Post-classical history

Warfare: Injuries

Fighting in the course of crusade expeditions and in the states established by them in the Near East, Greece, and the Baltic region meant that many thousands died from weapon injuries in battle.

By comparing mortality among clergy and knights in the course of the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221), James Powell has suggested that roughly 14 percent of knights died from weapon injuries during the campaign [James M. Powell, Anatomy of a Crusade, 1213-1221 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1986), pp. 169-171]. We would expect the figure to be much higher for the poor foot soldiers, who would have been able to afford little armor or medical care for wounds.

Past excavation of battlefields from medieval Europe has demonstrated what parts of the body were most likely to suffer injuries. The vulnerable areas were the left side of the head, the forearms, and the right lower leg. This is thought to be due to the right-handedness of most soldiers, the stance taken while fighting, and the protective armor worn. Rather surprisingly, evidence of healing on the bones shows that it was common to survive many of the blows sustained in such battles. The study of accounts of battles in the crusader chronicles suggests that the most lethal weapon employed by Frankish troops was the lance. This is because it could be guided by a horseman right up until it hit the target, while its weight and speed meant that it carried significant energy, and the tip could penetrate mail. The most common injuries were from arrows and crossbow bolts. A widespread practice of the time was to shower an opposing army with arrows, and many accounts tell of individuals being hit by a significant number. However, the inability to correct their course after release, coupled with their light weight, meant that arrows were much less likely to kill a soldier in armor than a lance thrust.

In close-quarter fighting other weapons were more widely used, such as the sword, mace, and war hammer. Those wounds most likely to be fatal were penetrating wounds to the abdomen, chest, and skull and amputation of a limb. The Frankish castle at Jacob’s Ford in Galilee was besieged in 1179 by Saladin’s forces, and many of the Frankish garrison died when it was captured. Excavation of their skeletal remains has shown evidence for multiple sword and arrow wounds and has demonstrated the effectiveness of mail as protective armor. In contrast to injuries from hand- to-hand fighting in a pitched battle, siege warfare led to other types of wounds as well. Greek fire (an oil-based flammable composition) was employed to set siege engines alight, and many soldiers using siege towers and battering rams suffered burns. Engineers undermining city walls with tunnels were at risk from crush injuries if the tunnels collapsed unexpectedly.

Excavation of the port city of Caesarea (mod. Har Qesari, Israel) has shown a very different pattern with regards to the trauma sustained by the population there. Virtually no weapon injuries were present in the crusader-period inhabitants, while a significant proportion did sustain fractures from falls and other accidental causes. It seems that the location of a community, the strength of its defenses, and the professional activities undertaken by the inhabitants were closely associated with the likelihood of sustaining weapon injuries at the time of the crusades. However, participation in a crusade army was clearly associated with a significant risk of sustaining wounds that may have led to disfigurement, disability, or death.

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