According to several archery historians - in particular Matthew Strickland (in the chapter entitled : The Myth of the Shortbow from the Great Warbow by Strickland and Hardy) - the earliest references to the word longbow appear in the 16th century. Moreover, Mr. Strickland points out that a weapon called the shortbow is incorrectly assumed to be the predecessor of the longbow.
Mr. Strickland claims that the term longbow was invented simply to make a distinction between the weapon of archers as opposed to that of crossbowen - namely the crossbow. Longbow therefore does not necessarily relate to a bow of any great length as the name would suggest. An interesting and convincing point of view.
One can assume then, that our medieval counterparts simply used the word bow. This generic term would be used for bows of all shapes and sizes and it appears that no real reason to distinguish one from the other was of interest to medieval man. Today things are quite different and we find a large number of words that stem from the word bow.
Shortbow - name apparently invented by the historian Sir Charles Oman in the 19th century in order to describe what he claimed was the historical predecessor of the longbow.
Longbow* - traditional bow used for hunting and since Victorian times, for leisure
Crossbow - weapon for hunting and warfare (read the excellent Book of the Crossbow by Ralph Payne-Gallwey)
Warbow - heavy draw-weight bow specifically designed for warfare
Strongbow - another invention of romantic litterature to describe a heay draw-weight bow.
Self-bow - bow built from a single piece of wood (most often yew) as opposed to a composite bow
Flatbow - composite bow made from several pieces of wood and possibly fibreglass glued together. This kind of bow has a flat cross-section
*For a bow to be officially classified as a traditional English longbow, it must conform to the specifications of the British Longbow Society (BLBS). Part of the BLBS specifications include :
*The round part of the D-shaped cross-section is called the Belly and faces the archer when shooting. The other side (at the front of the bow) is called the Back.
Now that the terminology is a little clearer - or so I hope, we can examine the infinately more important question of : why do longbows need to be as long as they are ? This will be discussed in a future article : "The physics of the longbow".
Rich the Archer