Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Battle of Towton, 1461

The Battle of Towton in 1461 was the biggest battle in the Wars of the Roses. At least 50,000 men participated, some say 75,000, and contemporaries said 28,000 men were killed. Whatever the numbers, it was certainly a big and bloody affair, and it allowed the Yorkist Edward IV to seize the throne from his Lancastrian cousins.

The Economist has a great article on the archaeology being done at the battlefield, especially the analysis of 40 skeletons from a mass grave nearby:

The men whose skeletons were unearthed at Towton were a diverse lot. Their ages at time of death ranged widely. It is easier to be precise about younger individuals, thanks to the predictable ways in which teeth develop and bones fuse during a person’s adolescence and 20s. The youngest occupants of the mass grave were around 17 years old; the oldest, Towton 16, was around 50. Their stature varies greatly, too. The men’s height ranges from 1.5-1.8 metres (just under five feet to just under six feet), with the older men, almost certainly experienced soldiers, being the tallest.

This physical diversity is unsurprising, given the disparate types of men who took the battlefield that day. Yet as a group the Towton men are a reminder that images of the medieval male as a homunculus with rotten teeth are well wide of the mark. The average medieval man stood 1.71 metres tall—just four centimetres shorter than a modern Englishman. “It is only in the Victorian era that people started to get very stunted,” says Mr Knüsel. Their health was generally good. Dietary isotopes from their knee-bones show that they ate pretty healthily. Sugar was not widely available at that time, so their teeth were strong, too.

Laid out on a laboratory bench in the University of Bradford’s archaeology department, the biggest of the soldiers still look burly (though their bones, without any collagen in them, are incredibly light to handle). They seem to have led active lives. Bone grows in response to strenuous muscular activity, particularly if exercise starts in childhood. For instance, the serving arm of a professional tennis player has as much as a third more bone in it than his non-dominant arm.

Some of the Towton men display the same type of unusual bone density. But it is distributed in a very unmodern way: their upper-arm bones are very well-developed towards the right shoulder and the left elbow. The medieval longbow, which placed huge stress on both the drawing arm and the arm that held the bow steady, may have been responsible. Towton 16 has something known as an avulsion fracture to his left elbow, a condition first clinically identified among young baseball players in America. This injury occurs only in adolescence, when the bones in the arm have not yet fully fused, and may have been caused by attempts to practise with an adult longbow. In 1420s England the teenage Towton 16 was suffering from Little Leaguer’s Elbow.

Fascinating stuff.

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