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.
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."