Shooting guilds were military groups, were diverse social and devotional communities and maintained important links to their lords. All of these elements of guild identity, with their ideals of peace and the centrality of civic honour, are best illustrated by an analysis of the spectacular competitions that guilds staged across the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
By 1498, when an elaborate event was held in Ghent, the competitions had become some of the largest and most impressive urban spectacles put on in Flemish towns. Competitions could last for months, as compared to the day or two given to princely entrances or to jousts, their size possible only with civic and ducal support. The events grew quickly from simple shooting contests, beginning before 1330, to become huge events that involved hundreds of competitors, thousands of followers, musicians, play wagons, silver forests, a wooden dragon and even an elephant.
The competitions, like jousts and entrance ceremonies, were not simply about pomp and show; rather, they carried layers of meaning and communicated urban honour and the guilds’ values. In the civic support they received and in their symbolic communication they are fascinating examples of urban identity – the same ‘urban panegyric’ analysed by Lecuppre-Desjardin in her study of processions. This chapter will first look at the origins of archery and crossbow competitions and provide an overview of what the competitions consisted of and how they were funded and organised. Following this, it will consider the role of honour and friendship in competitions. As noted, guild ordinances emphasised honour and community, and these same priorities become clear in a close analysis of some of the letters of invitation sent out by guilds in advance of their great events. The mechanics of civic representation and the forms that guild spectacle could take will be analysed with reference to the entrances made into Ghent in 1498, drawing on the ideals of civic honour expressed in the last chapter as well as the forces for community set out in chapter three. The centrality of community also becomes apparent through a discussion of the prizes given at shooting competitions, and the prominence of drink and drinking vessels confirms what has already been observed about the power of commensality to build bonds of brotherhood.