The Hernia Truss as Knightly Equipment

þe stif mon steppez þeron and þe stel hondelez
dubbed in a dublet of a dere tars,
and a wonderlich wroȝt trosse he wore
for to sauve him of strain from stel briȝt,
and syþen a crafty capados closed aloft
þat wyth a bryȝt blaunner was bounden withinne

Sound familiar? For those of you who don’t recognize it, it’s the beginning of the arming scene from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but the third and fourth lines are my invention. I can see why no medieval author ever penned a line like that.

Hernias aren’t one of the glorious knightly injuries depicted in Arthurian literature, but for the real-world knight, they were a serious concern. The hernia truss was a common item included in a soldier’s protective gear. In Medicine in Medieval England, C.H. Talbot notes that “[e]ven men who did not suffer from hernia wore one as a precaution, particularly when they put on heavy armour and indulged in strenuous exercise.” [1]

Talbot gives a long quote from Roger of Salerno about how to make a hernia truss should the patient not wish to undergo surgery:

If a patient does not wish to undergo treatment by extraction of the member and by cautery, the hernia may thus be reduced. A mould is made of clay in the form of a shield with a hole in the middle. Melted lead is then poured into it so that it takes the form of the mould: when it has cooled, it should be taken from the mould and put on the ground, where it is gently pounded with a blunt hammer and pared with shears. It should then be sewn between two bands, as if in a bag, and when it is ready a plaster of apostolicon is put on the skin and the shield-shaped apparatus is applied, so that one of the bands hangs downward and passed between the buttocks. The ends are then tied over the kidneys. During sleep it may be removed and fastened on again in the morning. [2]

Movies and literature only show the glorious parts of knighthood. Even movies that contrast the despairs of knighthood with the glories never touch on the mundane aspects. Some medieval stories do involving garish “disgorgement of the bowels,” digestive organs doing messy things that they shouldn’t, but such a scene is usually in the context of a miracle story in which spiritual and physical healing is central. [3] If a knight in an Arthurian myth has a problem with his guts, it is probably a mortal blow dealt in battle.

When studying medieval romances, it’s easy to get carried away by the grand adventures and forget the realistic concerns that go with such a lifestyle. The knight-errant of Arthurian literature never existed, but the knight certainly did. Considering their mundane concerns brings their lives and risks into a realistic picture.

  1. Talbot, C.H. Medicine in Medieval England (London: Oldbourne, 1967), 94.
  2. Ibid., 89-90.
  3. Nugent, Patrick J. “ Bodily Effluvia and Liturgical Interruption in Medieval Miracle Stories.” History of Religions 41.1 (2001), 49-70.

Comments

The Hernia Truss as Knightly Equipment — 3 Comments

  1. So, how exactly was this thing worn? Was it basically a medieval butt-plug, or am I totally misinterpreting your quote? I’m having trouble linking the description of the manufacturing process with any sort of physical object.

    • Looking at a picture of a modern one would help (Google at your own risk). A hernia can involve many different internal organs, so the point of the medieval hernia truss was to apply pressure to the abdomen to prevent those organs from protruding through the wall of the cavity that contains said organ. If the hernia had already occurred, the truss would push that organ back into place and allow the tissue to heal. From the description that Talbot gives, a medieval hernia truss would look like a shield-shaped plate that’s placed against the afflicted part of the abdomen, then tied around the body with straps. Nothing was inserted into the body.

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