Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Medieval Bills

This post is more of an observation rather than anything more technical. I often read that a number of medieval weapons were developed from agricultural implements. This is most obvious with weapons such as the flail and the English bill, a type of polearm that has a distinctive shaped head (see images below).
Exhibit A - Weapon or Tool?
Exhibit B - Purpose built weapon? 
Due to my current WoTR project during a recent sight-seeing trip to the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry I paid particular attention to their medieval armour collection. The Coventry sallet is probably better known but displayed either side the helmet are two bills. These may be two of the twenty seven bills purchased for the city of Coventry and delivered to St. Mary's Guildhall in 1458. These caught my attention because it was during another visit (to a Victorian pumping station in Burton - I know, I lead a pretty rock'n'roll lifestyle) that I noticed a large display of hand bills (or bill hook) all with quite seemingly random patterns. Talking to the owner of the collection he informed me that the majority on display came a company called Edward Elwell Ltd that used to be based in Wednesbury (Junction 9 of the M6 and IKEA for anyone who is struggling to place it and which is literally down road from where I live). It is known that there has been a forge making iron at Wednesbury from at least the reign of Elizabeth I. Every single pattern and type of bill on display had a unique reference number stamped into it which you could use to order from the company catalogue.
Elwell handbill
Elwell handbills. Note several have a spike.
Elwell handbills
Of particular interest are the bills which have vertical spikes (or so I thought) similar to the shape seen in the weapon version. I asked the owner why an agricultural tool would need to feature such a shape. He then went on to explain that I was looking at the pattern from the wrong point of view. The sharp point isn't the working part, it was actually the V wedge that was used to locate and push over branches and stems when hedge laying. This technique is now quite rare in the UK but can still be seen occasionally in the countryside.

I might be completely wrong (normally am) but looking at one of the medieval bills (exhibit A above) it seemed that it was a bog standard agricultural hand tool that had been 'upgraded' to a weapon by having a horizontal spike forge-welded to it.

In light of this I have altered a few of my own billmen to reflect that they had received a slightly more rural style of bill.

Looking at the models I may, in the future, modify a few other bills so that they look like they have a simple socket joint and remove the tangs from the shaft (I like to give my loyal readers something to look forward to).