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The emotional impact of war

A perspective from the early medieval west, c.841AD

By Robert Evans @R_AH_Evans

This week we remember the human cost of military conflict. We think not only of the millions killed and wounded but also about the unseen impact of war on human minds and emotions.

The psychological and emotional costs of war are far better known about and studied than they used to be. The conflicts of the last century are increasingly studied with this in mind.[1] Similarly, the mental wellbeing of our own armed forces remains an important political issue.[2] The emotional cost of war is not, however, a new consideration. Although the nature of fighting (and its cultural context) differs according to time and place, the modern and medieval soldier often had a great deal in common when it came to emotional experience.

Evidence for this can be found in the testimonies of two ninth-century Frankish warriors: Nithard and Angilbert. They fought on opposite sides at the battle of Fontenoy (near Auxerre in modern-day France) on 25th June, 841. The battle was between the sons of Emperor Louis the Pious, whose death the previous year had precipitated a succession crisis. Frankish society was strongly militaristic. Under the Emperor Charlemagne (d.814), the Franks had built an empire stretching across western Europe.[3] Now, for the first time in living memory, Frank was drawing sword against Frank.

Before his death in 844, Nithard wrote an extensive history of the succession crisis and civil war.[4]  His history is packed with details about the attempts to avoid bloodshed and the decisions which led to battle. The account builds up to the crescendo of the two armies joining battle, at which point the detail dries up. Nithard briefly summarises the armies’ manoeuvres in a few words and then writes:

The enemy army attacked Adalhard and the others at Solemnat. I gave them all the help I could, thanks to God helping me. The fighting was fierce. Although inconclusive, eventually the enemy fled.[5]

Nithard’s sudden reticence about the fighting itself is jarrs with his otherwise detailed narrative. This silence has disappointed military historians, who feel robbed of an important eyewitness account. Nithard’s reticence, however, is similar to the unwillingness of many modern veterans to discuss and relive their experiences. His silence seems less like a careless omission and more like an emotional response.

Angilbert did not write a history but a short poem about the battle.[6] Like Nithard, Angilbert does not want to talk about the battle in detail. Instead, he demands it be forgotten.

This battle is not worthy of praise, not fit to be sung…

let not that accursed day be counted in the calendar of the year,

rather let it be erased from all memory, may the sun’s rays never fall there.

This stands in striking contrast to the norms of the existing warrior culture. Chronicles and poems normally celebrated victories. Monasteries remembered these anniversaries in their liturgical calendars.[7] The memory of Fontenoy was, however, so painful for Angilbert that he would rather forget the battle entirely.  

Such pain is particularly understandable when, like Nithard, Angilbert tells us his own role.

I, Angilbert, fighting alongside the others, saw this crime unfold

…I alone of many from the first line of the army remained.

When the battle lines clashed, Angilbert had seen the fiercest fighting. He also seems to have been the only one in his comrades to have survived. It is possible to see some sort of survivor’s guilt at work, which would explain Angilbert’s anger and desire to forget and mourn.

These testimonies were not entirely devoid of hope. Nithard attributed his very survival to God with a sense of relief. This is one of the few times he mentions God directly as an author. Angilbert also saw God’s hand at work: ‘the powerful hand of God guarded Lothar’ (his king). He also ended his poem by inviting the reader to pray for those who had fallen. Both soldiers, therefore, looked for comfort in their Christian faith.

Fontenoy was long remembered as a tragedy, just as we remember the First World War today. Sixty years later, the chronicler Regino of Prüm called Fontenoy the day when ‘the Franks lost their virtus [strength or manhood’. Anyone reading the experiences of Nithard and Angilbert, can see why.

Siege warfare from the Golden Psalter of St Gall

Siege warfare from the Golden Psalter of St Gall


[1] Alexander Watson, Enduring the Great War: combat, morale and collapse in the German and British Armies,1914-1918 (Cambridge, 2008); Ben Shephard, A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists 1914-1994 (London, 2002). The overall human cost of the Second World War is brilliantly sketched by Tony Judt, Postwar: a history of Europe since 1945 (London, 2007), pp. 13-40.

[2] ‘Troops face “growing mental health cost” of Afghan war’, BBC 12th May 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-27365003.

[3] Matthew Innes, Simon MacLean, and Marios Costambeys, The Carolingian World (Cambridge, 2011).

[4] Janet Nelson, ‘Public Histories and Private History in the Work of Nithard’, Speculum 60 (1985), pp. 251-293.

[5] My own paraphrase.

[6] Bernard Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire (Philadelphia, 2001), pp. 133-135.

[7] See Rosamond McKitterick, History and Memory in the Carolingian World (Cambridge, 2004).

One Comment Post a comment
  1. There is some evidence that the ancient Greeks suffered PTSD as a result of their wars. It is likely a normal human accompaniment to such action, one given recent intensity by the way warfare has been industrialised.

    November 11, 2015

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