Reading medieval literary texts as a martial artist: Head wounds in Middle High German literature.

Talk given by Dr. R. E. Miller at the SWASH event at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, January 2007

Medieval literary texts provide a valuable resource to the student of historical European martial arts, and one which, so far, has been very little exploited in British research, either by the historical martial arts community in particular, or by the academic community as a whole.

The value of medieval literary descriptions of combat lies in the fact that there is a great deal of material available to the researcher, much of it from a significantly earlier period than the extant fencing manuals. By way of comparison, one of the earliest French texts giving a detailed description of combat - single combats and battles between Christians and Saracens - is the Chanson de Roland ('Lay of Roland'), which was written during the last decades of the 11th century AD. There is a flowering of German literature describing combat between 1170 and 1250 AD. We possess, then, large numbers of texts from before the first fencing manual currently known, I.33 (the Tower Fechtbuch), as well as a sizeable body of material from the later Middle Ages.

In addition, medieval authors frequently wrote new versions of previously existing texts, sometimes in the same language, and sometimes as translated versions. This provides a valuable opportunity to compare the way in which the same single combat or battle is described by different authors, at different times, and often in different languages. For instance, the French Chanson de Roland mentioned above inspired two German versions: the first, the Rolandslied (a German version of the French title) written during the second half of the 12th century, by a cleric named Pfaffe Konrad. This text, although currently popular among academics, was not widely circulated at the time.

The second, written between 1210 and 1250 by an author known only as 'der Stricker' (meaning a weaver or knitter, possibly a 'spinner of tales'), is Karl der Grosse ('Charles the Great' = Charlemagne) and was much more widely copied at the time. Some fifty manuscript versions were written. It is generally accepted among academics that the Rolandslied is the direct inspiration for Stricker's Karl, and the two texts are frequently very similar. Comparative study of the depictions of battle in the three different versions of the Roland story, however, shows differences not only between the French original and the two German versions, but also between the two German texts. Many of these differences are of great interest from a martial point of view, concerning among others the tactics of the commanders of the Christian and Saracen forces, the details of mass cavalry combat, and the importance of the actions of the leader in maintaining morale among his men.

It is also important to note the type of audience for whom these texts were written. Even in cases where the authors of the texts (like Pfaffe Konrad and der Stricker) were not themselves knights, and hence would not be expected to have first-hand knowledge of combat as a participant, both they and their audience would certainly have some degree of experience of combat as a spectator. Whether single combat or mêlée, combat in general was far more prevalent in medieval society than it is in today's Britain: it was used not only to resolve territorial disputes (through battle) or to resolve individual issues (through the feud or the various forms of judicial combat), but also as a form of training and as a form of entertainment in the tournament. Both the tournament and the judicial combat were held in the open, and illustrations such as those found in the Manesse Codex (c. 1310) show the spectators reacting to the actions of the combatants, and judging their performance (see Manesse Codex).


It cannot however be denied that medieval literary texts do present challenges to the student of martial arts. These are not texts devoted to straightforward instruction in the use of weapons, as the fencing manuals are. The literary depictions of combat frequently include obvious exaggerations (for instance, in battle the hero charges into the thick of the foe, kills a hundred of them, then returns unscathed to his own lines). The texts are also written in a style that seems alien to the modern reader, being highly formulaic and repetitive.

Perhaps most problematic is the fact that the texts often contain little of the detail that interests students of historical martial arts in particular; namely, the actual detail of combat: the guards used, the distance maintained, the particular way in which the sword-hilt is to be gripped, the position of the hands and feet and so on. In the three versions of the Roland material mentioned above, for instance, the only detail given on how the combatants hold their swords is that usually, they are held in one hand, but on occasion, in order to strike a particularly heavy blow, one or other character will take his sword briefly in both hands. In general, too, there is no mention of the direction of the sword-blows exchanged, which makes it impossible at first glance to identify the blows being struck or the guards being used. This makes it well-nigh impossible to identify whether the author is referring to any specific system of swordsmanship, or whether the style being described resembles that shown in any later manual.

Nevertheless, it is possible to glean more detail from these literary depictions than at first appears to be the case. Instead of looking at the descriptions of the sword-blows, for instance, we can examine the injuries caused by these blows whenever they are given, and identify the placement and effect of each blow. In doing this, we can also identify the patterns or trends in the depiction of injuries caused by sword-blows, as well as identifying those instances of injuries which appear unique.

Sword-blows and injuries in Stricker's Karl der Grosse

Stricker's Karl der Grosse provides an opportunity to demonstrate this process. The text describes how a Christian force, left in Spain after Karl's (Charlemagne's) army withdraws, is attacked from ambush by the Saracens. All the Christians, including their leader Roland, Karl's nephew, are killed, but they inflict heavy casualties on the Saracens and the survivors flee the field. Before he dies, Roland blows his horn to alert Karl, who returns and avenges their deaths by defeating a second Saracen army and killing its leader in single combat. Finally, the Christian nobleman who betrayed Roland and his men to the Saracens and set up the ambush is tried by judicial combat and executed.

The text contains 55 descriptions of single combat, all but two of which take place during one of the two battles depicted in the text. The combatants are almost always mounted, and most of the combats described are brief, as the two armies clash and retreat several times. During the course of these single combats, Stricker notes 26 injuries caused by sword-blows, which can be broken down as in the diagram below. Among other things, this diagram clearly shows the repetitive nature of Stricker's narrative style, in that he depicts only a small range of blows struck; but the choice of the blows he depicts suggests that he is aiming for a degree of realism in his account.

It is immediately obvious that the trend is clearly to vertical as opposed to horizontal blows. The great preponderance of sword-blows delivered are either downright blows or downwards diagonal blows which strike the opponent's head or shoulders. It is not clear whether the diagonal blows travel from left to right or vice versa. As one might expect, there is only one instance of a sword-thrust.

Of these blows, by far the greatest number are aimed at the opponent's head. (In one of the instances of a cut to the shoulder, the blow is initially aimed at the opponent's head, but he flinches aside, causing it to land on his shoulder instead.) One would, of course, expect the head to be a preferred target; in a mêlée the combatants would naturally aim to cause fatal damage as quickly as possible.

Injuries to the head resulting from these blows can be divided into two types: in the first instance, the sword-blade penetrates the helmet and often also the skull, splitting it apart 'down to the mouth' in one instance. In three cases, in fact, the blow continues through the opponent's torso and cuts the man completely in two - a heroic achievement known as the 'epic blow' and an case of blatant exaggeration that would have been as obvious to the original audience as it is to us today.

In the second instance, it is not clear to what extent the helmet itself is damaged, since the injury is caused not by the cutting action of the sword-blade, but by the concussive force of the heavy blow to the opponent's head. In these instances, effects include a gushing of blood from the ears, and in one case, the starting of the opponent's eyes from their sockets.

The great majority of the head-injuries described by Stricker are fatal, and in all cases but one death occurs instantaneously. The anomalous description is that of the death of Archbishop Turpin, one of Roland's twelve particular companions. The injury sustained by Archbishop Turpin falls into the second category described below, being caused by the concussive force of the blow rather than by the cutting action of the sword-blade. In all other respects, however, it differs radically from the other injuries depicted in the text.

The death of Archbishop Turpin

Turpin is one of the central figures of the Roland material, and in all three accounts the last Christian to die before Roland himself. His death is treated in considerable detail, both in Stricker's version and in Konrad's Rolandslied. On comparing the events in both texts, however, it becomes obvious that the death of Turpin differs strikingly not only from the other fatal head-injuries in Karl, but also from the account of Turpin's death in the Rolandslied.

In the table below are the events of the death of Archbishop Turpin in the Rolandslied and in Karl, with line references.

Rolandslied Karl
6604-07 Turpin is struck through the helm by a sword and falls from his horse. The Saracens shower him with lances and leave him for dead. 7772-76 Turpin is struck through the helm by a sword and falls from his horse. The Saracens shower him with spears and leave him for dead.
7844-47 Turpin lies as if dead for a while. A mighty blow has split his head.
6641-42 Turpin raises his sword once more. 7848-53 Covered with blood, Turpin rises to his feet and takes up his sword and shield.
6643-59 Fatally injured, Turpin continues to fight, killing many Saracens. 7854-55 Turpin continues to fight and kills many Saracens.
7856-63 Roland fetches a horse and Turpin remounts.
6660 Turpin is forced to retire briefly.
6661-72 Roland fights on; Turpin sees and recovers sufficiently to fight again. 7864-70 Roland and Turpin continue to fight.
6673-702 Roland blows his horn. Karl and his army respond. 7871-88 Turpin advises Roland to blow his horn; Roland obeys.
7905-14 The Saracens decide not to flee until Roland is dead.
7915-42 The Saracens mount a last assault on Roland and Turpin, surrounding Roland.
7943-68 Turpin comes to Roland's aid and the two fight together until Turpin's horse is killed by Saracen missiles.
7969-94 Roland blows his horn. Karl and his army blow their horns in response.
6703-28 The Saracens hurl missiles and then flee. 7995-8001 The Saracens flee.
6729-30 Turpin takes off his armour but the effort makes him stumble and fall several times. 8011-17 Turpin asks for help in taking off his armour as he is weakening. Roland unties the lacing and takes his helm off.
8018-21 Turpin's head falls in two. Only now is it clear that he is fatally wounded.
6731-52 Roland finds the bodies of his companions. 8022-49 Roland finds the bodies of his companions.
8050-71 Turpin asks for water before he dies. Roland is so distressed at the thought that he will have to watch his companion die that he almost faints.
6753-70 Turpin tries to fetch water for Roland but his eyesight fails and everything that is in him falls out. He falls dead. 8072 Turpin dies.

In Konrad's version, Turpin is struck on the helmet by a sword and dies approximately 100 lines later. It is obvious immediately after the blow is struck that he has been fatally injured, and he is clearly shown to be suffering from increasing weakness, being forced to retire briefly from the fray (Rolandslied line 6660). Once the Saracens flee, he is scarcely able even to remove his own armour. The impression given is that he is withstanding a fatal injury by sheer willpower.

In Stricker's version, Turpin's death follows approximately 300 lines after his initial injury, and he remains active for a significantly longer period. Crucially, although we are told that he is knocked unconscious by the blow (Karllines 7844-47), he seems to make a full recovery, and is able to return to assist Roland in the fight.1 He is able to converse rationally with Roland, and to convince him to blow his horn to alert Karl to their plight. When Roland is surrounded by Saracens making one last attempt to kill him, Turpin is even able to ride to his rescue, driving the Saracens off (Karl lines 7943-68). In Stricker's account, it is only once the Saracens flee, and Turpin and Roland begin to take off their armour, that Turpin begins to display signs of weakness, and it is only once Roland removes Turpin's helmet that it becomes obvious that he is about to die.

Although these may appear to be small differences between the two texts, they are significant. Stricker's account of Turpin's death, in contrast to Konrad's, appears to be an accurate description of how an individual would react to a heavy blow to the head of this type. From discussions with an acquaintance with experience of working in A&E departments, the medical account of what happens to Turpin is as follows:

Turpin receives a blow to the head that fractures his skull, but his helmet remains largely intact (Roland is able to remove it later by unfastening the laces). The helmet holds the fractured skull together, acting almost as a plaster cast, and the pressure inside Turpin's head is maintained at normal levels. After regaining consciousness, Turpin would experience a lucid interval, during which he would function normally and probably feel only localised pain to the head. He would very likely not be aware of the severity of his injury.2

The shock caused by the injury as well as the adrenaline surge of combat would keep Turpin's energy levels high, until the danger passed with the Saracens' retreat. At this point, he would begin to feel some weakness, and require assistance from Roland. Unfortunately, when Roland removes Turpin's helmet, he alters the pressure inside Turpin's skull, and allows the fracture to burst open, with fatal effects. It is also possible that Roland might inadvertently cause further injuries to Turpin at this point by forcing bone splinters into his brain.

The medically accurate details Stricker includes in his account of Turpin's death are, as demonstrated, not present in Konrad's version of the events, nor are they to be found in the Chanson de Roland, where Turpin dies from a lance-thrust; nor have I to date found an alternative source in other literature of the time. The most probable explanation is that Stricker himself had experience of such an injury and its results, possibly from being present at a tournament or a judicial combat as a spectator. The description of the Turpin's injury and death appears to have been taken from life.


The aim of this talk was to demonstrate that, in spite of the drawbacks associated with reading medieval literary texts as a martial artist, there are valuable details to be found in these accounts by the patient researcher. What at first appear to be hindrances, for example, the repetitive and formulaic nature of most of these texts, often turn out to be blessings in disguise; i.e. the very repetition makes identification of trends and patterns possible.

In the case of Stricker's Karl der Grosse, it is possible to identify not only the general trend towards downright or downwards diagonal blows to the head as the most common cause of death from sword-blow, but also the one distinct case in which the author draws on his own knowledge and experience of combat as a spectator in order to produce a more detailed and medically precise description of the results of a head injury than any found in his sources.

Many other medieval literary texts, both in French and German, are of great interest to the student of historical martial arts, and would repay further study along these lines. As of yet, the academic community has paid comparatively little attention to the depiction of combat in medieval literature, with the result that the field remains relatively open to new research. I do not of course suggest that medieval literary texts could form an alternative to the actual fencing manuals as a source of instruction, but taken in conjunction with the manuals, as I hope I have demonstrated, they are a resource of considerable and as yet untapped value.

(The material covered in this talk is drawn from my doctoral thesis, submitted to King's College, London, in 2006. The thesis itself will be published in 2008 under the title 'Single Combat and Warfare in German Literary Texts of the High Middle Ages: Stricker's Karl der Große and Daniel von dem Blühenden Tal', as part of the MHRA Texts and Dissertations Series.)

1 Although Stricker mentions that Turpin is covered in blood, this may not be his own. Stricker notes several times during the text that the ground on which Turpin falls is covered with corpses and soaked in blood.

2 Many thanks to Mr. Rob Lovett for making me aware of the term 'lucid interval' in reference to head injuries.