In the movies, when the shining knight dispatches one of the king's soldiers, we see a slice to the gut, a thrust to the torso, or the rare decapitation/amputation. Because of our limited means to depict authentic wounds, many cannot respect the total efficiency of the sword. If we could see a person's head split in half along the face, his body hewn in two across the torso, or his leg cut off at the thigh (ok, Braveheart did that, but I haven't seen it anywhere else) audiences would cringe every time a sword was drawn.

Thanks to the new movements to revive Medieval European martial arts, research has also stepped up in the study of the nature of battle wounds in the Middle Ages. Since the thousand-year period was a dynamic one, the exact types of wounds differed as armor covered more of the body.

Low Middle Ages, 500-1200 C.E.:In this period, the best protection a soldier could don would be the trusty byrnie or hauberk of maille, so the wounds appear many places on the body. The Icelandic saga Droplavgarsona describes a scene where, "Grin carried two swords and could fight equally well in both hands. He brandished a sword in his left, but with his right he struck at Gouss and cut off his leg above the knee". Another account from the the historian John of Antioch, writing in the 600's, bears personal witness to a blow,"He leapt upon him and dealt him a blow with his sword upon the collar bone ... It was a killing blow, and the weapon pierced Adovocar's body down to the hip. It is said that Theodoric exclaimed,'In truth, the wretch has no bones!'".

High Middle Ages, 1200-1500 C.E.: Advancing technology was put to use guarding the body, as the sword simply changed shape to combat this influx of change. The targeted areas moved up, to the face and head, and lower to the legs and ankles. In the battle of Barnet in 1471, when shields were scarce and plate armor was as prevalent as it ever would be, there were wounds, "mainly in the face and lower half of the body". It must also be noted that a monumental change was coming into effect in military history, as armies of salaried, disciplined soldiers slew the valiant, noble knights by the thousands with the new tactics of massive archer fire, which obliterated the formerly invincible heavy cavalry charge.

A famous excavation at the site of the battle of Visby (1361), in Gotland, off the coast of Sweden has been a treasure trove of information about battle wounds of the period. At this time, nearly all soldiers on the field wore some sort of armor but were buried in their gear, due to the sweltering heat of that July day*. The studies show that of the approximately 1000 corpses, over 70 percent had leg wounds. This would make sense considering the effective tactic of slipping below the shield to attack, one of the most natural moves in shielded combat. The evidence of these attacks lie in the armor, as most wore it, while the bones show little damage, suggesting a glut of soft-tissue damage, such as the aformentioned arrows.

Very late in the Middle Ages,we see accounts of casualties due to firearms, ending the Medieval period in the smoke and fire of modern combat.

*At this point, the mad dash for supplies of war (weapons, armor) after battles had slowed and it was no longer of great importance to pillage the dead.


-John Clements, Medieval Swordsmanship;

-J. Beeler, Warfare in Feudal Europe;

-William Reid, The Lore of Arms: A Concise History of Weaponry.

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