Soldiers Suffered From PTSD in the Middle Ages, Too


PTSD and moral injury are as old as mankind. (Image: Public Domain)

PTSD and moral injury are as old as mankind. (Image: Public Domain)


Often a component of Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome, moral injury is defined thusly by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

In the context of war, moral injuries may stem from direct participation in acts of combat, such as killing or harming others, or indirect acts, such as witnessing death or dying, failing to prevent immoral acts of others, or giving or receiving orders that are perceived as gross moral violations.

The only thing new about PTSD is the term (which was coined in the seventies); we can safely assume that’s the case with moral injury as well. In an important recent work of history, The Norman Conquest (Pegasus Books, 2012), Marc Morris depicts growing revulsion, four years after the Battle of Hastings, among some of William the Conqueror’s Norman forces at the war crimes they found themselves engaging in to suppress English rebellions.

Even by the competitive standards of the eleventh century, the king and his fellow warriors had been responsible for spilling an exceptionally large amount of blood. Indeed, it seems possible that some of he opposition the Conquereor faced during the campaign of 1069-70 [from his own troops] might have been due not merely to physical hardship but also to moral objections. … accounts of the Harrying [wholesale ravaging of the English countryside] suggest that, even in an age familiar with such atrocities, the scale of the human suffering was felt by some to be shocking.

William was acutely conscious of such criticism and the need to diffuse it. At an earlier stage in the Conquest, probably on the occasion of his victorious homecoming at Easter 1067, the bishops of Normandy had instituted a set of penances for those who had participated in the Hastings campaign; they survive in a fascinating document known today as the Penitential Ordinance. Since this was a highly unusual measure, and the Conqueror’s control over the Norman Church is well established, we can reasonably assume that he personally approved it, and regard it as a reflection of his ongoing desire to have his actions seen as legitimate.

Which, of course, was his main concern, not assuaging soldiers’ guilt. To continue:

In general the penances imposed by the Ordinance seem fairly heavy: ‘Anyone who knows that he killed a man in the great battle must do one year’s penance for each man he killed … Anyone who wounded a man, and does not know whether he killed him or not, must do penance for forty days for each man he struck’: by these reckonings the more practiced warriors in William’s army were going to be doing penance for an extremely long time. There were, however, other clauses designed to lighten the burden in certain circumstances. Archers, for example, who could not possibly know how many they killed or wounded, were permitted to do penance for three Lents. In fact, as another clause made clear, anyone unable to recall his precise body count could, at the discretion of his local bishop, do penance for one day a week for the rest of his life; alternatively, he could redeem his sin by either endowing or building a church. This last, of course, was the option chose by William himself. At some point in the early years of the Conquest, the king caused Battle Abbey to be founded on the site of the field of Hastings, its purpose both to commemorate the victory and atone for the bloodshed.

The provisions of the Ordinance also extended into the post-Hastings period, acknowledging that William’s men may have faced resistance when looking for food, but imposing stiffer penances for those who killed while in pursuit of plunder. The cut-off point was [William’s] coronation: any killings carried out thereafter were deemed to be regular homicides, willfully committed, and hence subject to regular (i.e. stricter) penalties. But once again there was an exception: the same special penances would apply even after the coronation, if any of those killed were in arms against the king. This, of course, meant that the Penitential Ordinance, although probably drafted in the months after Hastings, could also cover the years of violence that had followed.

As you can see, while Morris doesn’t describe the nature of most of the penance, this is a calibrated system of atonement for soldiers. Of course, because it was created for one set of believers, Christians, it could be detailed and exact. Besides, today, separation of church and state precludes the implementation of such a program. Still, if a guilt-ridden soldier seeks atonement, Veterans Administration psychologists could do worse than look to the Penitential Ordinance for a model.

It behooves us to bear in mind, though, that the need for a modern Penitential Ordinance, at least in the United States, would be greatly reduced if we didn’t implicate our soldiers in illegal or ill-advised wars in which moral injury is inevitable.