View Full Version : Medieval Knights and PTSD

12-26-2011, 09:23 AM
Medieval Knights May Have Had PTSD
We think of them as courageous, chivalrous, brutal and cold-hearted, but medieval knights lived hard lives and suffered.

By Emily Sohn | Tue Dec 20, 2011 10:49 AM ET

In movies, medieval knights are portrayed as courageous and loyal heroes who will fight to the death without fear or regret.

In reality, the lives of knights were filled with a litany of stresses much like those that modern soldiers deal with.

They were often sleep-deprived, exhausted and malnourished. They slept outside on hard ground, fully exposed to whatever weather befell them. And their lives were full of horror and carnage as they regularly killed other men and watched their friends die.

Faced with the trauma inherent in a life of combat, according to a new look at ancient texts, medieval knights sometimes struggled with despair, fear, powerlessness and delusions. Some may have even suffered from post-traumatic stress or related disorders, argues a Danish researcher, just as their modern-day counterparts do.

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The research strives to add a dose of humanity to our understanding of knights, who are often considered cold and heartless killers.

"As a medievalist, it's a bit irritating to hear people say that the Middle Ages were just populated by brutal and mindless thugs who just wallowed in warfare," said Thomas Heebøll-Holm, a medieval historian at the University of Copenhagen. "I'm going for a nuanced picture of humans that lived in the past. They were people just like you and me, as far as we can tell."

Ever since the war in Vietnam, there has been a growing recognition that the terrors of battle, torture, terrorism and other horrific experiences can result in a type of severe psychological distress now known as PTSD. To be diagnosed with the disorder, people must suffer from uncontrollable and intense stress for at least a month after a horrifying event. Symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares, depression and hyperactivity.

When soldiers go to war in modern times, Heebøll-Holm said, psychologists now recognize that the stresses they encounter can lower their psychological resistance until they finally succumb to anxiety disorders. Since medieval knights faced as many and possibly more hardships than modern soldiers do, he wondered if he might be able to find references to signs of trauma in warriors who fought during the Middle Ages.

In addition to other documents, Heebøll-Holm focused on three texts written by a 14th-century French knight named Geoffroi de Charny, who was also a diplomat and trusted adviser to King John II.

No one knows for sure why Charny wrote the documents, whose translated titles included "The Book of Chivalry" and "Questions Concerning the Joust, Tournaments and War." The most popular theory is that they were part of an effort to create an ideological program for the royal French chivalric order that would rival the British equivalent.

Though many of these texts have been thoroughly analyzed already, Heebøll-Holm was the first to look between the lines through the lens of modern military psychology. And while it's hard to ever completely understand a culture that was so very different (and far more religious) than our own, Heebøll-Holm found a number of examples that would suggest at least the potential for trauma in medieval knights.

Among his writings, for example, Charny wrote:

"In this profession one has to endure heat, hunger and hard work, to sleep little and often to keep watch. And to be exhausted and to sleep uncomfortably on the ground only to be abruptly awakened. And you will be powerless to change the situation. You will often be afraid when you see your enemies coming towards you with lowered lances to run you through and with drawn swords to cut you down. Bolts and arrows come at you and you do not know how best to protect yourself. You see people killing each other, fleeing, dying and being taken prisoner and you see the bodies of your dead friends lying before you. But your horse is not dead, and by its vigorous speed you can escape in dishonour. But if you stay, you will win eternal honour. Is he not a great martyr, who puts himself to such work?"

Charny showed no signs of instability, Heebøll-Holm said, but he repeatedly expressed concern about the mental health of other knights. And there is no doubt that medieval knights suffered a lot, said Richard Kaeuper, a medieval historian at the University of Rochester in New York, who has translated and written extensively about Charny's "Book of Chivalry."

Tales from that era include all sorts of gruesome details, Kaeuper said. Many tell of warriors vomiting blood or holding their entrails in with their hands. One mentions a Castilian knight who gets a crossbolt stuck up his nose in his first fight. Another tells of a fighter getting slashed by a sword through his mouth. Again and again, there are references to bad food, uncomfortable conditions and relentless fighting.

After so many centuries, though, it can be challenging to interpret old texts, said Kaeuper, who was intrigued by Heebøll-Holm's theory. Part of the problem is that knights never psychoanalyzed themselves, at least not in print. Instead, they either offered advice to other knights about how to act in various situations or they simply recounted events.

One of the biggest differences between now and then, Kaeuper added, is that medieval knights were usually born into their elite and noble order, and they were trained from a young age to think of themselves as warriors who fought in the name of Christianity. Modern soldiers, on the other hand, often leave a very comfortable life for one of violence and trauma.

Knights "were not civilians who were suddenly thrust into this," Kaeuper said. "I think that makes a difference."

Discovery News (http://news.discovery.com/history/medieval-knights-ptsd-111220.html)

03-19-2012, 07:59 AM
This is quite interesting, Nick

I don't suppose that he mentions the men-at-arms or the archers (not the radio variety)?

I would suppose that the chivalric code protected the knights from some trauma as they followed its ethics?

The amatures were the yeomen archers. Interestingly, when Henry V ordered the killing of prisoners at Agincourt the knight refused to do it as it flew against the code of chivalry (perhaps the loss of ransom money added to their sense of chivaly?). No problem with the archers (particularly the Welsh, apparently), they stepped forward and commenced slitting the throats of the French prisoners. By the time it was deemed unnecessary, most of the prisoners had been despatched.

Another thing about the code, the French often refused to surrender to archers as they were beneath their class and so the archers finished them.

A little quirky thing about the English and French knights. The English mainly had straightforward names such as John etc. but the French, reputedly, went more for Arthurian names such as Galahad, Gawain etc. Of course, my favourite is Sir Brian De Blois Gilbert of the templars (Scott, fiction) - he was most definately not a full shilling. :)

Rising Sun*
03-19-2012, 09:06 AM
PTSD and related issues are something I've often wondered about.

Vietnam and later wars refer to it as PTSD and recognise that the effects continue into civilian and family life.

WW1, and to a lesser extent WWII, tends to concentrate on the effects on the visibly wounded soldiers etc.

I look back to my childhood in the 1950s and suspect that some of the people I knew of my father's generation were damaged by it, as undobubtedly were many more, while there is ample evidence that a lot of Australian [and undoubtedly other nations'] soldiers who returned from WWI were seriously damaged by their experiences.

I wonder, though, whether different generations had different abilities to cope with such things because of different experiences with death.

Neither of my children, the youngest 18 y.o., have seen a freshly dead, or any dead, body. I had seen a few, in formal lay outs in coffins or fresh car accidents, by the time my grandmother was laid out in our home when I was about 13.

At the time of WWI it was still quite common for families to lay out their own dead. And perhaps still so in WWII, to greater or lesser degrees depending upon which part of the world was involved.

In the time of the American Civil War or the Napoleonic wars people generally were even much more used to death and bodies, not least because medical science and, more importantly, public sanitation, still had a long way to go.

I wonder if our recognition of PTSD and related issues now reflects the much greater current gulf between average civilian experience of life and war experience and the perhaps rather narrower gap in much earlier eras?

03-19-2012, 12:24 PM
Well, it's a fascinating if topic. I once read that one of the reasons the Romans held the Games, was to toughen up the minds of the citizens to go out and brutalize the oppositon into submission.

A friend of mine once put it to me that the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) made such good soldiers as they were mainly former pitmen and were accustomed to living with danger in the pits.

I have a photo, in a book, of some Lancashire, cotton, mill workers taken about 1921. Just a quick study of their facial expressions indicates which of them probably served in the trenches and which were likely to have been too young.

Looking at the young fellas of today being interviewed post-Afghanistan, want to get back there regardless of the dangers. Partly about doing what they are trained to do, but also the cameraderie which comes from sharing extreme danger. Naturally, there are those who have become too traumatised to continue service but as far as I'm aware, they're a minority.

On a personal note, I did once have a boss who tried to use PTSD as a way of getting rid of me, but that was based on personal dislike and my lack of ability to tolerate turd-like creatures - he didn't succeed and has since paid the price.

03-20-2012, 08:49 AM
Nick - fascinating topic. I agree with the cited author that the fact of being born and bred to the warrior life marks a significant difference between medieval knights, and men and sergeants-at-arms, and modern soldiers, even where the latter come from a military background. I would go further, and suggest that early conditioning marks a very important difference, and that this goes well beyond ideological formation. In the age of the predominance of heavy cavalry in Europe (from about the second quarter of the 11th century through to the first quarter of the 15th), it was only possible for an individual to function as an effective heavy cavalryman if one had had a very thorough conditioning – physical and mental – to the role.

I remember this coming up in a conversation with my mentor in medieval history, the late Denis Bethell (I started out, academically, as a medieval historian). He remarked that it was absolutely essential that anybody intended for this way of life, whether as a knight or as a military companion to a knight, should be prepared for the profession of arms from a very, very early age. The reason was simple, and primarily physical. A heavy cavalryman of this period was expected to wear around his person a heavy padded foundation garment and, over that, an even heavier layer of armour. He would wear this while mounted, not on the svelte little horses one sees in Hollywood heynonnynonny operas, but on an ancestor of our latter-day carthorses. These “destrier” were large, mean, difficult animals that were, in fact, trained to be even meaner and more difficult, as they were used to ram, maul, bite and trample the enemy when opportunity arose. The rider had to be able to control this beast one-handed in battle conditions, because the other hand would be taken up manipulating a long lance (in the 11th and early 12th century wielded rather like a sword; later couched) and, when that was gone, a heavy sword. Even the “free” hand was encumbered by a heavy long shield, at least until the development of full plate armour. As the period advanced, these burdens if anything became more onerous; horses got larger and meaner, armour became heavier and more restrictive, swords became longer and heavier, and so on. It would simply have been impossible for any human being to function in this gear unless their bodies had been conditioned to do so from early childhood. The idea that Myles of Crispy Kale (or whatever Tony Curtis was called in “The Black Shield of Falworth” could just swan onto the tilt field and train themselves to be a “knight” in a few weeks is entirely fanciful.

Hard physical conditioning from early childhood was supplemented by a form of “training” that further hardened physical and mental resilience in battle. Much of this took the form of “mock” battles. Young chevaliers were, from early manhood, expected to take part in tournaments that, in the 11th-13th century period in particular, took the form of the “melee” rather than the later tilting joust. A melee was a serious business. Two small armies of contestants literally attacked each other; given the nature of the weapons of the period, the question of whether they were blunted or not was largely academic. In a full tournament, the arms and equipment of the losers were, typically, forfeited to the winners – a major incentive to fight hard, since arms and equipment were very, very costly in terms of the economy of the time. Serious injury and even death were frequent occurrences in such tournaments.

Set against a general social background in which violence and killing, in contexts ranging from hunting, food preparation and just plain murder, were rather more common than they are now, it would hardly be surprising if a fully-formed medieval heavy cavalryman of the age was a lot better prepared, physically and mentally, than the generality of modern soldiers. Of course they were human, and often had to endure a very hard life; but they were of necessity well prepared for it. There is ample evidence that this sort of background could produce remarkably tough, resilient individuals. For example, the vicious tournament of the melee type was often viewed by its participants with the sort of enthusiasm that modern youths might reserve for football games, and the practice of the losers forfeiting their equipage to the winners meant that successful tournament participants could even make a profitable career on the “tournament circuit”. A case in point is William Marshall, who started out a poor knight, and whose rise to wealth and power (he became a principal adviser to King Henry II and King John of England, and guardian to John’s son Henry III during his minority, and died holding extensive lands in South Wales and Ireland) began with his success as a tournament champion. There is record of one vigorous tournament after which Marshall’s companions (the winners) went in search of him in order to settle the divvy-up of their vanquished foes’ gear. They found him at the blacksmith’s forge, with his head (contained in a full-cover helmet) resting on the anvil, as the blacksmith attempted to beat out the dents in said helmet so as to allow William to remove the thing. Those who could enjoy such entertainments were as well prepared as possible for the life of savage, in-your-face combat that was their profession.

Best regards, JR.

Rising Sun*
03-20-2012, 09:43 AM
Set against a general social background in which violence and killing, in contexts ranging from hunting,

Perhaps represented in an intermediate form between the medieval period and now by the Briitsh preference for officers who rode to hounds (i.e. fox hunting) in the 19th century and up to WWII, if not a bit later.

03-21-2012, 11:46 AM
Rising Sun - perhaps. Fox hunting, and hunting on horses in general, has been a significant activity of the "gentry" in England and in Ireland, certainly, since the late-17th century. The activity involved in fox hunting seems to me rather different to that of medieval heavy cavalry. It is more like what one would expect of a class conditioning itself to the light cavalry tactics of the late 16th/early 17th century period - the period in which the new military class from which the "gentry" arose. By contrast with the direct charge pressed home method of the medieval knight, this method involved riding up to the enemy infantry, pulling up just short of their pike-length, and firing into the body of enemy infantry with wheel-lock horse pistols (of which the light cavalryman would carry anything up to six). The cavalry would then retreat to reload, unless challenged by enemy light cavalry - in which case a horse-borne sword fight would ensue. The development of reliable flintlock muskets ended the usefulness of this sort of cavalry tactic in the late 17th century. Flintlock muskets outranged wheel lock pistols and flintlock pistols also; and the alternative firearm for cavalry (flintlock carbines) were clumsy, difficult to carry in multiple, and almost impossible to load in the saddle in battle conditions. Still, another interesting point. Best regards, JR.

03-22-2012, 03:52 AM
Quite right, RS, 'hunting the hinds (hounds)' would clearly lend itself to the development of riding skills transferable to the battlefield at a certain time in history as would Polo among others. Wellington was great sport hunter spending much of his off-duty hours hunting with his staff during the Peninsula campaign. I guess the development of cavalry from, say, 1066 to the present has seen many inovations particularly in sport which aid team and individual tactics and promote a sense of esprit de corps. Whether these things help with courage and leadership and the ability to deal with combat stress is another matter.

03-23-2012, 02:04 AM
The tournaments were sporting competitions held to practise the knights in their trade.

Of course, in the Hundred Years War, the English knights and men-at-arms (the professional soldiers of individual lords' retinues) found it expedient to fight the big battels dismounted. They even shortened lances to acommodate this. At Cr'ecy, the French charged the English no less than seventeen times, but the English retained the advantage afforded by their archers.

check out the map in the link


By the time of Agincourt, almost a hundred years later, the French formed a battle plan to deal with the archers. The mounted knights weree to flank and take out the archers, while the ebig battalions were dismouunted, as many as seventeen-thousand in the first battalion. However, the mounted knights lost their discipline when provoked and charged the English line, much to their cost.


So the idea of mounted knights against mounted knights was a bit of a myth.

Rising Sun*
03-23-2012, 09:56 AM
A very significant difference between the medieval period and now, or even now and (depending upon the reader's age) our grandparents' or great-grandparents' era, is the common experience of death.

One of my, possibly morbid but very rare, recreations on the very rare occasions I get well away from my capital city for a break is to take a stroll through a country cemetery. The tombstones of a century or more ago routinely record deaths at or soon after birth and at all ages into early adulthood from all sorts of causes. Now we regard such deaths as rare tragedies deserving of great sympathy for everyone vaguely connected with the deceased.

I don't doubt that the parents' grief in losing a child in 1850 or 1250 might have been as great as it is in 2012, but I suspect that the further back we go the more we might find that people were more familiar with and accepting of death as part of life.

It may be that Caesar's and Attila's and Napoleon's and Cardigan's soldiers were just as distressed in the same proportions as veterans of Vietnam and Afghanistan, but without the treatments which now exist to assist veterans. Or it may be that those in much earlier times came from backgrounds where death was, at all ages, much more common than nowadays and therefore more accepting of it.

03-23-2012, 12:12 PM
Yes, even as recently as the 1940's, in England, infant mortality was high as was that of women who died in child birth. The average mortality age was in the mid-forties. Then came along the NHS and changed much of that within ten years of its founding.

I think death was not just more acceptable, if acceptable is an apporoprioate description, but more that people were hardened to it (which we witness in the UK today, with immigrants from harsh places importing violence). Of course, the difficulty with combat stress was the manner of death and, of course, wounds. Much of the horror is in the nature of the injuries. There is of course all of the other things listed above. Arguably, the age old remedy was to get pissed, before, during and after.

Just curious: now that you've 'come out' regarding your necromantic tendencies, RS, are you feeling liberated - or doesn't liberated lie in your local cemetry?

03-23-2012, 12:54 PM
Statistics have shown that professional volunteer type fighting soldiers like SF, Airborne, or Marines, tend to "suffer" PTSD at lower levels than others.

This is related to earlier posts mentioning living conditions in early times.

People were more used to viloent death as well as hard work and living.
They were more exposed to hunting, slaughtering and butchering animals.

I grew up in a rural community where these things were common.
My folks and most men of age were WW2 vets, many with heavy combat.
I recall few obvious or overt problems with these guys. Some drank hardfor a bit on return, but no real lasting problems.
I go to a lot of SF reunions and conventions. Most of the guys are career types, though many short termers are present.
Most of the talk involves good times and places.
There are discussions on guys who died or are missing, but they focus on good memories.
Little or no tears or handwringing. Lots of respect, though.
I go to a lot of general veterans activities=memorial dedications and reuninons.
I see many more "affected" guys there.
Worst are the ones counselling others on what to do in order to get a PTSD rate or increase the ones they have.
Been doing this for 35 years and seen it a lot.

Rising Sun*
03-24-2012, 08:53 AM
Just curious: now that you've 'come out' regarding your necromantic tendencies, RS, are you feeling liberated - or doesn't liberated lie in your local cemetry?

Nah, there's no shame to be liberated from in being an old fart who finds old tombstones interesting.

Some of the country cemeteries here show the cause of death on the tombstone. Nothing unusual about a nineteenth century family losing three or four kids from infancy to early twenties to injuries and diseases which wouldn't have been even remotely life-threatening for those born after WWII.

03-24-2012, 09:22 AM
As a child of the 1980's, I recall reading and seeing much in the media on the plight of the American Vietnam Veteran along with the stereotype of almost all of them suffering from PTSD to the extent they were all somehow debilitated. I recall reading an article in the Sunday edition of the local newspaper in the editorial section on why it might have been that Vietnam Vets might suffer greater levels of emotional trauma from the war than say WWII Vets did. Among the basic reasons were that they were often ferried in and out of battle from extremely hostile environments into safe areas by chopper and that this deeply effecting the overall psyche causing many to be always haunted long after they returned home that they could be instantly transferred back to death and mayhem on a moments notice, even from the safety of their peacetime careers and lives. Also, fewer soldiers in 'Nam had a bigger burden of constant combat whereas in WWII, most soldiers suffered in fewer days of continuous combat. But I think one of the biggest conclusions was that the average age of the combat soldier in WWII was about 26 and the average soldier in Vietnam was 19. The theory was that the still somewhat incompletely developed brains of the younger soldiers in 'Nam made them more susceptible to internalizing the traumatic images and emotions of combat than the older, more mature soldiers. And that younger men typically have less life experience and coping mechanisms that most develop in response to tragedy...

Rising Sun*
03-24-2012, 06:20 PM
But I think one of the biggest conclusions was that the average age of the combat soldier in WWII was about 26 and the average soldier in Vietnam was 19. The theory was that the still somewhat incompletely developed brains of the younger soldiers in 'Nam made them more susceptible to internalizing the traumatic images and emotions of combat than the older, more mature soldiers. And that younger men typically have less life experience and coping mechanisms that most develop in response to tragedy...

This might be supported by the realisation during WWII that survival rates for [I think British merchant seaman or it might have included RN] sailors who surivived sinkings and were afloat in boats or rafts or life jackets were very much lower for the younger men, being those in their teens or early twenties. I think that the ideal age for the best prospects of survival was in the first half of the thirties, which is probably where the optimum in life experience, mental resilience, and physical resilience intersect. I can't recall my source for this.

Bringing this back to medieval knights, they began their training as pages around age seven and progressed to squires around age fourteen and then to knights in their twenties. So, from early childhood they were absorbing opinions and values and skills focused on battle and war, which is the exact opposite of those who became soldiers in recent generations.

Blending that with forager's comments about 20th century volunteers being less likely to suffer PTSD, it might be that by the time medieval knights went into battle they were fully prepared mentally for it. Contrast that with a Vietnam era army with large numbers of conscripts selected at random from the population at large and who don't want to be in the army or in the combat they find themselves in six to twelve months after enlisting and it's not surprising that there might be higher rates of PTSD etc, which is consistent with the closing lines of the OP article:

One of the biggest differences between now and then, Kaeuper added, is that medieval knights were usually born into their elite and noble order, and they were trained from a young age to think of themselves as warriors who fought in the name of Christianity. Modern soldiers, on the other hand, often leave a very comfortable life for one of violence and trauma.

Knights "were not civilians who were suddenly thrust into this," Kaeuper said. "I think that makes a difference."