Medieval Myths: Peacock arrows

A sheef of pecok arwes, bright and kene,
Under his belt he bar ful thriftily,
(wel koude he dresse his takel yemanly:
His arwes drouped noght with fetheres lowe)

Chaucer, G., The Canterbury Tales, Prologue, The Yeoman, lines 104-7

I’ve seen it happen in a couple of archery and re-enactment clubs — someone starts reading about the sort of arrows used by medieval archers, discovers the use of peacock, buys a couple of tail feathers and then according to whim, either makes an arrow with a standard 3-fletch with the eyes or a spiral down the shaft with a split one. Everyone has a few goes, finds it to be rubbish and declares the accounts of peacock feathers to be mythical. If it’s a particularly well read group, someone will trot out the quote from Ascham and use it to justify their decision.

And trulye at a shorte butt, which some man doth use, the peacock feather does seldom kepe up the shaft  eyther right or level, it is so rough and heavye, so that manye men, which have taken them up for gaynesse, hath layde them down again for profite…

Ascham, R., Toxophilus, Book 2, p171

Hansard, in The Book of Archery (p390), takes it further based on the use of the word “gayness”, accusing Ascham of only ever having seen tail feathers in use, but everyone ignores that Ascham qualifies his objection, saying it only applies to short butt target shooting. For the long butt, hunting, and apparently the martyrdom of saints, a rough and heavy feather on a heavy shaft is exactly what you need.

Unless you’re committing this sort of abomination with printed turkey feathers.

The other thing everyone ignores is that arrows are made with wing, rather than tail feathers. The primary wing feathers of the peacock are a stunning metallic cinnamon bronze, the secondaries can be blue-black or barred brown and white.

Peacock wing feathers

Peacock wing feathers, the bronze feather is the primary wing feather, the brownish grey one is a secondary and has a lovely blue/green shimmer to the edge that the camera doesn’t show very well. The other two are barred secondaries. The bronze and blue ones have already been cut for making arrows.

There are a number of depictions of arrows that could be peacock. Here’s one of the more popular. Click to emartyrate.

Altarpiece of St Sebastian
The altarpiece of St Sebastian (circa 1493-4) by Master of the Holy Kinship, now in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne.

I’ll argue that the arrow in the midline just above Seb’s navel and the one that’s taken out his left kidney are both peacock arrows.The  top of the left thigh one (no, his left) may be too, the right thigh is definitely red. Other arrows show red or green dyed feathers and different shaftment treatments so alternate interpretations may also be valid. The artist has also clearly and correctly depicted the knots and sap and heartwood in the bows, so the arrows and other equipment are likely to be accurate as well. Also ouch.

Peacock fletched arrows
Here’s some I prepared earlier. Bronze peacock flight feathers, blue peacock cock feather, bound with blue silk. The colour is very close to the painting above and catches the light in the same way. 

There are many textural references to peacock arrows, covering a fair expanse of the medieval and early modern period.

Pro duodecim flechiis, cum pennis de pavore, emptis pro reg 12 den.
[For twelve arrows with peacock feathers, bought for the king, 12 pence.]

MS. Cott. Nero, C. viii (about 1290)

There’s the will of Peter Barleburgh, a tailor in London, who in 1390 bequeathed his peacock fletched arrows, and another inventory from 1429:

Item lego… j. shaffe of pakok-fedird arrows

Testamenta Eboracenensia, i. 491, 420

and plenty of other references in prose and technical writings:

And every arrowe an elle longe
With peacok wel ydyght,
Inocked all with white silver,
It was a semely syght.

Copland, W., A Mery Geste of Robyn Hode lines 525-8, c. 1560

I’ve seen that third line also translated as “nocked well and bound with white silk”, rather than referring to metal nocks.

& for the Peacocks feather, which some men do use at a short butt, it seldom or never keeps up the shaft, either right or level, by reason that it is so rough and heavy, insomuch, that many which have taken them up for their gayness, have laid them down again for their profit;

Markham, The Art of Archerie, chapter 10, 1643

Gee, Gervaise, I’m sure I’ve read that somewhere before. There is one more reference that confirms the colour of the feathers, and coincidentally, it’s the earliest. This is the Golden Youth passage from The Lady of the Fountain, the first book of the Mabinogion, dating to between 1100 and 1190. I’ll reproduce the passage entirely because the context is important.

… and at the extremity of a plain I came to a large and lustrous Castle, at the foot of which was a torrent. And I approached the Castle, and there I beheld two youths, with yellow curling hair, each with a  frontlet of gold upon his head, and clad in a garment of yellow satin; and they had gold clasps upon their insteps. In the hand of each of them was an ivory bow, strung with the sinews of a stag; and their arrows had shafts of the bone of the whale, and were winged with peacock’s feathers. The shafts also had golden heads. And they had daggers with blades of gold, and with hilts of the bone of the whale.

The Mabinogion – Iarlles Y Ffynnawn (The Lady of the Fountain)

It’s really obvious that if something isn’t gold in colour, these kids won’t have a thing to do with it.

More readynge

Ascham, R., Toxophilus – The Schole of Shootinge Conteyned in Tvvo Bookes, 1545
Copland, W., A Mery Geste of Robyn Hode, c1560
Chaucer, G., The Canterbury Tales, (c. 1400, pub. 1475)
Guest, Lady C. E., The Mabinogion from the Llyfr Coch o Bergest and other ancient Welsh manuscripts with an English Translation and Notes. William Rees, Llandovery, 1838
Hansard, G. A., The Book of Archery, Bohn, 1841
Markham, G., The Art of Archerie, London, 1643


4 thoughts on “Medieval Myths: Peacock arrows

  1. A very interesting article. I do wonder where you got the blue feathers from. I have only been able to find bronze and black.

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