Billmen - myth?

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Alan E
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Re: ...

Postby Alan E » Fri Jun 06, 2008 9:36 am

Brand wrote:Quote Medieval Pole Weapons 1287-1513 by Adrian Waite
ISBN 1 85804 179 1
Primary evidence then :roll:
Brand wrote:'The polearm first appeared in European literature in 1287, but it's first recorded appearance on the European battlefield was in the hands of the Swiss at Moregarten in 1315.'
The polearm first appeared in Europe in pre-historic times: In European literature? I wonder what that means :?
Brand wrote:For every 19 men there would be 1 Vintner (sergeant equivalent) these would form a block, five such blocks would be under the charge of 1 Centenary (who would ba a Vintner but was also in charge of the other four Vintners and his own 19 men).

In charge of these Centenaries would be a Captain who would be in charge of a variable number of men- this person would be listed but perhaps not the men he commanded.
Somehow I doubt there is any clear evidence of such organisation persisting throughout the medieval period.
Brand wrote:Plenty of evidence for bill use in skeletal remains found at WotR sites.

Hope this helps, thoroughly reccomend you buy this Stuart Press publication.
Does it refer to any primary evidence when it makes these claims?


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Re: ...

Postby Fox » Fri Jun 06, 2008 10:06 am

Alan E wrote:Primary evidence then :roll:
....Does it refer to any primary evidence when it makes these claims?


Actually most of us aren't trained or knowledgable enough to interpret primary evidence (we've already mentioned muster rolls on this thread).

If you think the interpretation seems unusual, then ask for the primary source listed in the book; very few history books don't include an appendix of references.

I don't see the need to be snotty (at this stage).



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Postby Brand » Fri Jun 06, 2008 10:39 am

Get yourself a copy of the book- it lists the primary evidence!
That's why so many of us buy these handy pamphlets!

Yes of course each army would be organised differently but they would have a similar system.

As for wearing of colours/ coats of arms etc. I would suggest (without backing up with evidence) that local troops were raised by their Lord/ Knight/ Gentry person and were issued appropriate colours - presumably to be returned if (for some reason) troops were transferred to another command.



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Postby gregory23b » Fri Jun 06, 2008 12:25 pm

"Yes of course each army would be organised differently but they would have a similar system."

why would they have a similar system and what makes you say they did?

The Burgundians had a very different system from the English, as did the Swiss, in terms of how they were raised and organised. Nations tend to reflect cultural needs and pressures. England did not have a standing army nor was it based on cantonal communities with strong traditions of raiding between them, not to mention totally different primary troop types.


"As for wearing of colours/ coats of arms etc. I would suggest (without backing up with evidence) that local troops were raised by their Lord/ Knight/ Gentry person and were issued appropriate colours - presumably to be returned if (for some reason) troops were transferred to another command."

Yes that was the case, but my question was based on what happens next, if they are merely raised for distribution into convenient weapon based units then the liveries they get issued with are redundant as they would be dispersed among a wider body of troops. we know from battles such as Barnet that one battle was identified differently from another on the same side, causing a famous bit of fratricide.


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Re: ...

Postby Fox » Fri Jun 06, 2008 3:33 pm

Brand wrote:Get yourself a copy of the book- it lists the primary evidence!


Again, why the angst. He's asked for the source can you not just provide it.



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Re: ...

Postby Alan E » Fri Jun 06, 2008 4:28 pm

I had no intention of being snotty: Brands original post was:
Brand wrote:Bear in mind that pre 16th C very often:-

Spears = any polearm type weapon

Next- men at arms and archers are generally paid, skilled fighters, most bill/ pole men are recruited by a man at arms who is paid to bring his unit- wil check numbers per unit at home but roughly 29 billmen per man at arms- these men would not be listed but would be paid by their leader. For this reason they would not appear on the muster unless they were mercenaries (who were unreliable and not common) wherein again, the leader would most likely bear a poleaxe and be listed as a man at arms.

There is plenty of evidence for this- especially the lack of cavalry! Cavalry were hardly used during WotR because of me and my mates and our bills :D Will post more detail tonight when I have resources to hand.

Agreed with the first statement, expectations were raised regarding "plenty of evidence ... will post more detail when I have resources to hand"

Then a secondary source which said pole weapons appeared in C13 (which is confusing to say the least) and talked about vintners controlling blocks of bills; this did not match the build-up and received a disappointed response. I did ask for the sources the book listed, in my last sentence.


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Postby Marcus Woodhouse » Fri Jun 06, 2008 7:34 pm

To muddy waters still further Charles the Bold's "Burgundian pike men" are shown praticing and on the field with glaives, boar spears, halberds, bills, etc. I imagine that one or two of them do actually have pikes. That said, his best pikemen were a troublesome lot from Flanders who much prefered the HRE.


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Postby Ghost » Fri Jun 06, 2008 7:46 pm

vintanaries, centenaries and millenaries are apparantly listed as officers in Edward I paylists (although cannot advise of MS reference or other primary source - try National Archive search engine) - all secondary sources which quote this clearly state that the exact details of this structure are uncertain

most surmise that centenaries represent 100 men and millenaries 1000 with opinions differing over if vintanaries controlled 20 or 25 men

By HYW there appears reference to captains and petty-captains with apparant random structure and numbers

think this maybe going off thread - not hey whats new

if anybody knows anymore definitive i would be interested


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Postby Immortalis » Fri Jun 06, 2008 11:34 pm

Wow!!

And here I was thinking twice about even posting this here! the response has been fantastic, if as I'm finding with most things medieval pretty thin and hard to find. I guess like most things people only write it down if they think it's important enough, then it only survives if the people that follow think its important to keep.

If what you have put forward is only half true I dont blame who ever decided to just have billmen as the standard form for re-enactment. You could quite likely spend your life researching this and still not have definite proof. As others have pointed out there is lots of evidence to support the use of such men but by lots of different names and descriptions.

Not wanting to digress too much from the topic but it has turned up in my head. If the 'every Englishman must do x hours archery practice every x' and if archers are paid more than 'normal' infantry shall we say, why would you not claim to be, or be an archer? Again please dont shout or scream these are just things I have been told as fact and that leads my over active mind to come up with these question. :oops:

thanks for all the information so far it has helped no end.



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Postby Ayliffe's Steve » Sat Jun 07, 2008 3:12 am

I believe you had to be able to shoot something like 12 arrows a minute in order to be considered to be an archer


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Postby Marcus Woodhouse » Sat Jun 07, 2008 10:51 am

Going back to the original thread we really don't know to much about how bills were used in battles. The Swiss are not a good source to look at as they used the pike which is a weapon that needs a lot of practice. We know that in 1442 even small village sized contingents were able to slot into line alongside neghbours because they had trained and mustered together. An Italian observer even witnessed the City of Berne mustering and carrying out manuvers in the dark.
The Burgundians were IMHO trying to copy the Swiss in their training books, but because the Dukes hated the only natural pikemen they had (the Flemish townfolk who may have adoted the pike even before the Swiss) the mix of mercenaries and household troops were forced to use the bills they were familiar with.
The Italians according to Bishop Niccolii "stood together yet a little apart" in order to "do no harm to each other when they deal their strokes", which makes sense in light of the accounts from Swiss and later French chronicles that talk about men having their skulls cleaved open by the zealous overswings of the fellas in front or being spitted on the end of the butt spike of the man they were stood behind (or even imapling them selves!)
I can sees no real reason why a bill stuck in the ground behind an archer is any less of a burden than a sword and buckler.
I don't like the idea of all the men with the same weapon all going off to fight next to each other because however much sense it makes to our mind it does't take into account the medieval mind frame (these are my men, I paid for them, I armed them I dressed them, they make me look good-he's our master, he's paying us, he's the man who feeds us and I've no idea who the King is.)


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Postby Martin » Sat Jun 07, 2008 11:12 am

believe you had to be able to shoot something like 12 arrows
cor Robin Hood only managed to shoot one arrow, how are you going to be able to shoot 12 ??? would they be in a bundle tied together or individual targets ?? thats some pretty accurate shooting IMHO :D


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Postby Brand » Sat Jun 07, 2008 1:17 pm

As is so often the way when you get down to it the evidence is hard to locate.

It seems the 1287 reference appears to be based on earlier, classical weapons rather than medieval weapons so should most likely be discounted.

In any case here is a start:-

References given in leaflet:-

Flodden 1513, Barr, Niall

The Battle of Towton, Boardman, Andrew

The Medieval Soldier in the Wars of the Roses, Boardman, Andrew

European Historical Weapons, Dolinek, Vladimir & Durdik, Jan

The Medieval Soldier, Embleton, Gerry & Howe, John

Blood Red Roses, Fiorato, Veronica Boylston, Anthea & Knusel, Christopher

The Halberd and other European Polearms 1300-1650, Snook, George


Additional Resources I have found:-


http://virtuatheque.free.fr/The%20Halbe ... learms.pdf


http://www.flodden.net/battle.php

http://www.brad.ac.uk/acad/archsci/depa ... rp/towton/

http://www.albanach.org/leine.html
1521

Woodcut of Irish soldiers- 2 bills, 1 bow, 1 sword

Bottom woodcut- bill block to right


Hope this helps.



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Billman

Postby Dathi » Sat Jun 07, 2008 3:17 pm

As far as I'm aware, from 16th Century sources, "Billman" is being used as a description of a Troop type in the 1570's, try looking through The Lancashire Lieutenancy Under the Tudors and Stuart here http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=TkYJ ... =0#PPA2,M1

Some of the earlier references in this source only talk about archers with levy's for Ireland in the 1550's only impressing archers



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Postby Colin Middleton » Sun Jun 08, 2008 5:29 pm

Just a quick comment on some of the books that Brand mentioned. I've read the Snook and Embleton books and another book by Boardman. While all are very accessable, they all apear to be taken from tertiary sources. I wouldn't rely on their details too heavily.

That said, Blood Red Roses is supposed to be taken from the reports of the excavations, so that should be a more reliable source.


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Postby Adam R » Sun Jun 08, 2008 7:27 pm

Colin Middleton wrote:That said, Blood Red Roses is supposed to be taken from the reports of the excavations, so that should be a more reliable source.


Indeed it is. And it make no reference to wounds by bills - the source of the woulnds isn't clear enough to make and they only differentiate between cut, stab or crushing wounds apart from going out on a limb to hypothesize that some are likely to be repeated knife / dagger wounds - at least, if I remember rightly (and a quick flick suggests I might).

Not that I am saying bills weren't used!! :shock:

My argument is only the 'formations' of men.


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Postby steve stanley » Sun Jun 08, 2008 7:53 pm

Sticking my nose in...I think the Osprey on the Longbowman claims a period reference for Billmen at either Castillion or Formigny...anyone any further info??
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Postby Marcus Woodhouse » Sun Jun 08, 2008 8:24 pm

And big puncture wounds to the head which may be from either a crossbow bolt, a warhammer or a pollaxe.


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Postby nev » Sun Jun 08, 2008 8:55 pm

ok I'm going to stick my bill in so to speak

first off I'm willing to be corrected on any of this I am not working from primary sources, I don't have copies of the original documents and can't read medieval latin/norman-french and middle english gives me a headache so I am relying on translations and reprouctions and apologise for any bastardisation that has occured without my knowledge.

bill, originally bil in old english meaning a cutting tool, hence why the term bill is so generic.

References to the "bill" in contemporary (very loose as the ones I have to hand at this juncture are some 400 years apart, but this does suggest that it was in use in some form throughout the medieval and into tudor period)

From Wace (12th century anglo norman poet/canon of Bayeux) and I admitt working from a translation whose accuracy I am taking on faith

"There was a French soldier of noble mien, who sat his horse gallantly. He spied two Englishmen who were also carrying themselves boldly. They were men of great worth and had become companions in arms, and fought togehter, the one protecting the other. They bore two long and broad bills, and did great mischief amongst the Normans, killing both horses and men..."

again from Wace, this time speaking about the battle of Hastings

"And now might be heard the loud clan and cry of battle, and the clashing of Lances. The English stood firm in their barricades, and shivered the lances, beating them into pieces with their bills"

1551, Daniel Barbaro Venetian Ambassador to the English court

[He first talks of archers and their ability to slaughter huge armies and then] "the second is of bill-men, their weapons being a short thick staff, with an iron [presumably refering to the blade] like a peasants hedging bil but much thicker and heavier than used in Venetian territories. With this they strike so violently as to unhorse the cavalry; and it is made short because they like close quarters"

Sir Roger Williams from "A Briefe Discourse of Warre" published 1590

"I persuade myself that there ought to be amongst 1000 pikes, 200 short weapons, as holberts or bills; but the Bills must bee of good stuffe, not like our common browne bills...." he goes on to talk at some length about steel rather than iron and how they should have strong pikes (presumably blades?) at least 12in long and langets to the middle of the shaft "like unto those the Earl of Leicester and Sir William Pelham had in the low countries for their guards"


In my opinion the greatest problem as regards bills and thereby billmen is what actually constituted a bill in the medieval sense. A bil as in a cutting tool is practically 90 odd percent of the close quarter weapons on a medieval battlefield. As with everything we do given the relative lack of evidence, compared with say Napoleonic or the World Wars, a certain amount of interpretaion of the evidence we do have will always be necessary. To my mind though a billman is a man armed with a jack, sallet (helmet) and stave (as per serviving muster rolls) whether that stave is a spear, boar spear, partisan, glaive, welsh hook, hedging/hand bill on a long stick or any other of the hundreds of designs seen in collections/finds etc

Billman is an acceptable term, simply in that it is the best term we have to describe a complex and varied infantry type.

Finally, I apologise for the 100 or so typos mispellings there probably are in this post, I'm tired and can't be bothered proof reading all that :)


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Postby Brother Ranulf » Mon Jun 09, 2008 7:16 am

The Wace translations are extremely suspect - he was writing in Latin and Anglo-Norman, neither of which have a word for "bill" in the sense you intend. Anglo-Norman French in the 12th century has specific words for only three polearms:

fauchard
glaive
voulge (vouge)

The "glaive" is easy - it comes from Latin "gladius" and literally means "sword", which is also the name of a thatcher's long, straight, single-edged eaves knife*. Mounted on a long handle, the eaves knife is a long, straight, single-edged blade on a pole which may appear on the Bayeux Tapestry and in some 12th century Anglo-Norman sources. No way was this any kind of "bill".

The fauchard is described as a curved blade on a long handle and it appears twice in the Fecamp Psalter of about 1180, looking very much like a large, wide butcher knife or kitchen knife on a pole (the Eceniron catalogues include socketed Roman kitchen knives of exactly this shape).

The voulge only appears in the Copenhagen Psalter (English, last quarter of the 12th century) in the scene of the arrest of Christ: it is a rectangular-bladed axe mounted by short arms to the side of a long pole, much like the later Scottish side-axe. No hooks or spikes are shown, simply a flat, rectangular blade.

The only "bill" in 12th century sources is either a (1) hedging tool, the billhook or hedging hook, mounted on a short handle and used in agricultural contexts. A Cistercian lay brother is seen using one to trim the branches of a tree, for example. (2) It appears in the writings of Thomas of Kent in connection with the devils of Hell using billhooks or flesh-hooks on the souls of the damned - again with a short handle, and a tool, not a weapon.

All three of the polearms I mention above were extremely rare during the 12th century (based on the romances and chronicle descriptions of contemporary writers, stone carvings, wall paintings and battle scenes in manuscript illustrations), spears being by far the most common weapon on the battlefield. This period is really the infancy of more elaborate pole-arms, which seem to become more prevalent in the 13th century.

I would strongly suggest that "bills" in a 12th century military context are anachronistic, unless any further evidence can be found.

* Alexander Neckham mentions the "sword" as one of the tools required by a peasant - the unwary have fallen into the obvious trap, when an eaves knife or "sword" makes much more sense.

As a linguist, the three pole-arms listed above have specific and particular meanings, much as some would like them to be vague and inter-changeable. That there is no Anglo-Norman term for "bill" indicates to me that there was no such weapon at the time - you don't need a term for something you don't have. That the word "bill" is from Old English (haven't checked this yet) would indicate its use as a working tool at that time rather than a weapon, for obvious reasons.


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Postby Fox » Mon Jun 09, 2008 8:18 am

I might be remembering wrong, but I think last time we discussed it on here it turned out that glaive was essentially a continental word, and that we might indeed have called the same weapon a spear or a bill.

Not that makes any difference to what the good Brother is saying, what he says seems right, I just thought I'd add that in.

Adam R wrote:My argument is only the 'formations' of men.


What are you arguing against exactly, and what is your alternative?
Last edited by Fox on Mon Jun 09, 2008 11:45 am, edited 1 time in total.



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Postby Fox » Mon Jun 09, 2008 8:24 am

[MOD]
I've let this run in F&G for a while, but it really should be in 1100 - 1500.
I've left a ghost in F&G so people can find it.
[/MOD]



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Postby gregory23b » Mon Jun 09, 2008 11:35 am

Nev

"A bil as in a cutting tool is practically 90 odd percent of the close quarter weapons on a medieval battlefield. "

If a 'standard' WOTR army is at least half if not 2/3 archers, the rest being MAA and toffs, and assuming that many of the archers' sidearms were not bills then only if the archers shot and stood by watching would your percentage stand. I don't think it was standard English policy to just let the archers shoot and watch the clankies have the hand to hand.

Fox:

glaives are mentioned a fair bit in English texts, not just stories but accounts of affray, Pastons add Lange de boefs to the list of 'pole arms'. French in terminology certainly, but in use, seemingly in England too.


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Postby Fox » Mon Jun 09, 2008 11:47 am

Fox wrote:I might be remembering wrong, but I think last time we discussed it on here it turned out that glaive was essentially a continental word, and that we might indeed have called the same weapon a spear or a bill.



gregory23b wrote:Fox:

glaives are mentioned a fair bit in English texts, not just stories but accounts of affray, Pastons add Lange de boefs to the list of 'pole arms'. French in terminology certainly, but in use, seemingly in England too.


Sorry, I meant that in the context of Brother Ranulf's post, i.e. relating to early pole arms.



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Postby gregory23b » Mon Jun 09, 2008 12:15 pm

Ok mate, sorry about that ;-)


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Postby Colin Middleton » Mon Jun 09, 2008 1:15 pm

Nev's assertion is that:
nev wrote:bill, originally bil in old english meaning a cutting tool, hence why the term bill is so generic.

If this is correct, then swords would qualify as a 'tool' for cutting your enemy. Even assuming that we exclude swords and add the requirement of a pole handle (a reasonable refinement of the description), this still describes Glaives, Voulge and Fauchards as well as Axes.

If we go on to assume that terms start loosley and 'crystalise' their meaning as time passes, all these terms could be interchangeable in the 12th C and have very specific meanings by the 15th C.

I know that the above a ASSUMPTIONS, but they are reasonable points that should at least be considered.

Brother Ranulf, are you certain that these very specific, fixed meanings were applied at the time of the sources you state and not looser terms that get fixed later?

I would be very interested to see what the original term in the texts Nev references are and how else they may be translated...


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Postby Fox » Mon Jun 09, 2008 2:27 pm

What Colin said....

That's very much my understanding.



For instance (and from a related but different field) gun, usually spelt gunne, comes from engine, and originally just means siege engine.
Over time it evolves to mean specifically a black powder device and diversifies to include hand held weapons too.



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Postby nev » Mon Jun 09, 2008 7:43 pm

gregory23b wrote:Nev

"A bil as in a cutting tool is practically 90 odd percent of the close quarter weapons on a medieval battlefield. "

If a 'standard' WOTR army is at least half if not 2/3 archers, the rest being MAA and toffs, and assuming that many of the archers' sidearms were not bills then only if the archers shot and stood by watching would your percentage stand. I don't think it was standard English policy to just let the archers shoot and watch the clankies have the hand to hand.



Sorry, gregory I don't see your point. I agree that once a battle moved to close quarter hand strokes then the majority of archers would commit. The evidence would certainly suggest this as would the logic that having 50-70% of your army standing and watching makes no sense, however if the archers aren't using bills (in the sense of a cutting tool or a pole weapon) then what are they using?

A weapon with reach such as a spear or the like makes far more sense for a man wearing limited armour. A sword is relatively (compared to pole mounted weapon) expensive and requires a considerable amount of practice to use it efficiently, a pole weapon is easier to maitain/repair/replace on campaign, can provide far more protection against suprise cavalry attacks than a sword or other hand held weapon of the period. Even in a seige situation or urban street by street fighting a pole weapon strikes me as far easier to wield than a sword or other weapon and makes tactical sense. If youre to hold a street is it a better idea to have a group of individuals requiring room to use their weapons or a tightly formed single "block" presenting a wall of points to the enemy? This is not to suggest that weapons like mauls, daggers, falchions etc weren't used (although bil as in a cutting tool would cover the 2 latter examples), they certainly were but the idea of a large part of a WotR army (50-70% as you suggest) being armed only with these doesn't ring true either.

As an additional thought, from Greece to Rome to the Saxons and beyond to the pike blocks of rennaisance Europe and the ECW and gunpowder at all these points units of infantry working together as well drilled organised block have always defeated more disorganised foes, are we honestly suggesting that these ideas disappeared for 5 centuries and then reappeared as if by magic in the 1500s? in 1066 the Saxon infantry stood as a massed unit to face the Normans and held them until that unit broke. Medieval commanders read classic texts on war and they weren't stupid, they learned. We also need to take in the psychology of soldiers, a block of infantry is always preferable in that it reduces the chance of men slipping away and gives a commander a greater ability as regards command and control.

Sorry I seem to have gone on a bit there


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Postby gregory23b » Mon Jun 09, 2008 9:13 pm

"however if the archers aren't using bills (in the sense of a cutting tool or a pole weapon) then what are they using?however if the archers aren't using bills (in the sense of a cutting tool or a pole weapon) then what are they using?"

in theory a range of weapons above and beyond that of swords, mauls are mentioned, we know that some had swords. I think they were more diversely armed than we like to think, and yes some may well have had bills, after all a bill or other pole arm is no more unwieldy to carry than a leaden maul.

If we step back from WOTR and go to say Agincourt, then the archers had mauls and swords etc and the Welsh lot long knives, which seemed to be an accepted side arm for that troop type, in which case why would it not be for others later on?

I was mainly questioning the large percentage of what might be pole weapons than their possible use by archers, an idea to which I subscribe to some degree- but not based on much evidence, but less in large numbers more as an idea of a wider range of weapons used.

"are we honestly suggesting that these ideas disappeared for 5 centuries and then reappeared as if by magic in the 1500s? "

They do and appear to have done in some parts*, otherwise by definition medieval armies would be like the Roman ones or the Greeks etc. Societies change and so does the warfare. England saw many changes to how troops were raised or trained (or not). Different kings initiated different policies, the edict for men to practice the bow was supposed to be inspired by the Welsh. Stagnation and decay can just as easily affect military systems as they do anything else, the list of failed states and changed military policy is as large as the ones that were successful, often they were one then the other.

* The Swiss were notable for their formed blocks, yet this is not replicated as far as we know in England, but then English society and military tradition had evolved differently as did the French.

By the same token why don't all armies immediately copy those that perform better than them? often due to political or economic inertia and no particular system is perfect.


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Fox
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Postby Fox » Tue Jun 10, 2008 1:16 pm

We need to go somewhere with this.

Let's start with some axioms that I think the majority of us agree to, based on the discussion so far.

(1) The words used in primary sources does not adequately match our common modern vocabulary. This means these sources cannot easily be taken literally, but must be extroplolated into current parlance.

(2) There was such a thing as an individual billman, broadly as he is generally concieved by re-enactors.

(3) Billman are wildly over-represented on the re-enactment battlefield.

(4) Evidence exists for fighting as massed bills on the continent, but cannot be simply extropolated to this country.

My question, based on those axioms, is:
Can anyone hypothesis an alternative way in which Billman would have fought?

You may either disagree with the axioms or you may answer the question.




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