Culture and Stress

No, this is not a post about angst in academic places, or the latest museum display fight (I’m sure there is one going on, somewhere.) It is about how culture affects how people react to stresses. Sort of, since I’m not a psychiatrist, or psychologist, and I don’t play one on TV.

What brought this to mind was Peter Grant’s post about the upcoming Robin Hood movie.

I freely admit, I laughed at Robin Hood: Men in Tights because the Costner version was just too, too  much. Give me Errol Flynn, please, or Disney. Foxes are cool. BBC’s Robin of Sherwood had an intriguing take, and yes, I love, love the soundtrack.

But in the new movie Robin has PTSD that apparently manifests in ways that Hollywood thinks modern military and others show the effects of PTS and PTSD.

Screech CRASH!  Huh?

What caught my attention was a little niggle of memory, about an article I read last year. So I went hunting through my back issues of Medieval Warfare and indeed, there was an article about the Teutonic Knights and their apparent problems with what today we might call Post-Traumatic Stress.

Huge caveat here: medieval minds, any pre-modern mind is different from ours, in ways historians are just barely starting to sort out, if we ever can. The past is a different country, they do things differently there, and while people are people are people, how they understand and explain the world can be really, really strange to out modern take on things. With that in mind, here’s a thought-provoking take on the mental world of the Teutonic Order.

To distill a great deal of writing and hypotheses, the author wondered if the appearances of the Virgin Mary to particular knights and brothers not long after major battles and enemy encounters might be a manifestation of post-trauma stress. The men lived in a culture where religion was all-encompassing, in a region that had been dedicated to the Virgin by the crusaders, in a time when veneration of the Virgin Mary was one of the most popular forms of devotion and strongly encouraged. What would be more comforting or encouraging than an appearance of Our Lady? What greater confirmation of the rightness of the knights’ and brothers’ actions than their heavenly patron herself appearing, even briefly and in private, to reassure or comfort?  The knights and their superiors treated the visions as genuine and took encouragement and comfort from them in times of crisis and stress.

To me, that would have been a far more culturally-logical result of Robert of Loxley’s difficulties during the Crusade, if he had them. But that would require Hollywood to 1) know of the article several years before it came out, 2) take the idea seriously and 3) take the Crusaders’ faith seriously enough to use that, which would make the story Hollywood had in mind… not work so well.

The other thing that came to mind was a post the psych-blogger Dr. Sanity had about schizophrenia, psychoses and culture. She observed that people from different cultures saw different things when they hallucinated. In the US, it might be the CIA out to get someone, or little green men. A gent from India saw rakshasas, the Hindu spirits, and knew they were plotting against him. It made perfect sense to me at the time reading it, because that was what the man grew up with, probably hearing stories and seeing pictures of the creatures, and that was what his mind turned to when things started going off-kilter.

So why would medieval knights not see Christian saints or demons? Why would they not find assistance (or condemnation, if they knew something they’d done or their leaders had done was wrong) in the culture that immersed them, medieval Christianity?

That would be more interesting to me than “medieval warrior with post Vietnam PTSD-as-imagined-by-Hollywood.” And harder to write.


(Which may be why the muse keeps poking me with the Livonian and Teutonic orders. What if there really had been something nasty up in that part of the world, something that needed more than just a little holy water to be discouraged or banished?)

Welcome, Instapunderati! Thank you for visiting. If you are interested in a character who copes with pretty horrible PTS and manages to claw her way through, the Cat Among Dragon books might be something for you to consider. Alexi, of Alexi’s Tales, is another, lighter, take.


20 thoughts on “Culture and Stress

  1. PTSD as a reason/excuse for peoples actions really annoys me. Throughout most of human history, and for that matter still in most of the world today, PTSD was the norm. PTSD for humans is far more normal than the unstressed state that so many first-worlders find themselves in today.

    • Very good point – another ‘First World Problem’, and another example of how many people don’t realize how good (and easy) life right now is in North America and Western Europe.

    • So the proper behavioral accommodations for the tumblrina PTSD claimers demanding a safe space would be the etiquette of, say, the nineteenth century?

      • You mean cutting them socially and pretending that they don’t exist? I’d strongly consider it, except they wouldn’t understand and would keep pestering us. And slapping them, or splashing them with water, to break the hysterical fit is probably considered gauche now days.

        • Wait, what about eighteenth century etiquette? Water pistols for two and therapy cat for one. Unfortunately, the cat needs more therapy, so good luck with that.

          PTSD nowadays looks like an endless series of treatment and medication by increasingly atheist “experts,” and less prayer or physical channeling of energy into action. I’ve experienced this process, and loathed the resulting learned helplessness.

          Action can relieve some of the stressors and possibly defuse some of the trauma connections, but gives them something positive, measurable, and noticeable to accomplish. PTSD after a CRUSADE?!? The ultimate pilgrimage?? Maybe the Beeb people need a three day fast and vigil in the cathedral at Canterbury, followed by the Henry II penance.

  2. Robin Hood did not go to the crusades. King Richard and his men were away to the crusades, that a crucial element of the plot. It’s the entire reason why Prince John is sitting upon the throne, and why the Sheriff keeps raising taxes. Robin Hood being a soldier come home from the crusades wasn’t a thing until the Costner movie, where it was an excuse to get Easy Reader into the movie.

    Next thing you know, the bears will be at home when Goldilocks busts down the door with a chainsaw and a one-liner.

    ** This is my Peeve. It soothes me to pet and care for it. **

    Yes, I completely agree that Hollyweird (this includes the BBC in its penumbra and emanations) can’t tell a story from true history (or even true mythology), or indeed anything not written in the most current Ingsoc newspeak. All they do now is duckspeak the dayorder as bellyfeeling goodthinkers, because it makes them feel doubleplusgood to love Big Brother.

    • That too. Apparently no one in Hollywood ever bothers to go back to the source material, or even Howard Pyle’s version of the source material. Probably because that would require knowing where to look, and then reading the stories.

    • King Richard isn’t even mentioned in some of the earlier Robin Hood tales.

      There was a different King mentioned (can’t remember which one) some of the early tales.

    • I know I encountered a version that had Robin returning from crusade, and the events took place while Richard was locked up incommunicado in Austria, sometime before the horrible Costner movie.
      Can’t come up with the much more than that, though.

      • There were several novels that used that idea (Robin returns, King John/the Sheriff has taken his lands/is being unjust, King Richard appears and sets things to rights), of varying quality and literary-ness. May have also appeared in some TV series and other movies. I’m not a Robin Hood expert by any means.

  3. Not going to waste my money… Even today, people ‘manifest’ PTSD differently. Anyone who has been in the military is a changed individual, it is the LEVEL of change that is the core issue.

    • I was changed some by the service, but no PTSD. Nobody shot at me; nobody physically assaulted me. Sure, I was locked into smallish rooms, and larger ones, but we locked ourselves in.

  4. This is the first I’ve heard of the Robin Hood movie (I’ll click the link to Peter’s post in a minute), but based on what I’ve read here, I will avoid it like the plague.

  5. Hmm. I’m musing about doing something with a PTSD ‘Nam vet Merlin to Trump’s Arthur. It’d be on par with official journalistic record for quality, and it’d be entertaining to how many outright claiming to be nonfiction sources repeated it..

  6. If people thought differently in Medieval Age, wouldn’t they necessarily manifest PTS differently? Wouldn’t PTS operate differently in their minds?

    • Did they think differently? In some ways it seems yes, in some ways it seems no. Yes, it would, especially if the “stress” aligned better with their cultural beliefs. But they are still people, and people tend to follow some patterns no matter which culture they belong to, and to have some responses in common.

      That’s the problem with the movie – Robin Hood, per folk tradition, lived in the late 1100s-early 1200s (King John version) or around 1080-1100 (other versions). That is squarely in the medieval world, not the post-Vietnam world of Hollywood. We, historians, don’t know enough about the mental world of that time to know what the average English yeoman or lower noble, or peasant, or slave, or even monarch thought, how they processed events. We can guess, and some guesses make more sense than others (Freudian analyses of pre-modern minds is highly questionable, for example), but “the past is a different country; they do things differently there.”

  7. A few added stressors that might be unique to the Teutonic Knights, or at least to crusading warfare in the Baltic area. The first is that the Teutonic Knights were a religious order, an branch of the Roman Catholic church, whose ministry included military service, and also caring for the sick ( yes, the Teutonic Knights considered themselves a hospital order as well as a military order, and knights were often assigned duties in Order hospitals, sometimes as a punishment/humility check when they violated. rules). They followed the Holy Offices (more or less) which included religious services at all hours, frequent prayer, and fasting. They did have dispensation to break fast when on campaign, but there were also stories of Knights who went above and beyond the strict requirements and spent so much time on prayer and fasting that they couldn’t perform their military duties. Consider one of these “true believers” seeking forgiveness for some sin (maybe a slaughtered Lithuanian village on his last raid), he’s praying for hours to the Virgin, hasn’t eaten anything in the last day or two (except a mug of beer- it wasn’t forbidden during fast and he is German after all). A Livonian girl in a blue frock passes by on her way to milk the cows, and you have all the makings of a vision of Mary herself coming down to grant him forgiveness. I don’t know if this would count as a PTS incident, but the very real stress that the Teutonic Knights regularly inflicted on themselves was likely part of it.

    In addition, crusading warfare in the Baltic region included regular winter operations, that weren’t common elsewhere in medieval Europe . Due to the large marshy areas and the general climate, forces that depended on cavalry, especially heavy cavalry had difficulty operating during the wet times of Spring and Fall. The Teutonic Knights campaigned during the dry months of Summer and during the Winter when the ground was frozen and firm enough for armored knights to ride without sinking into the mud. These Winter raids were brutal, not only for the combat, but also for the battle against the cold. Frost bite and hypothermia can contribute to PTS as much as combat against human enemies.

    • Agreed. There’s a fascinating book called “The Prehistory of the Crusades” about the religious side of the early Baltic Crusades. Barnum Reynolds is the author.

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