On October 24, the second day before the feast of Saint Amand, Baldwin of Aalst died. He, also a peer of the peers of Flanders, was branded with the stigma of betrayal of his lord, Charles. Not long afterwards, in the full strength of life, he died from a trivial cause, that is, while he was blowing a horn. While the air was inflating his arteries within and all the strength of his head was straining in order to blow, suddenly the marrow of the brain, shaken loose from its natural place, burst out through a wound suffered long before in the forehead. When the inflation caused by the air and his own breath had broken this open, the inner parts which had lain in the brain boiled up so that they choked the passages of the nostrils, the eyes, and also the throat, and so, slain by the sword of God, he suffered mortal injuries.*
From my limited knowledge of human anatomy (and also my 21st century tendency to read everything literally), it sounds to me like Baldwin had a busted sinus cavity and ended up with the sinus infection from hell. It’s amazing to think about the kinds of wounds that some medieval people survived and lived with for years. There’s a skull that was found near the site of the fifteenth-century Battle of Towton that has a blade slash from one ear all the way to the opposite side of the chin. It had smashed his jaw and probably severed his tongue. The incredible thing about it was that this wasn’t the wound that the man had died from. He had received it several years before and survived. The archaeological report on the site, a book called Blood Red Roses has a picture of his face as it was reconstructed by a forensic artist. He would have been one scary-looking dude.
It’s also a reminder that the concept of good health is a moving target. I remember reading that during the American civil war, about one in six draftees were rejected for military service because their health was not good enough. Nevertheless, service records show that the majority of young soldiers suffered from chronic arthritis, heart conditions, lung disease, or other problems that are normally considered chronic illnesses today. Before the twentieth century, constant discomfort was the normal state of affairs for most people. It puts some historical perspective on all the modern hand-wringing about living a healthy lifestyle.
*Galbert of Bruges, The Murder of Charles the Good, ed. & trans. James Bruce Ross (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982).