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Jared M. Olson

Location: South Bend, IN
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PostPosted: Tue 22 Aug, 2006 3:06 pm    Post subject: Medieval Physiology         Reply with quote

Does anyone have any knowledge about the physiology of the typical warrior during the middle ages? How do their bodily make up compare to the typical male today? I suppose everyone would fight if it came down to defending one's home, but were their physical standards for joining armies or becoming knights? I am 6'0 and 140 lbs. and I would guess that if I had lived in the 15th century, that I would be rather small to go into combat, but I could be way off in that regard. I seem to remember hearing that humans have grown progressively taller in the last few centuries. If anyone has any idea on this, I would love to hear it!
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Eric Allen

Location: Texas
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PostPosted: Tue 22 Aug, 2006 4:27 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

there is no straightforward answer to your question. Its sort of like asking "what is the physiology of a typical United States soldier." Again, there is no straightforward answer.

A few points, though:

Remember that the Middle Ages covers several centuries of human history and a period of significant social, economic, and technological change. What may be true for, say, the 10th century may not be true for the 12th, 14th, or 15th.

Many anthropologists do claim that human populations have, on average, gotten taller over the last few centuries. However, that trend breaks down if you go back further than, say, the early 19th century with the advent of the Industrial Age when healthcare was (by modern standards) lacking and more and more people were cramming into densly packed and polluted cities. People got shorter, then with better healthcare and nutrition in the 20th century started getting taller again.
As for the Middle Ages, it depends on when we are talking about. The average height for an adult in 10th century Anglo-Saxon England wasn't much diferent than the average Englishman today. the average height in the 14th century was shorter, however (an era of increasing population--black death not-withstanding--and increased urbanization), but in the grand scheeme of things, not by much (i.e. only a few inches, maybe half a foot at MOST).
Your size of 6-foot 140lbs certainly would not be out of the realm of possibility.

Now, a knight was typically of noble descent, and had to have money to maintain his expected lifestyle, as such we can probably assume that most knights were well-fed, with plenty of protein and fats (good for active lifestyles). If they exercised regularly, we can probably assume that many knights were in pretty good shape, and a number were likely in exceptional shape. Kind of like modern (non-steroid-popping) athletes an soldiers today, which are generally well-fed and exercise regularly.
After all, we are just human, as were they, and they were just as human as us. Nature worked the same way then as it does now, and puts the same restrictions on us.

On that same line of thought, lets look at the differences we see in modern athletes and such. One thing that some people, even some health-obsessed people, tend to forgetis that we can be in great physical shape in different ways, dependent on what we are doing. A marathon runner can run for long distances, but will likely not be as adept at, say basketball. A professional weightlifter will have a powerful body, but may lack the speed and agility necessary for playing football or swimming. We can be fit in different ways--and the way in which we are fit depends on the exercise we are doing. So what sort of exercises would a medieval knight be doing? Situps, pushups, running, swimming, and such likely, as well as perhaps drilling and sparring. what muscles do we use when practicing historically-accurate martial techniques? shoulders, arms, legs... these were what was getting exercised. I remember reading somewhere that a surprising number of skeletons of English longbowmen, those longbowmen who were quite experienced and had spent a lifetime drawing heavy bows, their skeletons tend to indicate that they had evceptionally powerful shoulder muscles--to the point a number of them were hunchbacked! (a knight or other soldier likely would not develop their bodyparts to this grotesque extent).

As for standing armies, I don't know of any "recruitment requirements," except perhaps being able-bodied enough to effectively wield a weapon and being willing to put your life on the line.
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Malcolm A

Location: Scotland, UK
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PostPosted: Wed 23 Aug, 2006 4:33 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi all; thought I would pitch with my penny's worth [though it may be worth a lot less than that]
Eric's comments are basically I believe from what I have read seen on TV etc; it makes sense especially regards the knight's health and physiology.
Regards the humble foot soldier there may well be quite a difference from the knight.
A retainer could expect to be in better health than a "peasant / farmer" if only because his boss / lord would be looking after him. A well fed healthy retainer is going to be of more use to a knight in combat than one that isnt.
Of course that costs money so a lord may not have many such retainers who would fight with him and would rely on filling out the army with "conscripts" who worked his land etc. Their health and physiology would likely be less than that of the retainers so only the best / biggest would be taken into the ranks. {or so I think}
I seem to remember that I read in a book that a summons was sent out around time of Battle of Townton which basically called for men who were sound of limb and big; not the exact words but I will check it out and see if I can give a proper reference.
English archers; it is certanily true that their continual practive with the longbow, required by law, did cause changes to their physiques. Skeletal remains have shown arm / shoulder bones that are substantially bigger than the norm. Not sure they ever ended up with "hunched" backs.
A TV programme shown in the UK featured a guy who had practiced with the long bow most of his adult life; when he was put through a scanner it was noticed that his bone structure had been affected by the archery practice. When you looked at him normally however he didnt seem particularly different.
Hope this has contributed a little to this excellent topic.
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Sean Flynt
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PostPosted: Wed 23 Aug, 2006 8:11 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

The War Curmudgeon Speaks (with apologies to Sports Curmudgeon Frank DeFord):

6' and 140 pounds? Look at the various illustrations of Talhoffer's fectbuch. If you're well-muscled, you're plenty fit for the slaughter, historically speaking.

Just look at contemporary portraits and surviving armours, especially from the 15th century. Best of all, look at illustrated historical fighting manuals ( ).These were not Conan types. Warriors often were extremely lean--muscular, but lean--like Lance Armstrong, not like American football defensive linemen. Modern expectations are conditioned by myth (hundred pound swords wielded by ignorant brutes!), self-flattery (what we value in our athletes is what everybody always must have valued in their warriors) and denial (the fat American behind doesn't represent the pinnacle of the human fighting physique?). Look at Talhoffer. Look at Froissart. Look at Dürer. There are some plowhorses in the mix, but even the men of robust frame are not flabby. For the most part, these men were more like weasels than pigs. Big Grin

For compelling forensic analysis of some of these men, see the book Blood Red Roses.


"Everywhere I have searched for peace and nowhere found it, except in a corner with a book"- Thomas a Kempis (d. 1471)
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Sean Flynt
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PostPosted: Wed 23 Aug, 2006 8:50 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Jan van Eyck's depiction of Adam & Eve (1432) shows what might reasonably be assumed to be a normal medieval physique.

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"Everywhere I have searched for peace and nowhere found it, except in a corner with a book"- Thomas a Kempis (d. 1471)
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John Cooksey

Location: NW Ark
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PostPosted: Wed 23 Aug, 2006 10:34 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

The Middle Ages are not exactly my specialty, but I am a biological anthropologist by training (if not vocation), so I can offer a few thoughts.
Just like Eric said, there are a number of ways in which the human body can be healthy. There is no one best "build" for a soldier. The popular ideal in the U.S. Army today is the whip-cord lean runner's build, but there are lots of soldiers who don't fit that bill.
When considering the Middle Ages, you don't want to just look at the long (in historical terms) time period being considered, but also at the huge geographical range of the European physical environments. The proper body type/physiology for a 10th century Danish warrior would not be at all the same as that for a 13th century Italian soldier.
Human body types (builds and statures) are adapted for a variety of natural environments. Hot climates demand lean, slender bodies with lots of surface area to dissipate heat. Cold climates require more massive bodies with relatively less surface area to generate and retain more heat. That's a generality, for sure, but a useful.
In medieval Europe, however, just like in modern North America, we see a mixture of these types as people migrate and interbreed. Gradually, over time, one should see a consistent type re-emerge if migration stops. Which it rarely does. :-)

The reason so many modern Americans seem "fat" is very simple-------most Americans are descended, in large part, from Northern European, cold-adapted, ancestors. Many of us, being at heart warmth-loving primates, seem bound and determined to live in warm, sunny climates that are bad for us. Our fair skin, designed to absorb as much UV as possible for vitamin D production, has no protection from the fierce sun of southern climes. We get skin cancer more rapidly and we visibly age at a faster rate (wrinkles and other sun-damage). Our metabolisms, designed to extract the utmost heat from limited amounts of food (mostly protein, originally, but with more carbs than protein in later periods), process our varied and rich diet too efficiently, resulting in a state of perpetual heat storage (fat-building).

Adult body size (stature and build) is based on genetic factors and on nutrition. More protein=bigger, usually. And healthier, in most populations.
To complicate the picture, one's stature is based not only on one's genetics and one's childhood nutrition, but is even connected to nutrition of one's mother and maternal grandmother. Developing ova (especially) and embryos are rather vulnerable to even slight imbalances in nutrition. One's mother's prenatal nutrition can have profound effects on the health and stature of her own offspring.

So, after saying all that, 6' and 140#????
You're good . . . . . (grin)
Though you could do to put on a few pounds . . . . . . . (says the 220# shorty who rather resembles a small, low-slung tank)

I didn't surrender, but they took my horse and made him surrender.
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Torsten F.H. Wilke

Location: Irvine Spectrum, CA
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PostPosted: Wed 23 Aug, 2006 1:11 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

This is a great subject! You guys certainly have me reading. I wonder what information can be gleaned from the surviving examples of armour, helmets, mail, and not to forget, weapons. I have heard that the older samurai blades where actually much smaller and thinner than today's replicas. But, I have also seen some very large looking suits of armour, even with allowances for the variable fit factor. Common sense seems to tell me (that's if I actually have any!) that we had the same assortment of people back then as we do have nowadays, except that everyone within the standard deviation under the Bell-curve could be categorized as just a little smaller. I'd surmise that most people of importance were the larger ones, except those notable over-achievers driven by Short-Man Syndrome.
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Eric Spitler

Location: PA
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PostPosted: Wed 23 Aug, 2006 1:59 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Torsten F.H. Wilke wrote:
I'd surmise that most people of importance were the larger ones, except those notable over-achievers driven by Short-Man Syndrome.

Yeah, except we like to just call it 'competence.'
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Steven H

Location: Boston
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PostPosted: Wed 23 Aug, 2006 3:13 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

A recent study, reported in the New York Times here , discusses the differences in body size and health over the last 150 years. The study looked at Union Army records from the mid 19th century to get a complete record of health for a large population of average people. In 1850 the average american male was 5' 7.5" tall and 146 lbs. Today the figure is 5' 9.5" and 191 lbs. An increase of two inches and 45 lbs.

Food and nutritional availability has increased enormously in the past 100 years. Today it is possible to buy all of the calories and nutrients necessary for an entire day for less than one hours pay at minimum wage (buy a box of cereal). However, a century ago the typical person was spending a significant portion (over one third) of there pay on food. Based on this it seems reasonable to expect that nutrition was not any better for the typical medieval soldier than it was 150 years ago. Nobility would clearly be different, but they represented a shrinking proportion of the soldiers at the time. (I'd be curious to compare something like landesknecht wages to contemporary food costs)


The Adam depicted earlier in the thread seems like a realistic image to me. I suspect, also, that warfare in heavy armor and with high lethality weaponry puts a premium on endurance physique and musculature.
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