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Medieval Battle Injuries: What Archaeology Can Tell Us

#Medieval Battle Injuries: What Archaeology Can Tell Us

Archaeology is transforming the way we understand medieval warfare. One way it is doing this is by revealing what kinds of injuries and wounds warriors received on the battlefield. Here are details from five sites showing how horrific warfare was in the Middle Ages.

These places – Sweden, Portugal, England, and two in the Near East – greatly vary. In some, hundreds of fallen soldiers have been discovered, while in others only a handful. They each have their unique characteristics but together show some patterns in medieval battle.

Some of the skeletons found in a mass grave at Visby, Sweden in 1905 – photo from Swedish National Heritage Board

Visby

The Battle of Visby, which took place on July 27, 1361, was a pivotal clash between the forces of Denmark and the Hanseatic League against the local defenders of the Swedish island of Gotland. Fought near the town of Visby, the battle culminated in a decisive victory for the Danish and Hanseatic forces, while the local Gotlanders suffered around 1800 killed according to sources.

In the early part of the 20th century, three mass graves were found in Visby, from which 1185 individual remains were uncovered. In the 1930s, a large-scale project was undertaken to explore this archaeological find, with Bo E. Ingelmark writing the section on injuries and wounds. He and his colleagues could barely believe what they had found – not just the hundreds of wounds left behind but also how devastating they were.

Ingelmark writes:

Bearing in mind the remarkable toughness and strength which a live bone possesses, we are astonished at the enormous force with which some of the blows must have been struck. For we must always take into consideration the fact that the weapon has first to penetrate the clothing, which consists partly of strong armour, then the flesh and occasionally also a bone, before it is finally stopped by another.

When it comes to bodily injuries, there were 456 cases of wounds caused by cutting weapons such as swords and axes, with another 126 cases of injuries from arrows or crossbow bolts. Most of these injuries happened in the lower half of the body, and the researchers believed that the Gotlanders’ shields protected their upper bodies.

Ingelmark noted this particular case, which he assumed was caused by the attacker having ‘berserker rage’:

…a man who had both lower legs cut off, probably by a single blow which struck the right tibia from below on its ventral side and the left tibia on its inside. The cut penetrated almost to the medullary cavity of both tibiae, whereas the fibula was broken off without showing any injuries from cuts.

When it came to wounds to the head, Ingelmark found that the first and second mass graves had roughly even chances of being injured there (42.3% and 52.3%), while those from the third grave had very few of these wounds (5.4%). He suggests that this third group might have been wealthy enough to wear helmets.

A skeleton from Visby with head wounds, on display at Fornsalen Museum, in Visby, Gotland – photo by Wolfgang Sauber / Wikimedia Commons

Most of the sword or axe cuts to the head came from attacks that struck from above. The research also uncovered many people with injuries from arrows or crossbows, including those who received five, six, or even seven wounds.

Aljubarrota

​​The Battle of Aljubarrota, fought on August 14, 1385, in Portugal, pitted the forces of King John I of Portugal and his English allies against the larger army of King John I of Castile, who sought to claim the Portuguese throne. Despite being outnumbered, the Portuguese utilized superior tactics and terrain advantage to secure a resounding victory, leaving between 4-5,000 Castilians and their French allies dead.

Excavations of the battlefield took place in 1958, which uncovered the remains of about 400 individuals. Nearly forty years later, Eugenia Cunha and Ana Maria Silva published a study to reveal what could be found about their injuries. They note:

Injuries from cutting weapons such as swords and axes are frequent, although it was not possible to determine whether an injury had been caused by an axe or a sword. Lesions from arrows and lances are also frequent

Cunha and Silva also found a lot of evidence that these warriors had been wounded previously, perhaps in other battles, but these injuries had healed. This included three cases where people had limbs amputated, yet had returned to fight again another day.

Towton

The Battle of Towton, fought on March 29, 1461, during the Wars of the Roses, stands as one of medieval England’s bloodiest conflicts. Taking place near the village of Towton in Yorkshire, it saw the Lancastrian and Yorkist factions clash for control of the English throne. The Yorkists, led by Edward, Earl of March (later Edward IV), ultimately prevailed over the Lancastrians under Henry VI, securing Edward’s claim to the throne. While one source claims that there were 28,000 casualties in the battle, historians believe the number was less, but still in the thousands.

In 1996, workers building a garage at nearby Towton Hall discovered a mass grave, which archaeologists determined were 51 victims from the battle. This finding led to the publication of Blood Red Rose: The Archaeology of a Mass Grave from the Battle of Towton AD 1461, with Shannon Novak writing the article about the battle injuries.

She notes that 13 individuals had wounds to the body. Nearly half just had one wound, but one person had nine. None of the individuals had any wounds to the torso, which is again credited by protection from armour. Novak adds:

The most common injuries occur in the forearms with both sharp and blunt force wounds in this are being consistent with defence injuries that result when parrying a blow from an assailant. The right arm appears to be the lead arm in these defensive positions and thus the majority of the postcranial wounds occur in this area. This does not imply that the individuals receiving forearm wounds were weaponless. But rather if right handed the right arm and hand would have been the lead in delivering the blow, and as a result, susceptible to counter-attack by an opponent.

Instead, it is the head where most of the damage occurred – 28 skulls were analyzed and 27 of them had injuries from the time of the battle (nine also had previous wounds that had healed). It leads Novak to conclude:

If the skeletons from this mass grave attest to at least a facet of the battle, these men died in a frenzied killing that involved numerous blows to the head, often after they were incapacitated and unable to defend themselves.

Jacob’s Ford

The Siege of Jacob’s Ford occurred in 1179 when Saladin besieged and captured the Crusader fortress of Jacob’s Ford (also called Chastellet) near the Jordan River. Several hundred Crusaders were killed, and others captured.

In 2006, a study by Piers D. Mitchell, Yossi Nagar, and Ronnie Ellenblum revealed the existence of five men who died at the siege – they had been left behind in a building that caught fire and collapsed. Aged between 20 and 40 years old, these men suffered different types of injuries. One had an arrow wound to the pelvis, which might have also struck a large blood vessel causing him to bleed to death. Another had no visible wounds on him, which suggests he died from soft tissue damage. And then there was this person:

One soldier had the front of his skull cleaved in two, with a blow deep into the brain. He also had his left arm amputated through the elbow. Both of these wounds would have been fatal, due to brain damage and blood loss respectively. He also sustained non-fatal blade wounds to the left side of his face, completely dividing his mandible in two and slicing off part of the maxilla. This same man sustained three arrow wounds to his neck. In theory he may have bled to death from such wounds if the major blood vessels there had been punctured, or he may have asphyxiated if the airway had been damaged. However, the severity of his blade wounds suggests that he probably did not die from these arrows, but from the sword wounds he sustained in close-quarter fighting.

All the sword wounds were on the left side of the body, which again suggests that attacks came from a right-handed attacker. Although sources tell of Saladin executing a number of archers from among the defenders, none of the five men here seemed to have suffered that fate.

Sidon

In 1260, a Mongol force arrived outside of Sidon, a port in what is today’s southern Lebanon. The Mongols had just finished their conquest of Syria, part of their massive campaign to subjugate the medieval Middle East. This Crusader stronghold quickly fell, but most of its people were able to flee to a nearby island.

Two parallel swords wounds to back of neck suggesting decapitation of captives after the battle. Image Credit: Richard Mikulski

In 2021, a group of scholars published a study about 25 male individuals who were found in a mass grave – they were likely victims of this Mongol attack. The researchers offered this analysis of their injuries:

[It] shows many more blows to the head, neck and shoulders than to the lower limbs. This is compatible with both an assault by mounted assailants against footmen and the fighting technique of contemporary near eastern cavalry training. The higher number of wounds to the back of the body, compared with the front, is most likely to indicate that they were wounded while running away from their assailants. A minimum of two individuals exhibited evidence of perimortem sharp force injury to the hands and wrists (with crude prevalence of sharp force injury to all hand elements across the whole group calculated at 40.0%) and these lesions may indicate final attempts to fend off blows once individuals were disarmed. One individual sustained so many wounds (a minimum of 12 injuries involving a minimum of 16 skeletal elements) that it may represent an incident of overkill, where considerably more violent blows were applied than was actually required to overcome or kill them.

The study also found that several individuals were likely decapitated – their attackers executed them after their fighting had ended. Again, we see evidence of people who had weapon injuries that had already fully healed before their death.

See more at Mass grave of crusaders discovered in Lebanon

These are not the only cases we have – an article by Robert C. Woosnam-Savage and Kelly DeVries notes that we have at least another dozen cases where people were found at battlefields or sites of sieges, although one cannot be sure if they all died in battle. Altogether, they offer some interesting insights, including:

  • It was more likely that you would be wounded on the left side of your head or body since your attacker was usually facing you with a weapon in their right hand.
  • Armour could make a difference, either by directly protecting one from blows or discouraging the attacker from aiming there. However, attackers would look to find weaknesses in any defence, which often included trying to strike the face or head.
  • The large number of healed injuries showed that battlefield wounds need not be fatal. Soldiers did receive medical care that was at least good enough for them to go to war again.

Finally, these archaeological finds remind us that medieval warfare, like all warfare, was a messy and bloody business. Soldiers did not get killed from ‘clean’ attacks but rather often with multiple injuries that led to agonizing deaths.

See also: Skull wound shows how deadly medieval arrows could be, research finds

Further Readings:

Veronica Fiorato, Anthea Boylston and Christopher Knusel (eds.), Blood Red Rose: The Archaeology of a Mass Grave from the Battle of Towton AD 1461 (Oxbow Books, 2000)

Eugenia Cunha and Ana Maria Silva, “War Lesions from the Famous Portuguese Medieval Battle of Aljubarrota,” International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, Vol. 7 (1997)

Ingelmark, Bo E., “The Skelelons,” in Armour from the Battle of Wisby 1361, by Bengt Thordeman (Stockholm, 1939)

Richard N. R. Mikulski, Holger Schutkowski, Martin J. Smith, Claude Doumet-Serhal, Piers D. Mitchell, “Weapon injuries in the crusader mass graves from a 13th century attack on the port city of Sidon (Lebanon),” PLoS ONE 16:8 (2021)

Piers D. Mitchell, Yossi Nagar, and Ronnie Ellenblum, “Weapon Injuries in the 12th Century Crusader Garrison of Vadum Iacob Castle, Galilee,” International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, Vol. 16 (2006)

Robert C. Woosnam-Savage and Kelly DeVries, “Battle Trauma in Medieval Warfare: Wounds, Weapons and Armor,” in Wounds and Wound Repair in Medieval Culture, edited by Larissa Tracy and Kelly DeVries (Brill, 2015)

Top Image: The skull of a soldier who participated in the 1361 campaign. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber / Wikimedia Commons

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