Inspired by Edgar Rops, “The Horse in Welsh and Anglo-Saxon Law,”
from The Horse in Premodern European Culture,
ed. by Anastasija Ropa and Timothy Dawson
Owain was neither thief nor coward, and he certainly did not want to appear like one. He did not disguise himself, but, early in the morning, went to the town of Caernarfon in his usual dress, found the inn where Ian was lodging, and asked to be taken to the stable and be shown the horse. Owain’s calm, resolute appearance did the job: no one asked him a single question or protested against the ungodly hour at which he arrived. He walked in with confidence, holding the edges of his cloak with his right hand, to avoid it being soiled in contact with the posts – or was there another reason?..
It was a big, powerful stallion, standing thirteen and a half hands, with slender neck and legs, a wide chest, intelligent eyes and sleek, silver-grey coat. Its long flaxen tail swept the over the straw that lay in the stall.
Owain examined it from all angles, appreciating its magnificence, and commented wryly, standing by the horse’s rump: “A pity that such a noble animal is in the possession of an ignoble beast!”
Then, swiftly taking hold of the stallion’s tail with his left hand, he produced large shears from under his cloak and took away a portion of the stallion’s shining tail, cutting into the flesh at the dock.
Taken by surprise, the horse reared. The flaxen halter, to which the ropes securing the stallion to one of the posts were tied, broke, and the stallion was free momentarily. It reared and bucked, and the servants, taken by surprise, failed to catch it at once.
In the commotion, Owain walked out of the stable, as calm as he had walked in, leaving the shears on the floor and quietly smiling to himself.
He was equally serene when, two months later, he was summoned to the court, tried, and charged with paying the full cost of the stallion to his enemy. “He was not worthy of riding it. Such a noble animal dominated by the rascal,” muttered Owain. “At least now it’s mine. And so I am avenged…”
He named it Drudlwyd, the courageous grey, in honour of the legendary courser from the island of Prydein. Still, he did not dare ride the stallion, whichnot only because it was shameful to ride a mutilated steed, but also because Owain knew that this stallion had but one rider, like King Alexander’s Bucephalus. He let it out with his herd of mares, in a little glen among the mountains, not far from the place where St Melangel’s chapel stood. There the stallion with the cut tail ran freely, engendering silver-grey foals that would be free of all mutilation, shame, and treachery. Owain felt that he had fared well, not only avenging his family’s shame, but also gaining a prize sire for his horses, all for a sum of money which, albeit large, was not too much for what he had achieved by cutting the stallion’s tail and thus making it unfit as a nobleman’s mount.
As we read in the article by Edgar Rops “The Horse in Welsh and Anglo-Saxon Law,” medieval Welsh law is unique in having elaborate provision for horses and horse-related offences. The clauses were designed to ensure that a customer buying a horse is not cheated and that a person would be compensated for cases when a horse would be damaged or lose its value through a third-party intervention, as in the fanciful episode imagined above. All names and circumstances are entirely fictional, but the crime of cutting a horse’s tail to make the horse lose its value as a mount to render it unfit to carry a noble person is one of the crime mentioned in the Welsh law. So are the provisions, the perpetrator paying the compensation to the person whose horse was damaged (the horse’s statutory price, rather than its market value) and taking the tailless horse.
The unprecedented detail to which the Welsh legislators went in detailing the crimes and remedies for equine-related offences testifies to the importance of the horse in the Welsh society.
The Welsh law co-existed with another, completed different legal system that was practiced across the Welsh border but was much less detailed or well-organized, the Anglo-Saxon law. The two systems were roughly contemporary in their origin and development, yet the Anglo-Saxons, much as they seemed to have valued their equines, appear to have been much less careful in organizing the legal system of compensations and fines for equine-related offences. In his article, Edgar outlines the differences between the two systems and the reasons for the different treatment of horses under the Welsh and the Anglo-Saxon laws. His argument is illustrated with a range of examples, some of them amusing, others shocking, still others making one stop and think about the societies that went to such length in regulating their lives and the destinies of their livestock. With no extant court records, it is hard to know how and whether these laws were implemented, yet it is surely stimulating to think about the contexts and situations that could have provoked application of these laws. Contemporary literature could provide some answers, and it would be very interesting to read Welsh and Anglo-Saxon literature with the knowledge of the legal systems that operated in the societies that produced the literature. Still, one must be careful to distinguish between fact and fiction, as literature does not always reflect reality faithfully.