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Horses in the Middle Ages
Horses in the Middle Ages differed in size, build and breed to the modern horse, and were, on average, considerably smaller. They were also more central to society than their modern counterpart, being essential for war, agriculture, and transport. Consequently, specific types of horses developed, many of which have no modern equivalent. While an understanding of modern horse breeds and equestrianism is vital for any analysis of the medieval horse, researchers also need to consider documentary (both written and pictorial) and archeological evidence.
Horses in the Middle Ages were rarely differentiated by breed, but rather by use. This lead them to be described, for example, as 'chargers' (warhorse), 'palfreys' (riding horse), cart horses or packhorses. Reference is also given to their place of origin -such as 'Spanish horses', but whether this referred to one breed or several is unknown. Another difficulty arising during any study of medieval documents or literature is the flexibility of the medieval languages, where several words can be used for one thing (or, conversely, several objects are described by one word). Words such as 'courser' and 'charger' are used interchangeably (even within one document), and where one epic may speak disparagingly of a rouncey, another praises its skill and swiftness.
Consequently, the assumptions and theories developed by historians are not definitive, and debate still rages on many issues, such as the breeding or size of the horse, and a number of sources must be consulted in order to understand the breadth of the subject.
Medieval horses in battle
Despite the popular image of a European knight on horseback charging into battle, the heavy cavalry charge was not a common occurrence. Pitched battles were avoided, if at all possible, with most offensive warfare in the early Middle Ages taking the form of sieges, or swift mounted raids called chevauchées, with the warriors lightly armed on swift horses and their heavy war horses safely in the stable. Pitched battles were sometimes unavoidable, but were rarely fought on land suitable for heavy cavalry. While mounted riders remained effective for initial attacks, by the fourteenth century, it was common for knights to dismount to fight. By the Late Middle Ages (approx 1300-1550), large battles became more common, probably because of the success of infantry tactics and changes in weaponry. However, because such tactics left the knight unmounted, the role of the war horse also changed. By the 17th century, the medieval charger had become a thing of the past, replaced by lighter, unarmoured horses.
Tournaments and hastiludes began in the eleventh century as both a sport and training for battle. Usually taking the form of a mêlée, the participants used the horses, armour and weapons of war. The sport of jousting grew out of the tournament and, by the fifteenth century, the art of tilting became quite sophisticated. In the process the pageantry and specialization became less war-like, perhaps because of the knight's changing role in war.
Horses were specially bred for the joust, and heavier armour developed. However, this did not necessarily lead to significantly larger horses. Interpreters at the Royal Armouries, Leeds, have re-created the joust, using specially bred horses and replica armour. Their horses are 15-16 hands, and approximately 1100 lb, and perform well in the joust.
During much of the Middle Ages, there was no system of interconnected roads and bridges. Though parts of Europe still had remnants of Roman roads built before the collapse of the Roman Empire, most had long fallen into disrepair. Because of the necessity to ride long distances over uncertain roads, smooth-gaited horses were preferred, and most ordinary riding horses were of greater value if they could do one of the smooth four-beat gaits collectively known as an amble rather than the more jarring trot.
Mule trains, for land travel, and barges, for river and canal travel, were the most common form of long-distance haulage, although wheeled horse-drawn vehicles were used for shorter journeys. Four-wheeled wagons and two-wheeled carts were more common in towns, such as London and, depending on type of vehicle and weight of the load, were usually pulled by teams of two, three, or four horses harnessed in tandem. In areas with good roads, regular carrier services were established between major towns.
Because medieval roads were generally so poor, carriages for human passengers were rare. When roads permitted, early carriages were developed from freight wagons. Carriage travel was made more comfortable in the late fourteenth century with the introduction of the chariot branlant, which had strap suspension.
Breeding of medieval horses
During the decline of the Roman Empire and the Early Middle Ages, much of the quality breeding stock developed during the classical period was lost due to uncontrolled breeding and had to be built up again over the following centuries. In the west, this may have been due in part to the reliance of the British and Scandinavians on infantry-based warfare, where horses were only used for riding and pursuit.
However, there were exceptions; in the 7th century, a Merovingian kingdom still retained at least one active Roman horse breeding centre. The Spanish also retained many quality horses, in part due to the historic reputation of the region as a horse-breeding land, and partially due to the cultural influences related to the Islamic conquest of the Iberian peninsula between the 8th and 15th centuries.
The origins of the medieval war horse are obscure, although it is believed they had some Barb and Arabian blood, through the Spanish Jennet, a forerunner to the modern Friesian and Andalusian horse. It is also possible that other sources of oriental bloodstock came from what was called the Nisaean breed (possibly akin to the Turkoman horse) from Iran and Anatolia, another type of oriental horse brought back from the Crusades. "Spanish" horses, whatever their breeding, were the most expensive. In fact, in Germany, the word spanjol became the term used to describe quality war horses. However, German literary sources also refer to fine horses from Scandinavia. France also produced good war horses. Some scholars attribute this to the strong Feudal society there, but an equally probable explanation is the historic influence of the Roman horse breeding traditions preserved by the Merovingians, combined with the addition of valuable Spanish and oriental bloodstock captured in the wake of the victory of Charles Martel over the Islamic Umayyad invaders at the Battle of Tours in 732. Following this battle, the Carolingians began to increase their heavy cavalry, which resulted in the seizure of land (for fodder production), and a change in tribute payment from cattle to horses.
As the importance of horse breeding to successful warfare was realized, planned breeding programs increased. Many changes were due to the influence of Islamic culture through both the Crusades and the Moorish invasions of Spain; the Arabs kept extensive pedigrees of their Barb and Arabian horses via an oral tradition. Some of the earliest written pedigrees in recorded European history were kept by Carthusian monks, who were among those who bred the Spanish Jennet. Because they could read and write, thus kept careful records, monastics were given the responsibility for horse breeding by certain members of the nobility, particularly in Spain. Written pedigrees for certain breeds of horses existed by about 1330 A.D. In England, a common source of warhorses were the wild moorland ponies, which were rounded up annually by horse-breeders, including the Cistercians, for use as campaign riding horses, or light cavalry; one such breed was the Fell pony, which had similar ancestry to the Friesian horse.
It is also hard to trace what happened to the bloodlines of destriers when this type seems to disappear from record during the seventeenth century. Many modern draft breeds claim some link to the medieval "great horse," with some historians considering breeds such as the Percheron, Belgian and Suffolk Punch likely descendants of the destrier. However, other historians discount this theory, since the historical record suggests the medieval warhorse was quite a different 'type' to the modern draught horse Such a theory would suggest the war horses were crossed once again with "cold blooded" work horses, since war horses, and the destrier in particular, were renowned for their hot-blooded nature.
The most well known horse of the medieval era of Europe is the destrier, known for carrying knights into war. However, most knights and mounted men-at-arms rode smaller horses known as coursers and rounceys. (A generic name often used to describe medieval war horses is charger, which appears interchangeable with the other terms). In Spain, the jennet was used as a light cavalry horse.
Stallions were often used as war horses in Europe due to their natural aggression and hot-blooded tendencies. A thirteenth century work describes destriers "biting and kicking" on the battlefield, and, in the heat of battle, war horses were often seen fighting each other. However, the use of mares by European warriors cannot be discounted from literary references. Mares were the preferred war horse of the Moors, the Islamic invaders who attacked various European nations from A.D. 700 through the 15th Century.
War horses were more expensive than normal riding horses, and destriers the most prized, but figures vary greatly from source to source. Destriers are given a values ranging from seven times the price of an ordinary horse to 700 times. The Bohemian king Wenzel II rode a horse "valued at one thousand marks" in 1298. At the other extreme, a 1265 French ordinance ruled that a squire could not spend more than twenty marks on a rouncey. Knights were expected to have at least one war horse (as well as riding horses and packhorses), with some records from the later Middle Ages showing knights bringing twenty-four horses on campaign. Five horses was perhaps the standard.
Size of war horses
There is dispute in medievalist circles over the size of the war horse, with some notable historians claiming a size of 17-18 hands, as large as a modern Shire horse. However, there are practical reasons for dispute over size. Analysis of existing horse armour located in the Royal Armouries indicates the equipment was originally worn by horses of 15 to 16 hands, or about the size and build of a modern field hunter or ordinary riding horse. Research undertaken at the Museum of London, using literary, pictorial and archeological sources, supports military horses of 14-15 hands, distinguished from a riding horse by its strength and skill, rather than its size. This average does not seem to vary greatly across the medieval period. Horses appear to have been selectively bred for increased size from the ninth and tenth centuries, and by the eleventh century the average warhorse was probably 14.2-15 hh, a size verified by studies of Norman horseshoes as well as the depictions of horses on the Bayeux Tapestry. Analysis of horse transports suggests thirteenth century destriers were a stocky build, and no more than 15-15.2 hands. Three centuries later, warhorses were not significantly bigger; the Royal Armouries used a 15.2 hand Lithuanian Heavy Draught mare as a model for the statues displaying various fifteenth-sixteenth century horse armours, as her body shape was an excellent fit.
Perhaps one reason for the pervasive belief that the medieval war horse had to be of draft horse type is the assumption, still held by many, that medieval armour was heavy. In fact, even the heaviest tournament armour (for knights) weighed little more than 90 lb, and field (war) armour 40-70 lb; barding, or horse armour, more common in tournaments than war, rarely weighed more than 70lb. For horses, Cuir bouilli (a type of hardened leather), and padded caparisons would have been more common, and probably as effective. Even allowing for the weight of the rider and other equipment, horses can carry approximately 25% of their weight; thus such loads could certainly be carried by a heavy riding horse in the 1200-1300 lb range, and a draft horse was not needed.
Although a large horse is not required to carry an armoured knight, it is held by some historians that a large horse was desirable to increase the power of a lance strike. However, practical experiments by re-enactors have suggested that the rider's weight and strength is of more relevance than the size of the mount, and that little of the horse's weight is translated to the lance.
Further evidence for a 14-16 hand war horse is that it was a matter of pride to a knight to be able to vault onto his horse in full armour, without touching the stirrup. This arose not from vanity, but necessity: if unhorsed during battle, a knight would remain vulnerable if unable to mount by himself. In reality, of course, a wounded or weary knight might find it difficult, and rely on a vigilant squire to assist him. Incidentally, a knight's armour served in his favour in any fall. With his long hair twisted on his head to form a springy padding under his padded-linen hood, and his helm placed on top, he had head protection not dissimilar to a modern bicycle or equestrian helmet.
Riding horses were used by a variety of people during the Middle Ages, and so varied greatly in quality, size and breeding. Knights and nobles kept riding horses in their war-trains, saving their warhorses for the battle. The names of horses referred to a type of horse, rather than a breed. Many horses were described by the region where they or their immediate ancestors were foaled. For example, in Germany, Hungarian horses were commonly used for riding. Individual horses were often described by their gait ('trotters' or 'amblers'), by their colouring, or by the name of their breeder.
The best riding horses were known as palfreys; other riding horses were often called hackneys, from which the modern term "hack" is derived. Women sometimes rode palfreys or small quiet horses known as jennets.
A variety of work horses were used throughout the Middle Ages. The pack horse (or "sumpter horse") carried equipment and belongings. Cart horses pulled wagons for trading and freight haulage, on farms, or as part of a military campaign. These draft horses were smaller than their modern counterparts; pictorial and archeological evidence suggests that they were stout but short, approximately 13-14 hands, and capable of drawing a load of 500-600 lb per horse.
For farm work, such as ploughing and harrowing, the draft horse used was called an affrus (or stott), which was usually smaller and cheaper than the cart horse. While oxen were traditionally used as work animals on farms, horses began to be used in greater numbers after the development of the horse collar, circa A.D. 800, which allowed horses to pull greater loads. Oxen and horses were sometimes harnessed together. The transition from oxen to horses for farm work was documented in pictorial sources (for example, the 11th century Bayeux tapestry depicts working horses), and also clear from the change from the Roman two-field crop-rotation system to a new three-field system, which increased the cultivation of fodder crops (predominantly oats, barley and beans). Horses were also used to process crops; they were used to turn the wheels in mills (such as cornmills), and transport crops to market.
Types of medieval horses
As discussed above, during the Middle Ages, horses were defined by their type rather than breed. Common types are outlined below.
The term Destrier does not refer to a breed, but to a type of horse displaying superior abilities and training for war; it needed to be strong, fast and agile. A fourteenth century writer described them as "tall and majestic and with great strength".
In contemporary sources, it was frequently referred to as the "great horse" because of its size and reputation. This is, of course, a subjective term, and gives no firm information about its actual height or weight. The average horse of the time was 12-14 hands, thus a "great horse" by medieval standards might appear small to our modern eyes.
The destrier was highly prized by knights and men-at-arms, but was actually not very common, and appears to have been most suited to the joust; coursers seem to have been preferred for battle.
The rouncey was a general, all purpose horse, which could be kept as a riding horse or trained for war. It was commonly used by squires, men-at-arms or poorer knights. A wealthy knight would keep rounceys for his retinue. Sometimes the expected nature of warfare dictated the choice of horse; when a summons to war was sent out in England, in 1327, it expressly requested rounceys, for swift pursuit, rather than destriers. Rounceys were sometimes used as pack horses (but never as cart horses).
The well-bred palfrey, which could equal a destrier in price, was popular with nobles and highly-ranked knights for riding, hunting and ceremonial use. Ambling was a desirable trait in a Palfrey, as the smooth gait allowed the rider to cover long distances quickly in relative comfort.
Jennets were small horses, first bred in Spain from Barb and Arabian bloodstock. Their quiet and dependable nature, as well as size, made them popular as riding horses for ladies; however, they were also used as cavalry horses by the Spanish.
The Hobby was a lightweight horse, about 13 to 14 hands, developed in Ireland from Spanish or Libyan (Barb) bloodstock. This type of quick and agile horse was popular for skirmishing, and was often ridden by light cavalry known as Hobelars. Hobbies were used successfully by both sides during the Wars of Scottish Independence, with Edward I of England trying to gain advantage by preventing Irish exports of the horses to Scotland. Robert Bruce employed the hobby for his guerilla warfare and mounted raids, covering 60 to 70 miles a day.
Women and horses
It was not uncommon for a girl to learn her father's trade, and for a woman to share her husband's trade; many guilds also accepted the membership of widows, so they might continue their husband's business. Under this system, some women trained in horse-related trades, and there are records of women working as farriers and saddle-makers. On farms, where every hand was needed, excessive emphasis on division of labour was impracticable, and women often worked alongside men (on their own farms or as hired help), leading the farmhorses and oxen, and managing their care.
Despite the difficulties of travel, it was customary for many people, including women, to travel long distances. Women would usually travel on horseback or, if weakened or infirm, be carried in a wagon or a litter. Most women rode astride; while crude sidesaddles were manufactured as early as the thirteenth century and allowed women of the nobility to ride while wearing elaborate gowns, they were not universally adopted during the Middle Ages, partially due to the insecure seat they offered prior to the invention of the "leaping horn" in the 19th century. If roads permitted, women sometimes rode in early carriages developed from freight wagons, pulled by three or four horses. After the invention of better suspension systems, travel in carriages became more comfortable.
Women of the nobility also rode horses for sport, accompanying men in activities that included hunting and hawking.
It was not unknown for women to ride war horses, and take their part in warfare. Joan of Arc is probably the most famous female warrior, but there were many others, including the Empress Matilda who, armoured and mounted, led an army against her cousin Stephen of Blois, and Stephen's wife Matilda of Boulogne in the 12th Century. The fifteenth-century writer Christine de Pizan advised aristocratic ladies that they must "know the laws of arms and all things pertaining to warfare, ever prepared to command her men if there is need of it."
|This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Horses_in_the_Middle_Ages". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.|