The Black Tapestry is the one surviving member of a theoretical series of tapestries illustrating Roman history. This one depicts four scenes of the history of the Roman king Tarquin the Elder (c 616-c 578 BC). Most likely woven in Brussels around 1425, it is now on display in the museum at the Cathedral of Zamora, Spain, possibly courtesy of the Thirty-Years War.
The right hand scene, the battle between the Romans and the Sabines is the one that interests us. See the archer figure in the foreground? Let’s have a closer look at him.
The breastplate over mail provides protection, while allowing sufficient flexibility to use the bow. He’s wearing a shooting glove and bracer and carries a sword. There’s an empty quiver on his left hip, apparently on the same belt as the sword. Note the detail in the bow – the way the sapwood, heartwood and the transition between the two are depicted along with cow horn nocks on the bow and the loose end of the string from the timber hitch on the bottom nock. That tells me that the designer is working from real models rather than following an artistic convention. It’s one of the things I look for in historic artwork and provides a measure of the degree of certainty that what I am seeing is realistic. Given the 100-Years War was happening next door in France at the time, I wouldn’t be too surprised if the model was an English archer. The three-finger draw was considered characteristic of the English, most continental archers practising a two-finger or thumb draw.
Apart from being early evidence for the use of a shooting glove, this archer is used as evidence that arrows were always bound with red thread. [Bartlett and Embleton]
Let’s have a closer look at that arrow now.
Straight, parallel sided with long triangular white feathers. The nock is black, the feathers are the classic long triangle, probably goose, with a hint of the gaps created by the thread. The fletching is nearly 1⁄3 of the total length of the arrow, giving a figure of between 9 and 10 inches depending on the arrow length. While seemingly huge, this is consistent with the livery arrows held by the Tower right up to the reign of Elizabeth I. The top feather has two red sections. It isn’t the cock feather because it’s pointing up rather than at right angles to the nock and towards the archer, but the message is clear – this way up. There’s a darker colour on the lower half of the shaftment compared to the rest of the arrow, possibly some sort of glue or other treatment. Could this be the famed virido greco or just a shadow? The head is a swept MoL type 16, very similar to one on the Westminster Abbey arrow. With two high carbon steel edges forge welded to the socket, these are the real armour piercing arrowheads not those soft little bodkins. It’s basically a can opener onna stick. [Starley]
Westminster Abbey Arrowhead. The part of the building in which it was found was completed in 1437.
Image Copyright of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey
The binding is obviously red, with a huge area bound in front of the fletching and a smaller one at the back. If you look at the binding along the shaftment, though, it’s white with a greenish shadow. It’s a bit fiddly, but not difficult to do this. The start of the white thread is bound under the leading red – this may explain the extreme length of that part, and the end is bound under the rear red wrapping.
The tapestry is also often cited on various historical archery forums as evidence of cresting on arrows. Cresting is where arrows have bands of colour painted on to identify them as belonging to a particular archer. Cresting doesn’t make sense in a military context due to the logistics of the ammunition factory and supply line. All I can see on this archer is a black painted nock, if that is the cresting, it doesn’t allow for many archers. You know who did have black painted nocks on their military arrows? That’s right, the Romans.
Qasr Ibrim arrow with black painted nock, 24BC.
British Museum 1990-1-27.24, photo from romanarmy.net
Those looking for evidence of banding would do better examining the various Martyrsdom of St Sebastian as those use depictions of civilians in an archer n>1 context.
The Mary Rose Livery and Westminster Abbey Arrows http://warbowwales.com/#/warbow-arrows/4557916533
The Wilton Diptych Arrow Replica http://warbowwales.com/#/wilton-arrow-replica/4563532669
Flemish Tapestries in Spain http://www.flandesenhispania.org/tapestries/index.php/
Bartlett, Clive and Embleton, Gerry; The English Archer c.1300-1500 (2); Military Illustrated Past & Present; No. 2; 1986
Jessop, Oliver; Datasheet 22 – Medieval Arrowheads; Finds Research Group 700-1700 – Datasheets 1-24; 1999
Starley, David; Metallurgical Analysis of Medieval Crossbolt Quarrel Heads and Arrowheads; Royal Armouries Yearbook 2000.