By Kathryn Walton
Medieval literature often depicts knights slaughtering their foes in brutal battles. The focus is usually on the glory of the knights and of the battle. But what happened to the bodies after the battle was done?
‘Tis the season for dead bodies. The onset of the Halloween season in any country that celebrates the holiday means that suddenly we are inundated with stylized images of dead bodies. Skulls, skeletons, and corpses line the shelves of stores. My Netflix page suggests movies that promise high body counts or frightening encounters with the walking dead. People dressed up like ghosts, skeletons, vampires, and zombies wander the streets asking for candy. Images of death and bodies are everywhere.
All these images of dead bodies have gotten me thinking about corpses in the Middle Ages. My thoughts, however, are not on the stylized, fantastical images of dead bodies that tend to appear on Halloween. Instead, I’ve been thinking about real dead bodies, and especially the bodies left on a battlefield after a big battle had finished. Macabre, I know. Dark, I know. Gross, I know. But…what happened to all those bodies?
Battles in Medieval Literature
Lengthy and effusive accounts of battles are common in medieval literature. Chronicles, epics, and romances often depict kings, lords, and knights riding around on horseback in their armour chopping each other to bits. Usually these battles are accounted in a way that glorifies whoever the hero of the battle might be.
That person (the mighty hero) is usually responsible for a massive body count. This varies, of course, according to the text and the genre, but usually, and especially in the Middle English tradition, heroes are celebrated for their kills.
King Arthur in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, for example, is celebrated for slaying many people in his first battle. His most effective knights too, like Lancelot and Gawain, are frequently praised because they can kill many people in battle. There is a Gutenberg version of Malory’s text available freely online here if you want to read over some of these massive battles.
While body counts glorify the knights in these texts, the authors don’t typically pay a whole lot of attention to what happens to these bodies after the battle is done.
Unless, that is, the corpse belongs to the mighty hero.
If the knight has a very high name recognition (like Lancelot or Gawain), or, if they are the hero of their text, they will often get an elaborate funeral sequence.
When Gawain dies in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, for example, King Arthur cries over him and takes him into a chapel in Dover Castle where he lies in state so that everyone can look at the impressive wound in his skull.
When the hero of the romance Guy of Warwick dies, he gets an even more extravagant funeral. First, one thousand and seven angels (yes, it is that specific) carry his soul to heaven, then his lady weeps over his body. After this, a sweet smell comes from his corpse and one hundred knights try to move the body but can’t because it is too heavy – both of these miraculous occurrences are markers of the knight’s saintliness. Finally, the mourners build a marble monument around him and conduct an elaborate funeral service. You can read the full thing in Middle English here. These two funerals give you a sense of the respect afforded to wealthy and influential corpses.
The everyday participants in a battle, however, didn’t get these elaborate funerals. They usually don’t even get mentioned at all.
Less Glorious Deaths
After an insignificant knight or an enemy combatant is killed in battle they pretty much fall out of the narrative. They have served their role of glorifying the heroic knight and nothing more is said of them. Focusing on the leftover carnage and decaying bodies would not further glorify the knight and would not be popular reading material, especially in the very idealized genre that is romance. So, we don’t have a whole lot of information about what happened to all those corpses.
But we do have some. Malory himself gives us one image of the less than glorious fate of some battlefield bodies. After the final battle of Le Morte D’Arthur Malory presents an image of a field covered in corpses. He does so, in part, to emphasize the end of the glorious reign of King Arthur and the needless death and destruction that came about as the kingdom fell. Malory himself was a knight who saw many battles during the War of the Roses (if he is who we think he is). He would therefore have seen many of the brutal realities of war.
In Malory’s reality, bodies left on the battlefield were robbed.
After the final battle of King Arthur’s reign, a mortally wounded King Arthur is carried to a nearby chapel. Once he is gone, he hears grievous cries coming from the battlefield. He sends Sir Lucan back to see what is going on. This is what Sir Lucan sees:
Pillers and robbers were come into the field, to pill and to rob many a full noble knight of brooches, and beads, of many a good ring, and of many a rich jewel; and who that were not dead all out, there they slew them for their harness and their riches.
With this image Malory wants to reinforce the fallen glory of Arthur and his knights who are now prey to common robbers and pillagers. But the image also gives us some hint about what might have happened to bodies after battles ended. Having seen many battles, Malory may have been drawing on memory or experience here.
Knights and other fighters in a battle would have carried things of value with them: weapons and armour of course but also other riches as Malory suggests here. After the battle was over these things would have been free for the taking. It would have been a gruesome process, but in all likelihood enterprising individuals in the area would have robbed the corpses of anything of value. Not exactly a glorious ending.
The fates of other battlefield bodies in historical accounts were equally less glorious.
Buried, Rotting, or Burnt
Historical records give us some further idea about what might have happened to battlefield bodies. Many corpses left on the battlefield would, of course, be buried. Christopher Daniell’s book Death and Burial in Medieval England, 1066-1550 indicates that in the Middle Ages, people preferred to bury bodies in consecrated ground. This would not always have been possible after a battle, but nevertheless, mass graves were sometimes dug to bury battlefield corpses. Several such mass graves have been discovered. You can read about one on page 138 of Daniell’s book.
Bodies would also be left to rot on the battlefield. Daniell says that it “was very rare for a person not to be buried” but that one major exception was when bodies were left to rot on battlefields. If the battle was very large or if the winning side wanted to disrespect the bodies of the fallen enemy, they would simply leave them to rot. This could also happen during a siege as Daniell suggests; he gives one example where during the Agincourt campaign bodies were left to rot in the streets of Harfleur.
Bodies on battlefields might also be burnt. William of Malmesbury reports one instance when during a crusade the bodies of the fallen were piled up and burnt for fear of disease spreading. According to Daniell this was rare, and there was not often a connection made between the spread of disease and rotting corpses.
Medieval Attitudes Towards Death
The fates of bodies on battlefields varied according to the circumstances of the battle. But the fate suffered by many was obviously less than glorious. This less than glorious treatment does not, however, mean that medieval people were in any way disrespectful of death and burial practices: quite the opposite.
Medieval people closely connected the body and the soul, and so the fate of a body after death was of utmost importance. Death on the battlefield was unusual, and so the ill-treatment of the bodies after the fact was also unusual. The treatment of the bodies probably speaks more to the politics of the battle than to the degree of respect afforded to the dead in the Middle Ages.
In any case, it’s no wonder that the literature of the time doesn’t dwell on the fate of battlefield corpses. It’s also no wonder that the version of dead bodies that we tend to see around Halloween doesn’t look much like the real version. That version is much too gross, much too dark, and much too smelly for a children’s holiday.
I too, having answered my question, will stick with the idealized, fantasized versions of corpses that lines the shelves of stores around Halloween. They’re so much more fun than the historical reality.
Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.
Top Image: British Library MS Royal 19 B XV fol. 23v