Food, memorials to the dead and c15th PTSD – unravelling a long-forgotten mystery

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I recently perused a discussion on social media about whether medieval soldiers suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Opinion was divided between those who felt that Medieval men were, after all, men and therefore would respond to things as men do today, and those who felt that projecting modern ideas backwards 550 years is unjustified.

It is true that the term PTSD is of modern origin. But if we assume that men reacted to combat then as they do now, the emotional and mental health problems would be familiar to our ancestors. Reading in contemporary sources about the aftermath of the battle of Towton (29 March 1461), I was struck by the way the contemporary sources referred to often to the date (one early name for the battle was “Palm Sunday Field”). And then I discovered a little-known chronicle written by a monk of French origin named Brother Paul d’Houxbois source talking about the veterans suffering from what he termed “the marche paine”: “Those menne that foughter uponne Palme Sundaye Fyeld do say they oftentymes have euill dremes and see before them agayne and agayne what terrors they sawe uponne thatte daye. This do menne call ‘the marche payne’.”

His description chimes with that given by the American Psychiatric Association, which detailed the symptomns of PTSD as including “intrusive, recurrent recollections, flashbacks, and nightmares” (American Psychiatric Association:1994).

What distinguishes d’Houxbois from other chroniclers is that he goes on to propose a remedy. In all probability, d’Houxbois had some medical training – medieval doctors and surgeons frequently recommended a regimen of diet, rest or exercise. For “the marche payne” he recommended “a paste made of almandes and sucre mixed with rose water, whyche can balance the evyl humoures and restore reste to the tortured soule”.

The idea was also taken up by the wealthier survivors or the families of the dead, and a trend began of memorialising the higher-status victims by producing ‘subtleties’ (as the decorative centrepieces of c15th banquets were called), often consisting of the coat of arms of the person being memorialised rendered in ‘marchpaine’. Within a few decades, the original therapeutic reason for ‘marchpaine’ had been forgotten, and it had become merely a sweetmeat or delicacy for the rich (the same fate that befell such therapeutic substances as brandy, opium, cocaine and truffles).

References:
American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
D’Houxbois, Br. P et Sr Marie de la Baie – “Chronique de la grande concurrence de cuisson Britannique, 1457-62” (unpublished)

Jeff de Cuisine has been attempting to treat his own psychological problems with a diet consisting exclusively of truffles, marzipan, brandy, opium and cocaine, with which he has successfully transmuted his anxiety into bankruptcy and arrest.

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