Description of the sport today
Archery on vertical poles is a traditional game or sports witch knew a big success in our countries until the beginning of the 1960ies and was even an Olympic sport in Paris (1900) and Antwerp (1920).
The principle is simple: a vertically erected pole (more or less 27 m high) is topped with a “harrow” and little wooden or plastic blocks decorated with feathers are hooked on the harrow’s teeth. Those blocks are called « birds ».
The archer tries to unhook the birds with arrows not sharp-pointed but with a bell-mouthed head (between 22 and 28 mm in diameter).
Today, archery on the vertical pole is still practised in the north of France, in the south of the Netherlands and in Belgium (Flanders and a little part of the Walloon Region), structured in national federations. A European competition is organized each year between those three countries. This kind of archery is also remaining in Winnipeg (Canada).
Most of the poles are outside but during the winter, this sport is also practised in towers to avoid the bad weather. In the Walloon region, several towers were erected before world war II, but most of them have been destroyed and there are only two left and still in activity, in Genval (with two poles inside) and Harchies (with one pole inside). These towers are considered a patrimony and were remarkably restored in 1998 for Genval and in 2022 for Harchies.
A bit history
Archery is an ancient sport: Homer in the Iliad (part 23), relating to the trojan war, described a competition between archers trying to kill a dove attached to the top of a ship mast.
In our countries, around the end of the 14th century, guilds of archers, crossbowmen, and fencers … were in charge of the security inside the towns. Later, during the 16th century, when firearms replaced archers and crossbowmen in the army, archers continued to practice with another mind and turned to leisure and competition.
Besides the well-known horizontal archery on a circular target existed also sometimes a vertical form of the sport: a fake bird was hooked on a bell tower or a windmill… and aimed by the archers who tried to unhook it. An old print (1615) shows the archduchess Isabella aiming a fake bird hooked to a tower of Brussels’s church “du Sablon”. Later, poles were erected in the middle of marketplaces or further in the country to avoid the danger of falling arrows.
In those times, archery on vertical poles was also practised in a large area; some old prints show similar leisure existed in different countries like France, Germany, Switzerland, and Great-Britain...
In France today, a few cities are still reminding that custom (Rieux-Volvestre or Puy-en-Velay) by organizing each year a fake bird bow pulling. Same in Kilwinning (Scotland) and its popingo shoot on the abbay (kilwinningarchers.net).
Nevertheless, the archer’s guilds were banned and their goods confiscated during the French revolution and it was only in the beginning of the 19th century that some of the old societies rebirths, shooting mainly horizontally and maintaining customs coming from their long history, like a traditional costume, a collar chain, a celebration of St- Sebastian and so on.
During the 19th century and even later, besides the remaining traditional archer’s guilds, were founded a lot of new societies mainly or exclusively shooting fake birds on a vertical pole; this is attested by weekly publications announcing the coming competitions. This evolution remains nevertheless in a restricted area, from the north of France to the south of the Netherlands, including the Flanders and a part of the walloon Region in Belgium.
The “King” shooting
All the archer’s societies organize each year a special competition among their members, the so-called “tir du Roy”; only one fake bird is hooked on the top of the pole and the archer who unhook it the first or the more often is sacred King of the society for one year. If an archer gets the title the next three years, he is called Emperor of his society.
Each year, all the kings of the year are meeting to compete for the title of Emperor of Belgium.
Archery museum of Rixensart (Belgium)
Archery on a vertical pole was a very popular leisure, now losing most of its importance among a lot of other “modern” sports in vogue today. In Genval (part of the city of Rixensart, province of Brabant Wallon, Belgium), the local archer’s society decided, with the help of the city, to develop a museum dedicated to archery, essentially on a vertical pole.
This (little) museum founded in 2003 is situated just behind the tower already described; it tries to collect all that’s able to remember and explain that old and original sport. The possibility to have a try on a pole in the tower gives a living aspect to a visit.