarded with wine. Competitions grew in size and splendour; by the fifteenth century events typically lasted for two-three months and took over civic space, dominating towns as few other events ever did. Prizes became more elaborate, with silver dragons (for their association with Saint George, the patron saint of many crossbow guilds), roses, gems, unicorns, even a silver monkey — all awarded for best individual shot, best team, best entrance, best costume, best play, or for hitting the centre of target.

Town accounts make clear the importance of honour in funding guilds and competitions. In 1394 the crossbowmen of Douai attended a competition in Tournai and were initially given just £26; but when the aldermen heard they had won prizes, they received another £41, 17 sous ‘for the honour of the town’. These are no empty words. In travelling across a number of different counties, perhaps even national borders, the archers and crossbowmen became important civic representatives: in civic livery, pulling memorable play floats, funded by civic finances. Competitions allowed towns to represent their identity on a regional scale.

In looking at the chronology of archery and crossbow competitions, and in analysing attendance patterns, the role of competitions within inter-regional networks can be appreciated. Rather than being staged in year of tension in the build up to wars or rebellion, perhaps for training, the greatest competitions were held just after conflict, to use martial displays to rebuild festive and commercial networks. One of the earliest competitions in Tournai was held in 1344, just four years after the town have been besieged by an Anglo-Flemish force under Edward III, as part of his attempt to enforce his claim to the throne of France. Tournai was a French Episcopal city, but relied upon its northern neighbours, especially Flanders and Brabant, for trade so it had to restore and rebuild urban networks. A crossbow competition had become the best way to restore peace.

Tournai held another great competition in 1455. The event’s declared purpose was to celebrate the recent victories of the French king, in driving the English out of France save Calais and effectively ending the Hundred Years War. The competition shows Tournai again using a crossbow competition to show and enhance its place within Flemish and Brabant urban networks. The attendance at the 1455 competition, with 59 guilds from 45 towns, none of which were French, shows that despite its loyalty to the French crown, Tournai was culturally, festively, and commercially tied to lands ruled by the Valois Dukes of Burgundy.

In G. Small ‘Centre and periphery in late medieval France: Tournai, 1384-1477,’ in War, Government and Power in Late Medieval France. Ed. C. Allmand (Liverpool, 2000). Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Urban networks and civic priorities in funding archery and crossbow competitions were fluid and evolved depending on the political situation. With the death of the last Valois duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, in 1477, France and the Low Countries were at war. Tournai became the centre of a prolonged and violent campaign, with daily pillaging and burning. The violence of 1477 tore Tournai from its urban networks. Though competitions were held in the 1480s, to try to restore peace as the event of 1344 had done, they were less spectacular, and Tournai was no longer willing to spend significant sums on civic networks, or on using the archers and crossbowmen to build bonds with Flemish towns. In a Ghent contest in 1498, the Tournai entrance was one of the smallest, showing that competitions were not longer a civic priority capable of winning civic honour and building bonds with neighbouring towns.

Archery and crossbow competitions were every bit as spectacular as jousts, with costumes and plays, as well as weeks of shooting. They were put on at great cost for towns to show their status and to enhance regional communities. The competitions developed across the fourteenth and fifteenth century, giving towns and townsmen opportunities to show civic identity and to win honour. They also built festive networks, strengthening social and economic inter-urban connections. But they were bound up with political events and ripped apart by the violence of 1477.

Dr Laura Crombie is a lecturer in Medieval History at the University of York. She publishes on the social history of the archery and crossbow guilds of Flanders and is currently engaged in studying other urban groups and urban festivities in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. She is the author of “French and Flemish urban festive networks: archery and crossbow competitions attended and hosted by Tournai in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries” (available to read for free for a limited time) in French History.

French History offers an important international forum for everyone interested in the latest research in the subject. It provides a broad perspective on contemporary debates from an international range of scholars, and covers the entire chronological range of French history from the early Middle Ages to the twentieth century.

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