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Wednesday, 23 February 2011

In the thick of battle

If you're interested in the statistics of medieval warfare but don't want to go so far as to actually join the SCA, here's an in-depth CSI-style analysis of the Battle of Towton in 1461.

Some highlights:

"[He] suffered eight wounds to his head that day. The precise order can be worked out from the direction of fractures on his skull: when bone breaks, the cracks veer towards existing areas of weakness. The first five blows were delivered by a bladed weapon to the left-hand side of his head, presumably by a right-handed opponent standing in front of him. None is likely to have been lethal."

"In a letter sent nine days after the battle George Neville, the then chancellor of England, wrote that 28,000 men died that day, a figure in accord with a letter sent by Edward IV to his mother. England’s total population at the time is thought not to have exceeded 3 million people. George Goodwin, who has written a book on Towton to coincide with the battle’s 550th anniversary in 2011, reckons as many as 75,000 men, perhaps 10% of the country’s fighting-age population, took the field that day."

"The men whose skeletons were unearthed at Towton were a diverse lot. Their ages at time of death ranged widely. [...] The youngest occupants of the mass grave were around 17 years old; the oldest was around 50. Their stature varies greatly, too. The men’s height ranges from 1.5-1.8 metres (just under five feet to just under six feet), with the older men, almost certainly experienced soldiers, being the tallest. As a group the Towton men are a reminder that images of the medieval male as a homunculus with rotten teeth are well wide of the mark. The average medieval man stood 1.71 metres tall—just four centimetres shorter than a modern Englishman. It is only in the Victorian era that people started to get very stunted. [The Towton soldiers'] health was generally good. Dietary isotopes from their knee-bones show that they ate healthily. Sugar was not widely available at that time, so their teeth were strong, too."

"Arrows were not the only things flying through the air that day. Some of the first bullets were, too. The Towton battlefield has yielded up the earliest lead-composite shot found in England. [Archaeologists] think [they] may have found a fragment of a handgun, which was small enough to be carried around and probably set down on a trestle table or small carriage to be fired."

"The stress of [close quarters] fighting was immense: a few of the Towton skeletons had been clenching their teeth together so tightly that bits of them splintered off."


  1. Most rpg damage systems are a far cry from the brutal wounds that these people suffered.

    "The stress of [close quarters] fighting was immense: a few of the Towton skeletons had been clenching their teeth together so tightly that bits of them splintered off."

    I never thought about that. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  2. Yes, but most RPG damage systems don't deal with battles involving thousands lasting hours or days during wars that involve such niceties as conscription, forced marching, malnutrition, plague, etc over months or even years.

    They deal with duels or squad-sized encounters that are over fast, involving trained professionals with psychological predispositions for such activities (i.e. adventurers); certainly the stress levels of PCs are minimal compared to the average real-life medieval soldier.

    And the ubiquitousness of magical healing should be of some help dealing with those "brutal wounds".


  3. Anaonymous-

    So at some point in a PC's life do you think that they went through this stage where they had to deal with the stress of fighting in duels or are most adventurers better at coping with these situations naturally?

    That could open some story possibilities.

  4. In reality, if anybody lived with the constant levels of danger that a PC goes through, they would be a nervous wreck if they survived into their 30s. The only exceptions (maybe) are adrenaline-junkies and sociopaths. Of course, a lot of PCs are played as sociopaths so that makes sense.

    Wrt magical healing - it's not exactly on tap in our Legend campaigns. You might be able to find a witch or conjurer type to use a bit of "cunning" on those wounds, but most of the time you just have to soldier on. (Hence the term.)

  5. Finally, Warhammer fantasy had a quite realistic system, with its rules for mental disease and for surgery...