Monday, August 02, 2021

Medieval Violence and Head Injury

We have a predisposition toward thinking of people in an era as being very similar to each other and different from us. Yet stratification and difference was even more intense in previous centuries. Urban merchants and rural woodcutters were not alike.

When I mentioned the TBIs of Henry VIII and their possible effect on his personality, there was mention of tournament injuries, as these did often involve the head.  Hence helmets, but those only help so much. The knightly class over time had ceased to be a group heading out to dispense justice and defend the right.  Most likely never were anyway, but even the pretense was vanishing.  They were a warrior class trained to bash others over the head and otherwise remove them from this world. By the beginning of the age of exploration they were largely concerned with defending their "honor," which increasingly meant the status they felt they were do.  For someone not to doff a cap or defer to them was an insult that needed redressing. Nothing Arthurian about it anymore. AS Europe did not have much other than cloth in trade goods - and warm cloth was not a prized item in the Mediterranean, Africa, or beyond - they increasingly just took things by force of arms. The Portuguese were reportedly very effective in this.

If you are going to live like this, a large percentage of that class is going to have been head injured, with the natural loss of emotional control and good judgement that follows. A pathological behavior would seem normal.

There is also strong evidence that overall violence was decreasing in society from at least 1200 to the present, and possibly earlier. How can these things be? Different classes of people.  The majority of people were not going to war, as professional armies were growing up. They were learning to trade, cooperate, get along.  I don't want to oversell this, because it was still a more violent time than our own, and there are plenty of other ways to get concussions and other compromises to the skull. But comparatively there was a difference between the nobility with their head-injured idea of their "honor," and the folks just trying to make a living. Literally. 

Had there not been new trade routes to exploit - for the knightly class married with the merchant class throughout Europe - I don't know what would have come of it.

For those who have read Albion's Seed, the stratification is still visible well into the founding.  the Scots Borderers did not have standing armies so much as clan groupings still involved with raiding. Armed violence was part of the lives of most.  This was not so in Puritan East Anglia or the partly- Quaker Midlands. Those were traders, craftsmen, yeomen, fishermen. In Virginia and Coastal Carolina there was an elite that bore arms for military purposes, while the lower classes had arms only for hunting and perhaps some skirmishes.


Grim said...

Even in the earlier literature, knights are marked by bearing wounds. The poetics and the prose stories alike make a lot of suffering great wounds in battle, and being healed -- often by a lady, or by a hermit or other religious man who was once a knight himself (and thus knows much about wounds). It's obvious in Malory, but even more of a theme in his sources. These aren't always or usually head wounds, but the significance of head wounds is a contemporary idea. The idea that being knightly meant being exposed to wounds, suffering, and healing, was very much part of the literary tradition.

Now as for the trade of the Portuguese, I have read histories that give it differently. Once they captured the West African trade routes from the Arabs, they found (I have read) ready markets for many things that Europe could make or trade in -- not just cloth, but advanced metalwork, technology transfers (the Middle Ages were great for the development of water-based mills and gears), and the kind of wealth and spices they had access to abroad and now were the only source of for western Africa. The poverty of goods to offer in exchange was on that side; they had gold, to some degree, but mostly what they had was slaves to offer -- captured enemies, which they were glad to part with at any reasonable price, and eager to exchange for what they could get.

It just so happened that, at the same time, a new frontier had opened with the need for workers on new island plantations -- and the need to replace them regularly, as they tended to die from the novel disease. The only obstacle, really, was Catholicism, which had declared slavery to be immoral and sinful. So a new idea was needed, to explain why enslaving these people was all right after all.

Maybe in the New World conquest head injuries played more of a role, but in Africa from what I have heard it was a consensual relationship.

james said...

Like Grim, I suspect most wounds wouldn't be head wounds. Maybe beatings might be. I read of teachers who'd slap students with the head an inch from the door frame--last century.

Narr said...

"I'll box your ears!" is not just a literary trope, a jokey Dickensian mock-threat. I'm not a family historian but corporal punishment (if not head-knocks) was widespread in Western societies, from families to schools to armies and navies. I caught more than my share as recently as the mid-1960s (family and school).

Grim, you grossly oversimplify the Catholic Church's relations to slavery. Pope Nicholas V and his bulls--from a period before the discovery of the New World--spelled out the circumstances in which slavery was OK, and it's hard to see opposition to slavery in the fact that the two Iberian monarchies almost immediately began to enslave natives and import Africans. That the church enjoined humane treatment doesn't alter those facts.

And for that matter, some Jesuits owned slaves, and we all know about the recent controversies around Georgetown U.

The CS secnav Mallory was a Catholic; Father John Bannon was an Irish-born priest in St Louis who sided with the CS, became a chaplain, and later went to Europe to drum up support for them, and of course Pius IX went out of his way to condole with Jeff Davis in his captivity. Thus the taunt that the Dems in the 19th C stood for "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion."

Now I'll grossly oversimplify. The "triangle trade" of the Atlantic World (Europe-Africa-America c. 1550-1800) was largely a trade in armaments, drugs, and slaves--the three staples of early modernity.

Cousin Eddie

Grim said...


I didn't mean to suggest that most wounds were or weren't head wounds in fact, only to say that in the literature it doesn't come up as often. That may be because the Medievals were aware of how disfiguring a head wound could be, in several respects, and thus didn't put it in romantic literature so often.


I'm sure a blog comment necessarily simplifies, but I think the summary is correct. St. Patrick condemned slavery from an early period; two Popes were slaves, and were critical of the practice. Initially slavery was forbidden for fellow Christians only -- the bull you mention was specific to the King of Portugal, and authorized him to enslave Muslims he captured in his wars to defend his kingdom from being re-conquered into the Islamic world. Pope Paul III forbade slavery in the New World on penalty of excommunication.

Nevertheless, it obviously didn't work. Too much money to be made.

David Smith said...

An alternate reaction to severe injury in medieval/early modern combat would be exemplified by St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) and Brother Lawrence (1640-1691). Francis suffered serious illness while a prisoner, and Ignatius and Brother Lawrence both suffered severe leg injuries. All three responded by turning away from violence and, in the case of Francis and Ignatius, status and turned to a structured (some would say militarized) religious life.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The relationship of the Catholic Church to slavery is complicated. First, in the time period under discussion that Roman and Orthodox churches were all there was, so for Europe, essentially only the RCC. Despite the fact that slavery was simply normal in every society on the planet for centuries, the RCC had gradually limited it in ways we don't think of now. Christians could not own other Christians, eventually. (This led to some terrible excuse-making once they discovered Africans.) One could argue that the Church came to the edge of eliminating slavery in Europe - until the discovery of the New World, and suddenly the money was so good that it threw a thousand years of moral progress out the window. Spain and Portugal were flexing their muscles by asserting their right to decide what the Church did within their borders. The Spanish Inquisition, for example, was the one that was not under the control of Rome. They broke the seal on old-style slavery and everyone else followed suit. Because, as I noted, the money was very good.

Not that this was any different than anyone else was doing.

james said...

Grim: I'm not expert on the literature, and it's a good point that certain injuries might not be romantic. I was guessing that people try extra hard to protect the head, since it has serious vulnerabilities, and that would be reflected in fewer wounds. Maybe analyzing skeletons would give a clue--the rate of fatal and healed wounds in head/torso/limbs...

Quick search turned up this:
It doesn't summarize all the info I want, but this was interesting:
"ancient Pueblo people" ... "very distinctive patterns with 60% (6 out of 10) of the females exhibiting healed cranial fractures compared with 23% (3 out of 13) for the males"

Assistant Village Idiot said...

There is actually a pattern of forearm wounds in women now known by archaeologists to strongly suggest warding off blows by a taller person or one looming over you. One interesting fact is that in some cultures these are often accompanied by skull compromises, while in others they seldom are, suggesting that in some cultures in which men hit women there was a taboo or reticence to hit them in the head, while in others there was not.

Grim said...

There are medieval battlefields with really good archaeological records, such as Towton and Visby. There is also this, although this is just one guy:

james said...

Wrt taboos, IIRC Australian aborigines had/have a custom that it is permissible to stab your woman with a spear in certain usually non-lethal places.

mc23 said...

Christians were into slavery well before discovering the New World. The early Christians worked hard at abolishing it and in the late Roman Empire some early Church Fathers were keen on castigating the Jews as a group that continued to trade slaves.

Humans don't seem to need much of an excuse for slavery and Christian slavery appears to have been much stronger in the Mediterranean where the Christians were in close contact with Muslims where slaves were very common even down to enslaving Christian children to raise as Janissaries.

Narr said...

Good discussion, y'all. (I'm not particularly mad at anyone back then for what they did or didn't do in the worlds they inherited, but I am a thorough pedant.)

Paul III's efforts were mixed in application and effect, and again regulated rather than forbade slavery. Negros and enemies of Christ could still be enslaved, but most Indios should be converted if possible and treated humanely. Should mention that New World slavery was transplanted from West Africa and the nearby islands, where it had existed for decades already.

Is there a single example of excommunication for the practice of slavery in the New World? The system existed for centuries, and the Spanish for their part used the gold and silver extracted from their colonies to finance--among other projects--wars against the
heretics of northern Europe.

Islamic slavery is definitely worth mentioning. The Janissaries and Mamluks were slave soldiers and administrators, an elite unlike anything that developed in the West--in that, mutated carryovers from the Hellenistic era. But the vast majority of those enslaved by Muslims--which included many hundreds of thousands or more of Europeans over several centuries--ended up as workaday drudges the same as elsewhere. (Unless they were hot.)

Cousin Eddie

james said...

Bernard Lewis mentioned Islamic slavery--there were some odd details. The Middle East imported vast numbers of African slaves, but they made little genetic impact, especially Y-chromosomally. A lot of household slaves were castrated, but what became of the ones sent to (e.g.) the mines is not recorded. We can guess.