Disability and War

Inscriptions & informations: ninon.dubourg@gmail.com and christophe.masson@uliege.be


  1. Disability in Warfare

February 2, 2023 – Giulia MOROSINI (University of the Republic of San Marino) – The Limping Captain: Injuries, Wounds, and Scars between Praise and Mocking in Renaissance Italy.

Violence and pain were a central part of the profession of arms in 15th century Italy: easily soldiers and condottieri (i.e military captains) suffered wounds that could have caused temporary or permanent injuries. The primary sources (chronicles, biographies, poems, etc.) are not hesitant to describe the effects of wounds onto the captains’ bodies, like limping, impediment in seeing, difficulties in riding, atrophy of the limbs, or illnesses such as dropsy.

The interpretation of scars and wounds in the military environment follows two main trajectories. On one side, the physical impediment was used to mock the adversary: if, because of the wound, the condottiero was not able to perform his duty, the injury became a means of mocking him as a non virtuous captain. For example, Braccio da Montone and Niccolò Piccinino were often referred to as capitano zoppo (limping captain) by their enemies.

On the other side, wounds and injuries represented the ability of the captain’s body to suffer without showing it. Since suffering was interpreted as a virtuous trait, wounds and scars were presented as the material manifestation of the virtues assigned to the suffering body, such as fortitudo and patientia, that were part of the so-called “military virtues”. The same Braccio and Niccolò were also depicted as virtuous suffering captains, who overcame their impediments in order to show their bravery.

March 2, 2023  – Kristina HILDEBRAND (Dalarna University, Sweden) – Hungry for love: disabling the knightly body and mind through starvation.

There are by now several studies of disability in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, including disability caused by the love madness that intermittently seizes the knights and ladies. I would here like to focus on one particular aspect of this mental disability: the loss of access to food in proper amounts.

In courtly literature, food constitutes an essential part of courtly life; it is food enjoyed communally and of a certain elegance and abundance. Knights disabled by madness suffer hunger, partly because they refuse to eat, but partly also because, unable to function as part of the court, they are deprived of properly knightly food in sufficient amounts. This, in its turn, results in further disabling. Lack of proper food is tied to both bodily and mental decline, sometimes to the extent that the knight becomes unrecognisable even to his family. However, this seems rarely to affect their martial ability, which they retain despite madness and starvation.

This paper proceeds from a background on food and eating as a communal and courtly process in order to discuss starvation due to mental disability. This starvation then causes secondary impairment, which increases the disabling and dysfunction of the knightly body in romance texts.

April 6, 2023 – Yoav TIROSH (University of Iceland) – Disability in Battles and Disability from Battles in Medieval Icelandic Literature.

If there is one thing that most sagas share, it‘s a propensity for describing battles over land, politics, honor and everything in between. These battles often result in injury, which in turn often leads to persistent health issues and other forms of embodied difference. The participants of the battles are also not always what today‘s society would call “non-disabled”. Men with wooden legs, without heads [sic], without bones, or with sensory disabilities can sometimes participate in battle and even utilize their embodied difference to their martial favor. This webinar will thus look at both aspects of battle participation described in Old Norse literature, focusing on (but not limited to) the Sagas of the Icelanders, the contemporary sagas, and the Kings’ sagas.

  1. Handling combat-caused disability

September 7, 2023 – Quentin VERREYCKEN (F.R.S/FNRS-Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium) – Impotent Soldiers? Military Service and War Disabilities in Late Medieval Pardon Letters (France, England, and the Low Countries).

In fifteenth-century France, England, and the Burgundian Low Countries, the soldiers who committed a crime could avoid punishment by obtaining a pardon letter from the monarch. In the petitions they submitted to the royal or princely chancery, these soldiers not only detailed the circumstances of their offenses, they also tried to catch the monarch’s pity by providing an account of their military services and how it caused them poverty and injuries. By analyzing soldiers’ petitions as well as pardon letters issued by the chanceries of the king of France, the king of England, and the duke of Burgundy, this article seeks to examine the perception of injuries and disabilities from war in the late Middle Ages. It will show that, in contrast to the ideal of personal heroic achievement at war pertained to chivalric literature, the military service mentioned in petitions and pardon letters was always described as a source of personal sacrifice and impairment. The article will argue that the recognition of war disabilities as a motive to be pardoned appealed to two essential virtues of the good Christian ruler, misericordia and caritas, which also made the pardon a compensation or a reward for the suffering endured by the petitioners at the king’s or the prince’s service.

October 5, 2023 – Wendy J. TURNER (Augusta University, USA) – Considering the Recovery after Trauma of Bellatores in Medieval England.

The idea of historic post-war trauma is not only difficult to prove but also difficult to research, especially in terms of day-to-day battlefield activity. Medieval post-battle records that mention changes in mental health or injury and recovery after battle allow scholars to better understand the treatment of individuals with battle trauma and those recovering from other battle injuries. Fighters were trained to aim their blows at the areas of the body not covered in metal, especially legs and the head. This left many fighters, even those who could afford a good helmet, with head injuries from concussions to actual penetrating wounds. And, while torture for ransomed gentlemen was frowned upon, evidence exists for the use of torture and imprisonment, which encouraged the rapid payment of ransom and destroyed the mental health of some victims. In 1306 for example, Nigel Coppedene killed his neighbor and was pardoned because of a mental illness following “his sufferings as a prisoner of war” (The National Archive, Kew, London, Public Record Office manuscripts: PRO C 260/16/m 5b; JUST 1/934/m 3). This paper will take a closer look at later medieval English cases of trauma following battle.

(ATTENTION: 9AM GMT) November 2, 2023 – John GAGNÉ (University of Sydney, Australia) – Substitutions, Extensions, and the Refashioned Body, 1450-1650.

Evidence in manuscript, print, and material culture helps us understand changing ambitions regarding the injured body in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Like many manual practitioners of this era, surgeons bid for prestige by demonstrating their skills in text and image. We see them articulating bold therapies and undertaking ingenious interventions to save the sick and wounded from death. Such techniques – particularly prosthetic sciences – opened doors to new forms of embodiment, in which patients and healers had to decide about the removal, substitution, and extension of the natural body: a decorporalization that was also a laboratory for rebuilding the corporeal.

In making those decisions, patients – whose voices and opinions rarely survive – entered an altered state of being. While preindustrial prostheses invariably strove for mimesis, there was also something uncanny about them, a non-human humanness. Our sources are largely silent on the implications of these small steps in artificializing humanity, but that process and its potentials should interest us as a potent conceptual frontier of early modernity. To think of the human organism in intimate interface with mechanism meant to reimagine our species in ways both unsettling and exhilarating.

December 7, 2023 – Michael DEPRETER (Oxford University, UK) – Urban militia, dynastic armies, and soldiers’ care in the Burgundian Low Countries (15th-16th centuries).

Traditional military history has long been preoccupied with estimated casualties, often speculating about death tolls and injured soldiers in past military engagements on the basis of more or less biased narrative accounts. The fate of disabled soldiers beyond the battlefield has however barely retained attention before the development, in Early Modern Europe, of specialised institutions devoted to take care of these men and accommodate them. This is maybe unsurprising as their development indeed led to corresponding coherent archival series kept by these institutions. Assuredly, the most renown example is Louis XIV’s creation of the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris in 1670. Nevertheless, although this care was only institutionalized in the 16th century, several late medieval urban and princely authorities had already been encouraged, if not impelled, to take an interest in the fate of the men who had served them in war and returned (permanently) disabled.

Burgundian-Habsburg princely account books and financial accounts of a few representative towns regularly sending off their militia in the armed conflicts of the 15th and 16th centuries (Bruges, Mons, Mechelen, Lille), allow to observe how different, sometimes competing, authorities in a highly urbanized area were taking care of “their” soldiers, or indeed sometimes failed to do so, before the emergence of specialized dynastic institutions in the Early Modern period. Through the analysis of these financial accounts, complemented by memoirs of few soldiers (Haynin, La Marche), this paper hence examines the changing relation of towns and princes to “their” disabled soldiers, as well as changing expectations of the latter towards these authorities. The growing care for disabled soldiers and their families, first by the towns, then by the dynasty, reflects both changing power relations between prince and cities and the changing status of the soldier in the 15th and 16th century Burgundian-Habsburg Low Countries.

  1. The actual disabilities

February 1, 2024 – Bianca FROHNE (Kiel University, Germany) – „What pain I suffered during that time, anyone can well imagine…“ Experiences of War, Injury, and (Chronic) Pain (15th-16th centuries).

In this paper I will discuss (chronic) pain experiences in the later Middle Ages from disability studies and crip perspectives, focusing on pain narratives in late medieval life writing and literary accounts. Descriptions of physical and/or emotional pain are hard to find in the context of war, injury, and violence, and those which can be accessed usually follow strict discursive norms. For example, knight Götz of Berlichingen, who lost his hand in battle, mentions the physical pain he suffered only briefly in his lengthy autobiography. Instead, he focuses on the emotional pain his perceived inability to fight and his imagined future as disabled knight caused him.

Based on this and other examples I am going to focus on pain narratives with emphasis on the temporalities of pain. Temporality is a valuable category of analysis in disability research. Among others, concepts such as crip time and futurity encourage us to look at experiences of disability, illness, and pain in premodern cultures from a new perspective.

March 7, 2024  – Sasha PFAU (Hendrix College, Arkansas, USA) – Traumatic Repercussions: Warfare and Disability in the French Countryside.

In four letters of remission from 1424, some residents of a town in the diocese of Bayeux explained to the English government of France how they had banded together to attack two English men in November of 1417, shortly after Henry V’s army had overtaken Caen. Their requests for pardon were written against the background of national events, where shifting loyalties on the level of the realm had repercussions in local communities. Between 1417 and 1424 the political landscape in France had transformed. Fundamental questions about the very constitution of the French realm, French identity, and the relationship between the French and the English were at stake. With an English king on the throne, actions that might in other contexts have appeared as a commendable and heroic defense of the village against enemies of the realm, were construed as the murder of loyal soldiers and subjects of the king. These conflicts over changing identities and shifting boundaries between enemy and friend were relatively common in this period. This presentation will consider the traumatic repercussions of warfare in the French countryside, focusing particularly on the way remission seekers characterized their responses in terms of mental stress, trauma, and illness.

April 4, 2024 – Christopher KNÜSEL (University of Bordeaux, France) – “So badly disfigured that he will ever be an object of pity, and unable to gain a living, except in seclusion from society.”

(Quotation from a medical description of a facially wounded soldier who had received an early form of reconstructive surgery in Barnes, J.K. (1870). The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (1861-1865). Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, page 368.)

Conflict-related wounds leading to physical and mental impairment often entail social disability, social exclusion or reduced participation, especially for those injuries which have visible physical and behavioural manifestations. While physical impairments may more easily be ascertained from skeletal effects, mental impairment is more difficult to identify directly from the analysis of human remains, but are just as likely to lead to long-term disability that may have been recognized in the past and influenced community reactions. These can sometimes be inferred from grave contexts, their location, and funerary treatments. To identify mental impairment from head trauma requires argument from analogy with more recent cases documenting consequences of comparable injuries reported in the medical literature. Advancements in diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation of modern cases weakens their use for the past, however. Historical documents, which are more prominent from the Classical and Medieval periods, and, especially, those of early modern date, are more germane due to the absence of antibiotics that alleviate post-injury and post-surgical infections—a great danger in the pre-antibiotic era— while facilitating healing. Survivors of head injury provide unique insights into the nature of long-term incapacity. This presentation considers some examples of conflict-related trauma from archaeological and historical perspectives.




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