Y – Yew

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but black is white and white is black.  If you haven’t heard that one before then I thoroughly recommend that you get hold of a copy of the Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth, worth every penny in my opinion, and it will give you the full break down on the derivation of black and how it once meant white and vice versa (especially as I’m not going to go through that derivation myself).

My point, if I can ever be thought to have one, is that words change over time.  Some words change meaning almost overnight, some drift more gradually, some go through multiple metamorphoses.  Some words seem to appear spontaneously and disappear apparently as suddenly, languishing in the depths of some gazetteer or periodical.

Growing up I was very fond of the legend of Robin Hood.  The literary forms are good material for a youngster looking to buckle some swash, and I’ve always been fond of the adaptations into film –  these are of course numerous. (“Unlike some Robin Hoods, at least I have an English accent). Given that I don’t know your interests, it is perhaps dangerous to make the following, statement, but I’m going to make it anyway:  pretty much everything that is commonly believed about Robin Hood is wrong.  For instance, everyone *knows* that Robin and his men wore green.  Lincoln Green to be exact.  But this is a modern interpretation of the words written a substantial period after the ballads about him were written.  Whilst there is a lot of debate, bluntly the answer is that there is lot of speculation that even when we look at the text and try to consider what the most likely outcome is, green could mean red, or it could simply mean a grade of cloth.  One thing that we can be pretty certain of is that he was an archer – I’m not going to take that away.  (Simon Hawke suggests that perhaps he wasn’t so good and that the legend is the result of a form of paradox, where a time traveller tries to take Robin’s place and uses modern technology to win a tournament.  But that sounds a bit unlikely, really).

The English tradition of archery dates back, according to conventional wisdom, to the rebellion-crushing activities of Edward I.  He saw the effectiveness of the bow in the hands of the Welsh, and brought it into more controlled use in the English Army.  He then used massed ranks of long-bowmen against the Scottish (leading to one of his nicknames ‘Hammer of the Scots’).  This is at the end of the 13th Century and the beginning of the 14th.  Part of his “affirmative action” programme here was to ban sports (including football) and to require all men of military age to practice on a weekly basis: this was often overseen by the clergy and this might give rise to the popular myth that yew-trees were grown in churchyards to supply the needs of the army.  (It should be noted that at this time there was no professional Army, but levies placed on the lords of the realm.  The Navy was the first entity to come under direct Royal Control, in the time of Henry V, hence the term Senior Service).  Competitions for archery became common, with significant prizes, for this reason – a reward for practicing hard and setting a good example, as well as good entertainment.

What is worth noting is that Robin Hood is frequently linked to Richard the Lionheart, a 12th Century monarch, but it is not until the late 14th Century/ early 15th Century that the popular ballads were written down.  There are significant discrepancies in the earliest writings, and like Arthurian legend it seems likely that an existing folk hero was moulded to meet a PR need.

In traditional pagan beliefs, there are a number of trees that are considered to be important and magical.  One of these is yew, and modern scholarship suggests that Yggdrasil is a yew not an ash.  Yew is linked to rebirth, and therefore it is not surprising that the link between graveyards and yew trees should be made by early Christians looking to fit in with their neighbours and to proselytise.  And that might be the reason that we still have yews in this country, because the military demand for yew quickly outstripped the local resource, providing an early example of a lack of sustainable thinking.  The need was so great that at one time Spanish wine was taxed, payable in yew staves.  Entire countries in middle Europe were depopulated of the tree.  By the time of Queen Elizabeth the I, the transition was being made to firearms, not because they were better, but because there was not enough yew to equip the army.

Yew is not entirely unique and other woods have been used for long bows and are indeed used for longbows today.  The traditional design though made good use of the nature of the wood.  Structurally, a long bow is a beam that is placed into flexure to an extreme degree.  Basic bending theory begins to struggle when it comes to predicting the strains in the wood because of the degree of curvature of the beam.  In archery one normally talks in terms of pounds (of force) on the fingers, so a novice might pull a bow and bring the string back with relative ease, because the force required is only a few pounds, perhaps as much as 20.  An experienced archer will pull more, I used to pull about 40 lbs on an Olympic Recurve – the more energy you put into the arrow the further it will fly and the flatter its trajectory leading to improved accruracy.  The best war bows started at about 100 lbs and went up from there it is estimated that bows recovered from the Mary Rose would have had draw –weights of 160 -185 lbs.  it is not surprising that archaeologists frequently identify archers by deformation of the skeletal structure.

In flexure, the wood is simultaneously in tension and compression – one side of the bow is being pulled along its length and the other pushed.  In a lot of situation this can be a problem as many materials, woods included, prefer one mode or the other.  In the case of yew though, and a few other trees, the balance of the different types of wood is such that the sap wood is in proportion, so if the wood is carefully cut, the sapwood and heartwood are contained in a single stave, with the sapwood providing strength in tension and the heartwood strength in compression.

Other bows have been used in England, and indeed military superiority has been provided by other bows, which in some respects are better, at other times and in other places.  However, all bows are dependent on the weather… One theory for the failure of the Khans to progress further into Europe is that the glues used in their composite bows couldn’t cope with the cold-wet weather, so unlike the dry-cold weather of the Steppes.  Meanwhile, a significant modern study looking at the use of the long-bow and English success on the continent against the weather of the time, suggests that out reliance on the longbow, so important at Crecy and other battles of the 100 Years War and so on, gave astounding victories, but also limited how far we could go, before the weather again led to a failure of the technology.

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6 thoughts on “Y – Yew

  1. Hadn’t heard of the Etymologicon before. Definitely sounds like something I need to pick up. I didn’t know the meanings of white and black had switched places, but I’ve heard plenty of other examples of words coming to mean the exact opposite of what they used to mean, so I’m not too surprised.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Do you know the Francis Bacon quote “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”? The Etymologicon is in all three categories! You can definitely get something out of it by just reading bits at random, but it will pay dividens if you just sit down and read the whole lot.

      Liked by 1 person

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