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Pluck Yew July 7, 2010

Posted by Alex Sawit in Stuff in General.

By Alex Sawit

07 July 2010



It’s been well over a month since Robin Hood ended its run in local theaters. Nevertheless, lately a few folks at your neighborhood wine shop have been chatting me up on the subject. Because of this, I’ve been harboring this silly phrase at the back of my mind for a few weeks now:

“Pluck yew.”

Before I explain further, let me come clean. I wasn’t a fan of Robin Hood as a kid. Alas, those classic movies ruined it for me, with bygone actors like Errol Flynn who popularized the hero as a middle-aged Peter Pan with larger than life fighting skills. I mean, come on, a guy in green kindergarten tights is single-handedly shooting down an army of knights and out-dueling them with a dagger from the studio’s prop department? Even my childhood mind knew something was whacked in this Hollywood fantasy.

It didn’t help that, as a kid who read mythologies, I wasn’t favorably disposed toward bow-wielding characters in the first place. I remember taking it badly when I got the news that Achilles had been killed by an arrow to his self-labeled heel. I thought, “Are you kidding me? The dude is the bravest, greatest warrior on Planet Greek and he gets shot by a sniveling, wife-stealing Trojan prince from a safe distance behind a fortress wall? Paris is a schmuck!”

But I’ve had a change of heart. I now appreciate Robin Hood from an overlooked point of view and I have the new movie to thank for it. As the latest blockbuster from director Ridley Scott, who recruited his Oscar-winning Gladiator star Russell Crowe for the title role, Robin Hood is the most historically immersed movie to date, giving unprecedented attention to the real people and events at the heart of the legend (although it still bends a few historical facts for easier storytelling). Simply put, it reboots everything Hollywood ever told us.

“What Ridley and I sought to do was recalibrate the story,” explains Crowe in the movie’s fascinating tie-in documentary, The Real Robin Hood, which is currently airing on The History Channel-Asia.

Never mind that it’s essentially a promotional show for the film. Written and co-directed by Scott for The History Channel, The Real Robin Hood is an impressive production in its own right, vividly separating Hollywood fiction from truth. Who was the real Robin Hood? Why did his legend arise at a crucial time in English history? And why does his story ring timelessly to this day? The show hits all the marks like arrows on target, with insights from historians and demonstrations by experts in medieval warfare, interspersed with out-takes from the film (with an excellent narration by Oscar-winning actor William Hurt, who also stars in the movie).


DVD cover of The Real Robin Hood.


Truthfully, The Real Robin Hood is the reason why the subject has been popping up here at the shop. Cyrano friends love the show.

Well, okay, the few who’ve seen it on cable do. I’m not complaining. I welcome small talk with “fans” of the documentary. Just listen to my chat on a different night with Ivan [not his real name], another new Cyrano friend who gushes about how thrilled he is to finally find a wine bar like ours.

[NOTE: Due to gaps in my memory, I’ve reconstructed my conversation using liberal storytelling license. It also includes a joke that was emailed to me many years ago. Remember pluck yew?]


Illustrated sword and buckler combat
from Lombardy, circa 1390.


“In the documentary,” I explained to Ivan after opening a bottle of wine, “they talk about something called a “buckler.” A buckler is a tiny shield about this size (I showed him a dining plate) and it’s what a yeoman like Robin Hood would have carried to the battlefield. Being archers, yeomen had to be light on the move, so they couldn’t burden themselves with large shields. A buckler was for emergencies when a yeoman was forced to drop his bow and fight at close quarters.”

“Makes sense,” Ivan commented. “It’s minimal protection but better than nothing.”

“The thing is,” I added, “they hanged their bucklers at the hip beside their daggers. As they dashed around the battlefield, the daggers would swing against the metal, creating a “swashing” sound. Thereafter, these fast-fighting yeomen were nicknamed “swashbucklers.””

“Hey, cool,” he said. “No wonder Hollywood picked it up. By the way, you were saying something earlier about the yew tree?”

“Oh, yew,” I remembered. “I was saying that the signature weapon of the yeoman was the longbow and it was made from the yew tree. It’s a wood with spring-like properties. Longbows could shoot arrows over greater distances than conventional European bows, giving the English an advantage on the battlefield against their arch-rivals, the French. Do you want to hear the joke about it?”

With wineglass in hand, Ivan gave me the green light.

“Supposedly,” I proceeded, “because longbows were made from the yew tree, yeomen referred to the action of drawing their bowstrings to shoot as “plucking the yew.” In a medieval society where vulgar humor pervaded all classes, the nobles couldn’t help attaching a connotation to the phrase. Hence, the English knights bawdily cheered their yeomen as merry men who could pluck yew.”

“Pluck yew!”

“That’s not all. In battle, the yeomen used special arrows called “bodkin points” to penetrate enemy armor. Like all arrows, these had tail feathers to stabilize their flight. Supposedly, the best feathers were those of the wild pheasant and the best pheasant for this purpose was a plump mother hen because it was more docile and had more feathers for plucking. Once again, the knights couldn’t resist thinking of a vulgar association for the fact that yeomen were plucking arrows made from pleasant pheasant mothers. Dare you say it quickly?”

“Plump pleasant pheasant mother plucker!”

“By Robin Hood’s time, the English and French were constantly at war. Now the one thing the French knights detested was the English archer. Battle after battle, the yeomen proved that they could blanket a field with a murderous rain of arrows, smothering horse mounted French knights before they could reach the English lines. Centuries later, the English were still winning the great battles – Crecy, Poitiers, Agincourt…the list goes on – and this pissed off the French. Imagine what the trash talk must have been like as both sides heckled each other across the battlefield.”

“English pheasant mother pluckers!”

“Pluck yew, Frenchie!”

“Rumor has it that the French were so determined to get revenge that, prior to the Battle of Agincourt, they issued a warning that they would cut off the middle fingers of all the yeomen they would capture so that they could never draw a bowstring again. Needless to say, the trash talk at Agincourt between French knights and English yeomen became extremely vicious.”

“Mother plucking peasants!!!”

“Pluck yew, tin heads!!!”

“But when the battle commenced, the French discovered too late that the field had turned soggy from rainfall the night before and they watched in horror as the earth turned to mush under the weight of thousands of French knights on horseback and on foot. Weighed down by their armor, they were hopelessly slowed by the thick mud and became engulfed by an avalanche of arrows. The English then simply advanced and slaughtered them. As the rest of the enemy fled, the triumphant yeomen stuck their middle fingers in the air at the retreating French just to let them know that they could still pluck yew.”

“Who’s the mother plucker now??!! Pluck yew, Frenchie! Pluck yew!!!”

“Finally,” I said, wrapping things up. “To honor the many pheasants whose feathers went into the arrows that helped make victory possible, the yeomen thereafter referred to the act of sticking their middle fingers at the enemy as “giving them the bird.” Needless to say, the English knights couldn’t help snickering about it.”

Noticing that Ivan couldn’t wipe the grin off his face, I reminded him that this was just a charade, the sort of harmless banter bored historians come up with instead of knock-knock jokes. Yet as silly as the make-believe details were, there is no disputing the truths that give them substance. At the end of the day, it is not fiction but truth that makes all the great stories of history so inspiring.

So be it with the real Robin Hood. Say it with me, Cyrano friends.

“Pluck yew!”



Re-edited 28 May 2012





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