Five Ways to Die in Medieval Battle
Guest post by Erik Bear and Joseph Brassey, co-authors of the The Mongoliad, an alternative-history epic about a small band of warriors who stand between the Mongols and their conquest of 13th-century Europe.
Once upon a time, a bunch of ne'er do well writers decided they really should live up to the old adage of 'write what you know,' and so they decided to learn how to fight with swords—the right proper medieval way. It was all research, they told one another, for this long-form adventure novel they had decided to write collaboratively: The Mongoliad. The West, you see, has a long and vibrant history of martial arts, and what better way to showcase those arts than a secret history of what really happened in the fall of 1241 when the Mongol Empire came a-knocking.
Of course, research like this must start with a primer on the awful ways to die on a medieval battlefield:
1. Get hit with something heavy, sharp, and/or pointy
The first, and most obvious, way to die is at the end of an opponent's weapon. Armor made from chain link was widespread in the 13th century, which meant most fatal wounds came from stabs, deep cuts, or blunt force trauma (for the lucky). The unlucky typically got hacked in half.
In an era when leeches were the pinnacle of medical technology, festering wounds presented a very real and very disgusting danger. Putrefaction and gangrene meant that a deep cut to the arm could become so severe that you might wind up a cripple if the amputation process didn't kill you outright. Far more terrifying, however, was the likelihood of infection via blood-borne pathogens. That bloody sword that ruined your day out on the battlefield was most likely coated with the blood of every other person wounded before you. A wound might be cleaned, stitched and healed, only for the survivor to be stricken with disease days or weeks later.
3. Death from Above
If you were really unlucky, you might die before you even got to swing your sword. A skilled longbowman could fire an arrow to a range of 200 yards or more. Naturally, from that far away, it wasn't personal, but with a few thousand bowmen shooting in your general direction, odds were good you were going to get hit with something.
4. Get Burned Alive
It wasn't just arrows that fell out of the sky, either. There were all manner of catapults, ballistae, and trebuchets that were exceptionally capable of flinging all sorts of objects over long distances. Gravity was a bitch, even before they understood the science behind it. What was worse? A heavy object falling from the sky that was also on fire.
Now, some thought the one surefire way to not die in a medieval battle was to stay behind the solid rock walls of your castle. However, a patient army could camp around your castle and wait you out. This took real patience, though, because sometimes castles had stores that would last them a year or more. Impatient besiegers sometimes threw dead bodies and dung over the walls--the medieval plague bomb--hoping the people inside were dumb enough to inspect these unwanted surprises. Of course, nothing was more embarrassing than showing up for a siege and having to abandon it when you ran out of rations.
Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey, along with Greg Bear, Neal Stephenson, Mark Teppo, Cooper Moo and E.D. deBirmingham are the authors of The Foreworld Saga, which launched on April 24th, 2012 with The Mongoliad: Book One.