Seems incredible, but medieval knights may have suffered from PTSD.
Therapy and counselling may have been in short supply in the Middle Ages – compared to our modern society – but that doesn’t mean some knights weren’t psychologically affected by the horrors of war.
After all, how would you expect anybody to react when boiling oil drenched a battle comrade or a crossbow bolt skewered a fellow soldier? Even allowing for the adrenalin of warfare and the medieval familiarity with scenes of death, it still seems more than likely that some knights would have been deeply disturbed.
Both my parents worked in psychiatric care – in one of the old asylums closed down in the UK when mental care was overhauled in the 1980s. During their time as medical staff in a big institution in the 1960s and 1970s, they saw patients traumatised by wartime experience. Those affected might be combatants or civilians who were caught up in bombardment or the loss of loved ones. Wars take a toll on human beings no matter how close to the front line they are.
So what about our medieval knights? Did they really need therapy? This 2011 article – Medieval Knights may have had PTSD – quotes a professor at the university of Copenhagen who looked at contemporary chronicles for evidence of medieval post-traumatic stress. A 14th century French knight Geoffroi de Charny wrote some revealing remarks:
“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?”
De Charny didn’t seem to be suffering from PTSD himself but he and other commentators refer to horrors – such as knights having to hold in their own guts or resorting to cannibalism – that makes one wonder how much a human being can take before they crack.
In my book – Quest for the True Cross – I decided from the outset that my main protagonist, Sir William de Mandeville, would be suffering from PTSD. In fact, I credit my parents in the book’s acknowledgments section with helping me to portray his symptoms. Given that William was living in the Middle Ages, I had his madness expressed through ecstatic religious visions and a devilish creature called the Basilisk who comes to haunt him at night.
The trigger for his PTSD is a massacre of a Saracen village in the Holy Land – a reprisal by the Templars against earlier attacks on them. I refer to this during a major anxiety attack that strikes William when he arrives in medieval Portugal and witnesses villagers worshipping a pagan god. It seems that any major elevation in tension gives our hero a turn.
Only by recovering the True Cross – a great treasure stolen from the Knights Templar – can William recover not only his family honour but his wits as well. We do medicate the mentally ill in our own society so I allowed William’s Syrian companion, Pathros, to medicate his master in a very questionable manner.
It should finally be noted that even great commanders succumbed to what looks like PTSD in ancient times. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle relates a battle in the year 1003 where a military leader called Alfred was unable to lead his men as he was seized by a vomiting fit. This and other incidents are mentioned on the Vietnam Veterans blog.