Horse-n-t-MA-art - 11/1/00
"The Horse in the Medieval Age" by Malachy of Adamastor.
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.
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!
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.