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Horse-n-t-MA-art - 11/1/00


"The Horse in the Medieval Age" by Malachy of Adamastor.


NOTE: See also these files: horses-msg, horses-bib, horses-lnks, horse-racing-msg, Mongols-msg, saddles-msg, carts-msg, travel-msg, pilgrimages-msg, horse-recipes-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set

of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at:



Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be

reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first

or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


                               Thank you,

                                    Mark S. Harris

                                    AKA:  HL Stefan li Rous

                                         stefan at florilegium.org                                        



Originally published in March, AS 33 in "Storm Tidings", the newsletter for the Shire of Adamastor in Cape Town, South Africa.



The Horse in the Medieval Age

by Malachy of Adamastor


'Happiness in this world, rich booty and eternal reward are attached to the

horse's forelock. Who feeds the horse for the triumph of religion makes a

magnificent loan to God.' - The Prophet


I've heard it said by people in the SCA that many members wish to revisit

an age of less complexity, where technology, invention and progress

mattered less. I defy anyone to say this can be true of the history of the

horse in the Middle Ages. Innovation in horsemanship was the hallmark of

technology in those times.


You might think that the technology of the horse was primarily military.

Since the fall of Rome, cavalry reigned (or reined), in contrast to the

discredited legions. But the great agricultural revolutions of the 12th and

13th Centuries were spurred, literally, by the creation of the 'Great

Horse', who are the ancestors of the mighty Shires and Percherons of today.

The military of the day then used these horses to create the most famous

soldiers of the Middle Ages - the Gothic Knights.


Three aspects of the horse are most important in the Middle Ages. These

aspects are agriculture, transport and the military. The close of these

times could almost be marked by the appearance of the horse as a society

animal - the abstract Renaissance 'high school' perception of riding was

not so evident in the Middle Ages. Horses were functional. Horses were

technology. Society did not make horses beautiful, because society depended

on horses for survival.


Much remaining evidence of horsemanship from those days is military. People

were inclined to write a lot about their victories in battle, but less

about how they got to the battlefield or about how they fed themselves

while they were there. The Bayeaux tapestry shows the kind of horses used

in northern Europe in 1066. They're small. Look at the length of knightly

leg hanging below the horse's girth. These soldiers are definitely lancers,

more heavily armoured than their Moorish counterparts, but they are riding

horses small enough to be called light cavalry. They ride with a straight

leg and upright seat that braces them for impact. They are not riding for

mobility, but for power and security.


It's hard to say how much the Normans' horses are crossbred with their

Moorish counterparts. Since the Battle of Poitiers in 732 Arab horses had

been available, across the southern border of France. The Arab horse was

probably the finest military breed to emerge from the Middle Ages, and most

riders of the day obviously knew this. The Arabs and Moors bred their

horses for speed and hardiness. In combat, they rode in a completely

different fashion from the braced Norman method. A Moorish horseman sat

forward in the saddle, with his lower leg underneath him - the position he

needed for speed and agility.


Chaucer's Canterbury Tales illustrate the need for transport on horseback

very well. Several breeds of horse are mentioned in the Prologue of the

Tales. Some are distinguished by their purpose, some by their regional

origin and some most interestingly by their gaits. This is significant

because the gait of a horse very largely affects how comfortable the beast

is to ride. If you're going to cover hundreds of miles on the back of the

animal, you want a smooth ride at a relaxed speed. Thus amblers, pacers,

prancers, trotters and many other types of horse were bred to give a

variety of options to the seasoned traveler.


'This reve sat upon a ful good stot,

That was al pomely grey, and highte Scot.'

As for the Wife of Bath,

'Upon an amblere esily she sat,

Ywimpled wel, and on hir heed an hat

As brood as is a bokeler or a targe '


It is very likely that riding horses also benefited from Arab crossbreeds.

Chaucer mentions that the Wife of Bath traveled three times to Jerusalem on

pilgrimage. She, along with her contemporaries, would have arrived on

European horses and may have left on Arabs.


The acre is as much as a horse team and ploughman can plough in a day. This

basic measure of mediaeval agriculture was created around the horse. In

addition, the concept of common ground was invented to provide an area that

could be shared by all livestock, horses included. Agriculture in Classical

times was based around the raw muscle power of millions of slaves. While

serfs of the Middle Ages were little more than slaves, they could at least

transfer some of the backbreaking labour onto the horse's back.


Why the horse in agriculture? Since prehistoric times, oxen were

overwhelmingly used as agricultural power when animals were needed. They

are cheaper to feed and provide more edible meat than does the horse. The

reason why horses were adapted to agriculture is another typically

mediaeval phenomenon - the Vikings.


The raiders had the habit of taking good parts of the summer off to go

pillaging, plundering and (paradoxically) trading. But, being farmers as

well as killers, they needed to get their crops in like anyone else. To

compensate for reduced available time they relied increasingly on the speed

of the horse, as opposed to the cheapness of the ox.


Their victims appreciated this strategy also. Using horses meant they could

spend less time out in the fields, far from home where they were

vulnerable. Thus the development of the Great Horse is found chiefly on the

coast of Northern Europe and in Scandinavia.


This has been a sadly Eurocentric article about mediaeval horses. Although

there is much more to say about horses in the Middle Ages, there is also a

huge amount to say about the contribution of the North African Barb to

Middle Ages culture. This is a genuinely African horse, found throughout

North and West Africa since the Middle Ages. More must be said! Await a

discourse on the fascinating Barb - soon!


Bibliography -


Edwards, HE. The encyclopaedia of the horse. Dorling Kindersley 1994.

Edwards, HE. Horses: their role in the history of man. Collins Willow 1987.


Hope, CEG & Jackson, GN. The encyclopaedia of the horse. Rainbird Reference



Chaucer, G (ed. Kermode, F & Hollander, J). The Canterbury tales (The

Oxford anthology of English literature). Oxford University Press 1973.


* alias Mal Morrow. Resistance is futile, you will be blazoned, or at least

given a holding name if you haven't come up with a persona!



Copyright 1999 by Malachy Morrow, 78D Meerendal, Janssen's Avenue, Tableview 7441, South Africa. <mal.morrow at intec.co.za>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy. If the publication appears in electronic form as well as printed form, by preference send me the electronic form.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in

the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also

appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being

reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org