Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Reexamination of the Life and Death of a Medieval Knight

(Wielder of the English Longsword?)

Here is a link to an interesting archeological find (brought to my attention in a post by Jay Vail (apologies) at the Pendant RMA Forum):

From this individual’s place of burial, injuries, date and physicality, there is probably a very good case to be made that he was indeed a knight. But was he Sir Robert Morley? Well, without knowing anything about Sir Robert, let us take it as fact that Sir Robert died in a tournament.

It is said that our man in the grave died from a cut injury from a sword akin to a face-ectomy that was delivered while he was lying on the ground.

Firstly, tournaments were rough and tumble affairs; martial sports that helped warriors keep themselves both financially viable and physically prepared for war. However, during the time this man was alive, there were no tournaments where sharp swords were allowed to be used; much less tournaments where a man could be taken advantage of on the ground, pinned down or incapacitated, stripped of his helmet, and killed by a cut to the face. Well, at least not without the perpetrator being brought up on charges of murder. Tournaments where knights used swords at this time were generally fought either with cudgels or special rebated steel swords, and the knights wielding them wore a great deal of protection; armour specially suited to the tourney. The goal of such a tourney was generally to unhorse or sometimes capture the adversary. In the event of such a feat, the victor would have the prize of his opponent’s horse; a very lucrative exercise if one could emerge victorious, not to mention better watching than football.

So, let us rule the hypothesis put forth by the archeologists out entirely. If Sir Robert Morley met his fate at a tournament, then this warrior could not have been Sir Robert. Unfortunately then, this knight’s identity will likely never be known.

Continuing to address the fatal wound, it is said that reconstruction of the skull leads them to believe that the blow was delivered while he was on the ground. We’ll take their word for it, which was probably figured by fracture pattern. This wound would be a coup de grace delivered in the heat of battle. Perhaps his helmet was torn from his head by one opponent as he was thrown to the ground and pinned, while another delivered the deadly stroke. Perhaps he was wearing a visorless helm, a kettle helmet, or perhaps he chose to wear no helm at all. There is always the possibility, however, that the stroke was delivered while he was still standing. The wound is consistent with others, such as a skull from the Battle of Wisby that does not show signs of having been wounded while on the ground. It could always be a matter of archeologists trying to figure out how they would strike someone at a certain angle to deliver the same wound; something they all too often fumble with.

Then we have the assumption that the cut was delivered with a sword. This could very well have been the case, but there is simply no way of knowing. Cutting weapons were a preferred way of dealing death in the old days, and there was a wide variety of sharp-edged people-killers at the time. If we assume that he was cut while lying on the ground due to a fracture pattern, we might also assume that the fractures were caused because a cutting weapon with more mass than a sword at the point of impact was used. A sword is lightest at the prime cutting portion, whereas something like a battle-axe, though still light weight, has much more of that weight positioned around the prime cutting area of the blade, which would thusly be more likely to cause fractures than a sword, which cuts more through velocity than mass.

They say the he suffered several other serious wounds in other “contests.” Well, we know that his death wound was from no “contest.” It was from combat. So, let us examine his other wounds to see if they could have been from contests.

He appears to have survived for some time with a large arrowhead lodged in his chest…

Yes, no doubt from the ever-popular William Tell contest. We’ll throw out the archeologist’s theory on this one and say that this professional warrior received this wound from combat, as well. Like the death wound, however, it begs the question: what was he wearing? A knight from his era could have certainly had a very well protected chest. There was a variety of very protective body armour in his time. By “large,” we’ll assume that the arrowhead mentioned was not a bodkin, but a broad-head. I’m also going to dispense with the idea that a broadhead pierced a steel breastplate. And while I’m at it, I’ll say that it didn’t hit a brigandine or coat of plates just right, in all probability. Furthermore, for good measure, we’ll also assume that he did indeed receive this wound in war, rather than on his way down the road in his civies.

Many knights, even in his day and age, often chose to wear the more flexible protection of a mail hauberk, depending upon the circumstances. While mail has a bad reputation among many a modern know-nothing, it was really excellent protection; it was virtually immune to cuts, as well as providing excellent protection against many a piercing attack. For example, we have the accounts of the Arabs in the Holy Land, which speak in great frustration over their inability to harm the Europeans through their stout mail shirts - often making the Crusaders look like hedge-hogs - the mail shirts bristling with arrows, but the men beneath unharmed. But of all armours, it is the most likely to have succumbed to a well placed arrow. Particularly for this man, being an English or Scottish Knight who died thereabouts. He could well have been wounded by the powerful Welsh bow. We know this weapon can put a broad-head cleanly through a man. A mail hauberk could have slowed the arrow down enough to stop it in his chest. Though the arrowhead was left inside by the surgeons, his mail, if it indeed played out in this way, saved his life.

It is also worth noting his likely medical care for this wound. If an arrow was lodged in someone’s chest, but the head had emerged from the other side (or very close to it), a surgeon would generally have made the call to gently cut off the fletching and draw the arrow through the wound, rather than bringing it out the way it had come, compounding damage from the barbs of the broad-head and drawing more material into the wound. An arrow being lodged in this man’s chest, not deeply enough to draw through, but too deep to withdraw without causing more dangerous tissue damage, would have been left inside just as his was (having just had the shaft extracted). He in all likelihood had access to the top medical care of his day, particularly seeing as he survived the wound.

…the regrowth of bone around a dent in the front of his skull indicates that he had also recovered from a severe blow from an axe.

Well, let us again throw out the archeologist’s explaination, this being that he was brained by an axe during a “contest.” Let’s also look at the type of injury by comparison to the stated weapon. Now an axe, the battle axe in particular, is generally assumed to be a cutting weapon. We often figure that it is a cutting weapon due to the large, sharp, thin and light blade that defines it. Generally that sharp cutting blade inflicts a cutting injury when it forcefully strikes a human skull. This fellow has a dent. A dent from which he recovered, as opposed to a linear cut wound, which would almost invariably result in a head bisection, or full frontal lobotomy. We will again assume that he received this injury in battle. We’ll also assume that by “dent,” they mean a relatively rounded, smooth depression. Such a dent would probably have to come from a like-shaped object if it impacted his unprotected head. If his head were unprotected, given that he recovered, this would have to have been a relatively light or weak impact. In the press of combat, particularly war, any weapon with the given features could have delivered such a light blow in the haphazard confines of fighting bodies. It’s possible that a smoothly-rounded mace could have done this, but such weapons were relatively uncommon, with far more harmful and nasty looking designs being the popular. It seems to me, were he unprotected and received a relatively light blow from a smooth object, that it could very well have been the pommel of a sword.

But then again, let’s assume that he had his helmet on when he received the blow. With a helmet on, the blow would have to have been far more forceful to put a depression in his skull. But, it also means that a far greater variety of weapons could have struck him, as the injury would be caused by the indentation of his helm rather than a direct indentation from the weapon itself. This means that he could very well have received a strong blow from a war-hammer, mace, or even that axe, though less likely than the former. He is unlikely to have received it from the thrust of a charging lance or other piercing weapon, as it would more than likely have glanced off of the popular headgear of his day. The same can be said for blades. Again, a sword is unlikely to be able to deliver such a percussive blow, and blades have much more tendency to deflect from plate-steel as opposed to the coroneled and spiked gripping surfaces of percussive weapons like the mace and war-hammer. Another possibility is the longer kin of the hammer and axe: the pollaxe.* A very popular and noble weapon of the time, often used by knights for dispatching other men-at-arms with such protection, it is not an unlikely candidate.

…the knight had lost teeth, probably from another blow or from falling from his horse.

I have known more than one man to have his teeth kicked out by a horse, but I’ve never known one to fall from his horse face first and lose his teeth in the dirt. Let us leave the theorizing on this one to Sir Roger of Hoveden, who knew a thing of two about the differentialistics of the punchitizing.

A youth must have seen his blood flow and felt his teeth crack under the blow of his adversary and have been thrown to the ground twenty times. Thus will he be able to face real war with the hope of victory.

But what would he know? Here's more from the archeologists:

His sturdy upper body and upper right arm are consistent with wielding heavy swords, and his injuries suggest a hard life of hunting, jousting and foot tournaments.

Well, anyone who knows anything about real swords knows that, unless you are still stuck in the world of Victorian Twain-esque fantasy, swords of the late 14th c. were not heavy. In fact, my wife regularly works out with 2-3 lb. dumbells; individually the same weight as any sword this warrior wielded. I wouldn’t call my wife heavily muscled, but I wonder what some archeologist in Futurama would say about her. And apparently, the said suggestions of his injuries pointed to a hard life of hunting (while being accidentally shot in the chest), jousting (having his head dented in), and foot tournaments (being thrown down, getting his helmet ripped off, and getting a murderous face-lift).

Not a likely hypothesis for a professional warrior elite. The sturdiness of his body and the wounds he received are signs of the hard and chosen life of a warrior. He deserves better respect than to be called an accident prone tournament jockey. Knights were brave, skilled, hard-living, scarred men. As that evil Chinese guy said in Enter the Dragon, “We forge our bodies in the fire of our will.” This man’s sturdy body reflects the discipline and fitness of an elite fighter and the life of a soldier, and his successive injuries reflect his courage to repeatedly face death for whatever it was he held dear, and his final moment of violent conflict. His times were no more troubled than ours, but he was one of the few to face the troubles head-on.

I salute this anonymous knight, and give him a thought next memorial day.


*Poll being an archaic term for the top of the head, or brainpan. The head being the main target of the fearsome pollaxe.

Copyright July 2009, "Casper" Bradak

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