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Archery Archive: Making the Maciejowskie (part two)

The Maciejowski Bible Bow

The Maciejowski Bible Bow

Portrayal of a Sicilian Saracen Archer

Portrayal of a Sicilian Saracen Archer

Portrayal of a Sicilian Saracen Archer

Portrayal of a Sicilian Saracen Archer

Medieval portrayal of Sicilian Saracen Archer

Medieval portrayal of Sicilian Saracen Archer

Frederick II

Frederick II

Medieval portrayal of Sicilian Saracen Archer

Medieval portrayal of Sicilian Saracen Archer

Musee de l'archerie et du Valois

Musee de l'archerie et du Valois

Klomp at Crepy-en-Valois

Klomp at Crepy-en-Valois

Klomp at Crepy-en-Valois

Klomp at Crepy-en-Valois

By Nils Visser


Part One of this story ended in the conclusion that the Maciejowski Bow devised by Amsterdam bowyer Magén Klomp based on the pictorial evidence in the Maciejowksi Bible had a feasible basis, though the question was raised as to what happened to those bows and that French archery tradition by the time the Hundred Years War started. We pick up the story:

The Saracen mercenaries brought to Normandy by King Richard I of England were an unlikely source for the Maciejowski Bow. The 120 Saracens were too few in number to settle in serious numbers, so it’s unlikely that either their descendents or their bows could be found in France half a century after their first appearance.

I had more luck in tracing the career of King Louis IX. One of the threats this monarch faced during his reign was the tide of the Mongolian horsemen, who managed to defeat Russia, Poland and Hungary in quick succession, but then suddenly withdrew when they were a mere week away from the French border. Unbeknown to the major Western leaders, the withdrawal was the result of internal political strife. Various delegations were sent eastwards, to make contact with the Mongolians. One of the friars sent by Louis, one William of Rubruck, describes an occasion on which the supreme Khan, Möngke Khan, presents another envoy, Theodolus, with a gift for the French king.

Möngke Khan “had a very strong bow made, which two men could hardly draw, and two arrows with heads of silver, full of holes, which whistle like pipes when they are loosed. And he gave the following instructions to the Mongol he was sending with Theodolus: ‘You will go to that French King….and you will present him with these things on my behalf. If he wishes to be at peace with us…. we concede to him the rest of the world westwards; but if he does not wish peace then bring back the bow and arrows to us, telling him that with such bows we shoot far and strike hard.’”[1]

Thus we find that the French King who had commissioned the Maciejowski Bible, with its seemingly odd pictures of composite bows, had been sent a gift of such a composite bow, a gift moreover which was an acknowledgement by an Eastern Emperor of the importance of the King of France. Was this the bow that was a model for the artists who drew the Maciejowski Bible? A bit of medieval PR as it were?

What happened to the bow? According to Rubruck, the envoy, Theodolus made it as far as Nicaea[2], where John III, the Byzantine emperor, exposed Theodolus as an imposter, confiscated all his goods, and had him thrown in prison. In the meantime the Mongol envoy became ill and died.

One might think that would be as far as the bow travelled, but we may suppose that John III might have sent the bow on to Louis, for he was famed for his honesty. According to Rubruck, the Byzantine emperor sent the gold seal which the Mongol envoy carried back to Möngke Khan. Presumably, someone who is honest enough to part from gold that is not his, and who was aware of the diplomatic importance of missions to the East, would have ensured that the bow was sent on to France. If that was the case, it would have arrived there in 1255-56, close enough to the timeframe in which the Maciejowski bible was supposedly commissioned (1245-1255), especially considering the fact that it wasn’t sent on to Italy for the addition of text till the early 1300s. However, we simply don’t know, the bow disappears from the story at this point.

The possibility that I might have discovered the original Maciejowski Bow, sent me scurrying back to Amsterdam, to report my findings to Klomp. I also opted my theory that the Maciejowski Bible might have been intended as a gift for the Mönke Khan, who judged the importance of rulers by the value of the gifts messengers brought, with the added benefit to Louis of educating the Khan about Christianity, he had sent similar religious gifts with a previous mission. Moreover, the battle scenes, would have also formed an implicit warning that France was armed and dangerous, an apt reply to a gift consisting of a very powerful bow with which to shoot far and strike hard.

“I like the idea. And it would certainly place the Maciejowski Bible in context, considering all the detailed blood and gore in the battle scenes. None-the-less, I´m not convinced about the bow,” Klomp said. “The timing doesn´t bother me, the overlap is near enough. But we don´t know what happened to that bow, it’s too much supposition. I´d prefer to see the thing behind glass in a museum somewhere.”

“What also bothers me is the fact that the Maciejowski Bible is so incredibly accurate in everything else,” Klomp continued. “That suggests that if you see more than one composite bow, they were there. And I just can´t imagine these bows being produced on a large scale and in such a short time, on the basis of Möngke Khan´s gift. Composite bows are notoriously difficult to make, especially if you´ve never done so before. This is one of the drawbacks of composite bows. They´re very expensive to make and highly time-consuming vis-à-vis a Longbow.”

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“If the Maciejowski was meant as a gift and warning, perhaps the composite bows are in there as a ruse of war, to exaggerate actual French military might.” Pancras opted.

“Mongols who had already proven to be no fools,” Klomp shrugged. “Once again it would subtract from the accuracy of the Maciejowski Bible. If we take that accuracy as a given, then there must have been composite bows in widespread use in France, somewhere between 1255 and 1300.”

“Maybe we´re barking up the wrong tree,” Verwijmeren suggested. “Maybe the answer is much closer to home. The Saracens used composite bows, and Louis certainly knew what it was like to be facing the wrong end of those bows.”

King Louis certainly did, he had led the Seventh Crusade in 1248 and had encountered Saracens archery. But would the inclusion of such bows in the Maciejowski Bible not risk