The Horse in the Middle Ages

3512 words (14 pages) Essay in History

23/09/19 History Reference this

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The Horse in the Middle Ages

The Horse for centuries and especially in the middle ages, has been valued as the one animal with the most loved and important reputation by society. The animal world symbolically is said to mirror that of the human world and so the horse has its literal and symbolic uses. The medieval horse was seen as an animal that symbolised wealth and status for the upper classes and nobility. Medieval writer Jordanus Ruffus captures the importance horses had to man in the middle ages when he wrote, “No animal is more noble than the horse, since it is by horses that princes, magnates and knights are separated from lesser people and because a lord cannot fittingly be seen among private citizens except through the mediation of a horse.”[1] His words illustrate that being a nobleman or upper class gentry and riding a horse amongst commoners, displayed that they were above them all. It could also be said that the horse itself had a higher status than the normal common folk, due to being between the nobleman and the commoners.

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Understanding the importance of the horse to people in the middle ages, explains why attacks on horses were looked at as symbolic acts of vengeance on one’s manhood. It was known to be one of the worst insults to a person. The insult stemmed from an old Norse tradition of belittling an opponent or foe. A horses ears, lips or tail would be removed as a form of malicious symbolic emasculation as Andrew Miller points out, “By removing a phallic-like extension of the horse, the aggressor rendered the beast’s master symbolically less powerful and publicly deprived him of reputation”.[2] Miller further highlights that Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) even found this to be the case when he wrote: “Vengeance is wrought on dumb animals and any other irrational creatures, because in this way their owners are punished.”[3]  The most famous example of an attack on a horse took place on Christmas eve 1170, due to an ongoing dispute over lands a member of the Broc family docked the tail of the archbishop of Canterbury (Thomas Becket) horses. Becket inspected the horse and exclaimed, “a mare in my service has in contempt of my name had its tail cut off—as though I could be put to shame by the mutilation of a beast!”[4] As a result Becket ex-communicated Robert de Broc, who later along with other men murdered Becket. Attacking a horse highlights how valued the horse was to medieval society so much show that to remove parts was a dishonour to a person’s reputation. Figure one below is an illustration of the mocking of saint Thomas Becket portraying the shame and embarrassment of having your horses tail docked.

Figure 1, Master Francke, The Mocking of Saint Thomas Becket, ca. 1424. Panel from the Saint Thomas Altarpiece, Hamburg, Germany.

The horse when referenced in the bible is seldom mentioned other than for its warlike operations. Its locomotive, agricultural and leisurely uses are not discussed. The earliest description of the horse recorded is in chapter 39 in the book of Job (Job 39), whereby it describes the warhorses’ courage  “Hast thou given the horse strength? Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder? Canst thou make him afraid as a grasshopper? The glory of his nostrils is terrible. He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength; he goeth on to meet the armed men. He mocketh at fear, and is not affrighted; neither turneth he back from the sword…”.[5] The description portrays how strong fearless and courageous the horse is when in battle.

Like within human societies horses had a class distinction. Instead of being differentiated by breed however they were categorised by use. Isidore of Seville – a sixth century writer, wrote the etymologies which became famous in the middle ages. Within his book he points out the various types of horses, “There are three kinds of horses: one well-bred, suited for battles and riders; the second common and ordinary, suited for draft work, not for riding; the third originating from a mixture of different species, which is called hybrid (bigener)”.[6] For example, a destrier was used as a warhorse for knights in battle and was ranked as the highest status of them all. The rouncey which was a more general purpose horse used for riding or war and used by squires or poorer knights. There was the palfrey which was equally expensive as a destrier, but would be used for highborn ladies for pleasure riding. The affer, pack horse or sumpter horse would be your common agricultural/Locomotive horse. [7] Prof R.H.C Davis writes extensively on the breeding of the war horse in the medieval period, highlighting that the process begun in the eighth  century which developed a bigger and more robust horse for war.[8] In the early part of the middle ages horses where small in northern Europe. Evidence confirms this after the excavation of bones in Anglo Saxon England, which found bones that would be classed as pony sized to the modern eye.[9] It took until the fourteenth century for the destriers to reach the height of an effective warhorse. However as Isidore of Seville’s descriptions of a warhorse suggest, warlike spirit was also a highly valued attribute a war horse must have. Pliny the elder was one of the first to document a warhorses’ nature in the first century were he comments, “Several stories are told of horses that would let only their master ride them, who defended their rider in battle, or who grieved at the death of their master.[10] Isidore builds on Pliny’s descriptions of horses but writing horses “scent out war; they are roused to battle by the sound of the trumpet;… (they) grieve when they are defeated, and exultant when they are victorious. Some recognize the enemy in war and seek to bite the foe.”[11] It is evident that Isidore’s and Pliny’s words emphasise the bond between horse an man. When a knight is riding his steed they become as one and together are ready for battle.

Figure 2, From the Rochester Bestiary, England, c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 42v

 

Figure two is an illustration from the Rochester Bestiary depicting the how far the bond between man and his went. Although it looks as though the horses are cuddling an inscription in French tells us that it represents two knight and two horses fighting. This complies with Isidore’s belief that some horses recognise their enemy and attack the opponent was well believed. Bartholomaeus Anglicus writes in the De Proprietatibus rerum, “And many horses weep when their lords be dead. And it is said that horses weep for sorrow, right as a man doth, and so the kind of horse and of man is medlied. Also oft men that shall fight take evidence and divine and guess what shall befall, by sorrow or by the joy that the horse maketh.” [12] This gives further support to the connection between a knight and his horse, with the belief that the sorrow of the horse could be seen and the horse is like man in feeling emotions. It is though the horse is the animal version of the human.

Transportation in the medieval period using a horse was an essential tool for traveling around Europe. Travel using a horse was customary for all classes and various backgrounds. An early account whereby the horse is mentioned to be used for travel was by Bartholomaeus Anglicus. He talks of a young colt being “taught in many manner wise to go easily and soft. And he is set to carts, chariots, and cars, and to travel and bearing of horsemen in chivalry”[13] Here Anglicus is describing how the horse is trained to pull a cart or carriage and in a way as to make the journey smooth as possible. John Clark points out that “In a town that could be crossed in 20 minutes, few had regular need of a horse for personal transport; horses for riding could be hired (at considerable cost) when the need arose to make a longer journey.”[14] Within the smaller towns travel by carriage was primary used by the upper classes and nobility, those that could afford the luxury of not walking. However travel was used largely and regularly for various other reason. For Example, Royal courts moving between estates, ecclesiastics between churches and pilgrimages, diplomats undertaking duties throughout Europe and soldiers at war travelling to battle.[15] For the wealthy nobility travel was seen as a display of their wealth as Labarge highlights “travel was accompanied by a great deal of pomp and display, with fine horses, large retinues and magnificent cavalcades in order to display their wealth as well as to ensure personal comfort.”[16] An example of this is in 1445, the kings stable in the English royal household contained 60 horses and 186 carriages.[17] As well as being used to carry people, horse drawn carts were used as carriers to transport goods all over Britain. Carts were used to remove rubbish out of London wards, move building materials, deliver mail nationwide via regular carrier services, carry trading and consumer goods and freight haulage.[18] The horse drawn cart was heavily used and had an major influence on London’s economy. Tolls were applied to many commercial carts entering the city and the hire charges of the various type of haulages, inputted considerably to the economy.

The affer (affrus or stott) was the cheapest farm horse bred for agriculture during the middle ages. This along with your pack horses would be the most common horse used for agricultural purposes such as harrowing and ploughing.[19] The affer (peasant horse) was generally valued at two shillings compared to the ‘equus’ the cart horse, which was worth three times as much.[20] Horse power became more commonly used for agriculture in the middle ages due to the speed and effectiveness in ploughing fields. There was also innovative equipment such as ploughs, being used by the horse. Before horses oxen were used and as Christopher Dyer explains “As plough animals the horses also gave more speed, so that while an ox team could plough only a half-acre in a day, a mixed team could plough a full acre. While a plough team of oxen often contained eight animals, a horse team consisted of six at most, and often four or even two, which compensated for the higher cost of feeding the horses with oats: oxen usually managed on grass”.[21] Although it seemed more cost effective to have a team of oxen which managed on grass, having less horses do the farm work even with the added cost of grain still improved production time and profit. Most medieval people made their living from farming so method of production was an important factor in decisions they made.

Figure 3, Harrowing in the Luttrell Psalter, c.1325-1335, 42130 f.17v, British Library

Figure three is from the Luttrell Psalter one of the most famous manuscripts from the middle ages showing the everyday rural life in the 1300s. Most of the population in Britain lived in the countryside and so farming was a major part of life.[22] This image is depicting an affer at work harrowing the fields with a man using a sling shot to fire stones at the crows to deter them from scavenging the freshly sowed field.

Hunting in the middle ages was something widely done and enjoyed by all classes. Henry Savage describes the conduct of hunting well pointing out “To the average Englishman, the word (Hunting) connotes not only an activity to the body but a rule of behaviour and con- duct. It means that one never alludes to ‘hounds’ as ‘dogs’; that one never shoots a fox; that one submits in the field (as much as his mount allows) implicitly to the authority of the Master of Foxhounds or his Huntsman;..”[23] Hunting was and still is a particular way of life and traditional customs must be followed. The “courser” horse was central to hunting with is athleticism which is like the destrier but not as expensive.[24] Not just a sport or pastime hunting was also important for social interaction and an opportunity to display nobilities status.

The Horse has many other depictions and variations for example, Pegasus, Chiron, centaurs, unicorn and the star sign Sagittarius all have features or characteristics of the horse. Pegasus is a mythical winged stallion who is son of Olympian god Poseidon popular in Greek mythology. He was caught by Greek hero Bellerophon who fought many battles on him. The Chiron is a beast that is half horse and man and is wisest of all centaurs. It has the front legs of a human and body and hind legs of a horse. The Centaur has the upper body of a human lower body and legs a horse. All are found in the physiologus and bestiaries with various symbolic meanings. The aspect of the horse within these hybrid beasts usually symbolises the strength and courage that the horse is known to have. The exceptional reputation of the horse in the middle ages, was something that had been built for centuries throughout the world. Only in the middle ages is the documentation of the animal better and more detailed than it had been in previous times. Financially the horse contributed in so many ways to the economy. From trading horses, to the cost of keeping a horse i.e. with pages/ grooms, farriers/ blacksmiths, food, horse hire and taxes the list is endless in the way the horse financially beneficial to a countries economy. The horse as discussed throughout this essay was imperative to life during the medieval period. This is due to the fact it contributed so much to a person’s everyday life in one way or another. No matter what class a person was, whether it be to travel, to help on the farm, for pleasure or for war the horse was a much needed tool.

Bibliography

Primary

  • Aberdeen Bestiary, Aberdeen University Library, Univ. Lib. MS 24, reproduced at < https://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/ms24/f23r >  [Accessed 12th December 2018]
  • Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum, book 18, reproduced at < http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast212.htm > [accessed on 12th December 2018]
  • Book of Job, Chapter 39, 39:19-25,  reproduced at < https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/job/39.html > [accessed 17th December 2018]
  • British Library, Harrowing in the Luttrell Psalter, < http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126556.html > [accessed 14th December 2018]
  • Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, 250 XII.i.45–i.60
  • Pliny the Elder, Nature History, reproduced at < http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast212.htm > [accessed on 12th December 2018]

Secondary

  • Clark, J., Ellis, M. A., Eagan, G., Griffiths, N., Rackman,. D., Spencer, B., Wardle., A., The Medieval Horse and Its Equipment, (London: HMSO publications, 1995)
  • Davis, R.H.C., ‘ The medieval warhorse’, in F.M.L Thompson (eds), Horses in European Economic History: A Preliminary Canter, ( Reading: British Agricultural History Society, 1983)
  • Dyer, C., Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850–1520. (Yale: Yale University Press, 2002).
  • Hyland, A., The Warhorse 1250-1600. (London: Sutton Publishing, 1998)
  • Miller, A. G., ‘ ‘Tails’of Masculinity: Knights, Clerics, and the Mutilation of Horses in Medieval’, Speculum, 88. 4, (2013), p. 979
  • Salisbury, J., The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages, (New York: Routledge, 2010)
  • Savage, H., “Hunting in the Middle Ages”, Speculum, 8.1 (1933), p. 30-41

[1] R.H.C Davis, ‘ The medieval warhorse’, in F.M.L Thompson (eds), Horses in European Economic History: A Preliminary Canter, ( Reading: British Agricultural History Society, 1983), pp., 4- 20

[2] A.G. Miller, ‘ ‘Tails’of Masculinity: Knights, Clerics, and the Mutilation of Horses in Medieval’, Speculum, 88. 4, (2013), p. 979

[3] Ibid.,

[4] Ibid,. p. 958

[5] Book of Job, Chapter 39, 39:19-25,  reproduced at < https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/job/39.html > [accessed 17th December 2018]

[6] The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, XII.i.45–i.60, p.250

[7] R.H.C Davis, ‘ The medieval warhorse’, in F.M.L Thompson (eds), Horses in European Economic History: A Preliminary Canter, ( Reading: British Agricultural History Society, 1983), pp., 135-37

[8] Ibid., p. 69

[9] J. Salisbury, The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages, (New York: Routledge, 2010), p., 22

[10] Pliny the Elder, Nature History, reproduced at at < http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast212.htm > [accessed on 12th December 2018]

[11] The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, XII.i.31–i.44, p.249

[12] Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum, book 18, reproduced at < http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast212.htm > [accessed on 12th December 2018]

[13] Ibid.,

[14] J.Clark et al., The Medieval Horse and Its Equipment, (London: HMSO publications, 1995), p. 8.

[15]M. W. Labarge,. Medieval travellers: the rich and the restless, (London: Hamilton, 1983), p. xviii-xiv.

[16] Ibid, p. xiii

[17] Ibid, p. 41

[18] J.Clark et al., The Medieval Horse and Its Equipment, (London: HMSO publications, 1995), p. 9.

[19] R.H.C Davis, ‘ The medieval warhorse’, in F.M.L Thompson (eds), Horses in European Economic History: A Preliminary Canter, ( Reading: British Agricultural History Society, 1983), pp., 135-37

[20] J.Clark et al., The Medieval Horse and Its Equipment, (London: HMSO publications, 1995), p. 27.

[21] C, Dyer., Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850–1520. (Yale: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 129

[22] British Library, Harrowing in the Luttrell Psalter, < http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126556.html > [accessed 14th December 2018]

[23] H., Savage, “Hunting in the Middle Ages”, Speculum, 8.1 (1933), p. 30-41

[24]A., Hyland, The Warhorse 1250-1600. (London: Sutton Publishing, 1998) p. 221

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