Do you have the right to command your horse?

viviane and lancelot

Paris, BNF, f. français 111, fol. 23v. Viviane retains Lancelot

What is the point of connection between medieval horse-riding practices and modern equestrian sports? Some say it is the sixteenth-century rise of the manege exercises, which developed into modern dressage, that is the starting point for equestrian sports in Europe. Sometimes, equestrians go back to Xenophon’s writings on horsemanship, suggesting that true equestrianism began there and then, but somehow disappeared in the ‘dark’ Middle Ages, to be triumphantly rediscovered in Renaissance, together with other texts of the Antiquity. Indeed, prior to Dom Duarte’s Art of Horsemanship in the fifteenth-century, no medieval text is known that would be devoted to equestrianism, and, for all we know, Dom Duarte’s text would not have been known or copied widely.

On the other hand, the number of treatises devoted to farriery specifically, as opposed to hippiatry, is also limited, but it would be obviously absurd to state people in the Middle Ages had no farriery skills.

There were, of course, equestrian games and displays, including racing both in the Early Middle Ages and up to the fifteenth century. The Smithfield Market, for instance, was the place where horses were not only dealt, but also shown to their best, including racing, jumping, etc. Should we assume that, because the word ‘equestrian sports’ was not in currency, and there are no texts teaching these skills, the Middle Ages had no understanding, no theory and method of horsemanship.

Indeed, if we understand horsemanship as the relation between man and horse for the purpose of working together, for performing in the best possible way under a certain condition and for a certain outcome, it seems that, just like today, there was sophisticated understanding of equestrianism. However, there were no equestrian manuals as such, and the set of know-hows would be passed orally or learnt by seeing and imitating one’s elders. The underlying theory, meanwhile, could be transmitted through a variety of media: not only texts devoted to horses, but the entire body of chivalric literature, including romance, could be seen as encoding and transmitting the sum of knowledge pertaining to chivalry, including the knowledge of horsemanship.

Today, manuals of horse riding and horsemanship are available in plenty, both for specific sports and for general readers wanting to deal with horses, and these are available not only in a variety of media, but also for a variety of schools and approaches. Classical riding, ‘natural horsemanship,’ the Spanish school, the French school, the Russian school… But does it mean that French horses are substantially different from Russian horses or that ‘natural’ riders have radically different ways of schooling their horses, making them superior to those ‘broken’ by traditional methods?

It seems that the differences may be largely doctrinal and that doctrines themselves may differ more by their ‘packaging’ than by their substance. Reading the manual of show jumping written half-a-century ago by Olympic rider and trainer of French origin Jean d’Orgeix, I was surprised to see that, in his understanding of the horse and rider’s relations in the course of their performance, the underlying principles were those advocated not only by – once again – Xenophon, but also by the authors of medieval chivalric literature, produced right at the time when apparently ‘nothing was going on’ in European equestrian thought.

The fundamental principle of d’Orgeix’s method is that of ‘rider’s permanent intervention’ or, to be more exact, ‘control’ of the horse throughout the jumping course. At the end of the foreword to his second manual, Cheval, quand tu nous a tenu! [The horse, when you have held us!], d’Orgeix makes a lyrical aside to explain his understanding of the ‘rider’s peкmanent commanding/controlling the horse.’

‘Commander’ est un honneur, mais c’est aussi une responsabilité.

Un vrai cavalier respecte trop son cheval pour prendre cette responsabilité tant qu’il ne croit pas en etre digne.

[‘To command’ is an honour, but it is also a responsibility.

A true rider respects his horse too much to undertake this responsibility if he does not deem himself worthy of it]


This reminded me of the point made by the Lady of the Lake to Lancelot in the prose romance:

au commencement si com tesmoigne lescripture nestoit nus si hardis qui montast sor cheual se cheualier ne fust autant[originally, as the Scriptures reveal, no one was as bold as to mount a horse, if he was not a knight]

In chivalric terms, the rider is also the ruler, the lord, the master of the people and the master of his body, his instincts and his passions:

‘li cheuax sor quoi li cheualiers siet & qui a tous besoins le porte senefie le pueple Car autresi doit il porter li cheualier en tous besoins & desus li doit seoir li cheualiers’ [the horse, on which the knight sits, and which carries him in every need, signifies the people, for in the same way they should carry the knight in every need, and he should sit above them]

. The relation is to be that of respect, based on the rider’s competence, through which he can claim the obedience of his mount. As we all know, an incompetent ruler provides a ready scenario for political disaster, yet a ruler may overjudge his competences.

Interestingly, d’Orgeix also makes a connection between the body political and the body equine:

…On peut évidemment de bonne foi préjuger des ses qualités et se croire à tort capable d’atteindre un stade plus élevé. Si l’on est sincère, ce n’est pas un crime, ce n’est qu’une faute !

…Et c’est seulement en politique qu’une faute est pire qu’un crime !

[…One can obviously overestimate one’s capacity and in good faith mistakenly believe oneself able to reach a high degree. If one is sincere, it is not a crime, it is just a fault!

…And it is only in politics that a fault is worse than a crime!]

By way of conclusion, it seems that d’Orgeix is on to something that the theoreticians and practitioners of medieval chivalric culture knew only too well: the anonymous author of the prose Lancelot and, later, Ramon Lull, as well as those theologians who metaphorized the horsed knight as a soul ruling over the flesh all allude to the ethos of horsemanship that has not changed to this day, whether one practices show jumping, dressage, or ‘natural horsemanship’.


Jean d’Orgeix, Cheval, quand tu nous as tenu! (1951, repr. Paris 2012)

Heinrich Oskar Sommer, The Vulgate Version of the Arthurian Romances: Le livre de Lancelot del Lac (Carnegie Institute, 1910-12)


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Did medieval knights love their horses?

img_6284At present, there are two opposite opinion on the nature of relations between knights and their warhorses. Many people believe that relations between knights and their warhorses were strictly utilitarian: a knight would have as much affection for his horse as we would for a private car that takes us to work or, worse still, to a bus or tramway. Do you have a special affection for the public transport you regularly ride? Not likely. Of course, a good warhorse is also vehicle of social status, like an expensive car today. Many people feel their cars to be special and even give them pet names. But would even the most passionate car lover grieve and cry over a defunct vehicle or bury it in a specially designated place? Not likely.

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Sir Perceval and the Devil: Une Séduction échouée

To every success story, there is at least one, usually more than one, story of failure. If Lanval’s fairy did all the right things (see my previous post), the Devil, who adopted the guise of a beautiful forlorn female in the Queste del Saint Graal, did all the wrong things, or, at least, did a few wrong things, which enabled Perceval to escape the Devil’s snare – just in time.

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Seduction success story: Sir Lanval

fairy-tale-romances-e1423749700793As mentioned in a previous post, there seems to have been a standard formula available to medieval would-be seductresses. Elements of the formula included tents, hot afternoons and distressed knights, all of which were necessary for a lusty lustful lady or damsel to be successful in satisfying her desires. Of course, even the most though-through plans could go awry, if the knight was as conscientious as Sir Perceval (in some versions of Arthurian romance) or the lady/damsel not crafty enough to mask the fact that all sexual activity, extra-marital one especially, was essentially sinful, the work of the devil.

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How to seduce a knight

Here is a rough guide to seducing a paragon of chivalry, bringing him to your feet – and to your bed – resulting in displays of chivalry by day and nights of exhausting pleasure. Caution: only a truly mighty night can endure this routine for long. But then, nothing prevents a damsel from abandoning the exhausted hero in favour of the next prey.

The formula is time-proven and recorded in at least two medieval romances, that of Sir Lanval (originally a lay by Mary de France; translated into Middle English and variously known as Sir Launfal and Sir Landevale), which contains a formula of successful seduction, and of Sir Perceval (the Lancelot-Graal cycle version entitled La Queste del saint graal), which offers a cautionary tale of failed seduction.


Here is a brief outline:

  • Find a knight in distress (yes, there are nights in distress, not only damsels in distress!)
  • Invite the knight to one’s tent/meet him ‘accidentally’ in the forest.
  • Offer the knight something he’s missing sorely: e.g., Lanval is poor, Perceval needs a horse. So, offer a great big horse to both, and to Lanval, money and a servant in addition. NB: Choose a white destrier; a coal-black destrier would be mighty suspicious.
  • Perceval and the temptress, BNF Francais 343, f. 31v
  • Ask the knight to join you for a dinner/supper/late breakfast. Serve lots of wine, spiced wine, wine with honey (claré and pyment work best). NB: the knight should be hungry. NBB: choose a hot day, so there is a pretext to unlace the kirtle suggestively or even undo it entirely up to the waist, as Lanval’s fairy does.
  • After the meal, when the knight is slightly – or considerably – inebriated, suggest a bed to him, meaning a bed together. Even if the damsel is less beautiful than Lanval’s absolutely stunning fairy, even if she has horns, hoofs and a long, tasseled tail, the knight is sure to find his host absolutely irresistible. NB: make sure there are no crosses, cross-shaped sword hills and other objects likely to remind the knight of his Christian duty.

Now, you already see the outlines of failure and success. Lanval’s fairy obviously did the right things, and Perceval’s ‘damsels’ in disguise didn’t. In the next two posts, I will give the main lines of both stories and explain why horses, rather than other valuables, are crucial in this transaction.

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Saints and Horses

Sainst Florus and Laurus

Saints Florus and Laurus

There is something going on between saints and horses: a surprising number of saints, from the early years of Christianity, throughout the Middle Ages, and well into the early modern period, from all geographic regions, from Byzantium to Rus (for instance, Saints Florus and Laurus), in the British Isles, France, and other European countries, perform miracles related to horses. Most commonly, they heal horses. There are also some cases of saints helping to find runaway horses and even of a saint resurrecting a horse.

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Centaurs Like Us

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 14429, Folio 116v. Centaur

the Centaur … is a man combined with a horse. Some say that they were horsemen of Thessaly, but because, as they rushed into battle, the horses and men seemed to have one body, they maintained the fiction of the Centaurs.

In his Etymologies (Book 11, 3:37), Isidore of Seville rationalizes the hybrid creature of the centaur – they are not part-humans, part-horses, they are just men who by virtue of their exceptional riding skills, their unity with the horse, seemed to make one with their mounts.

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Where Bishop Aidan Got his Royal Horse

goldhorse from staffordshire hoardIf you have read my previous post on how Bishop Aidan gave a royally turned-out horse to a beggar, you are probably wondering where did Aidan get the beast in the first place. Without further ado, I reproduce here the relevant passage from Bede – it turns out the Bishop’s horse was a gift to him, and the gift-giver was far from pleased at Aidan generosity, at least at first:

King Oswin … had given a beautiful horse to Bishop Aidan, to use either in crossing rivers, or in performing a journey upon any urgent necessity, though the Bishop was wont to travel ordinarily on foot. Some short time after, a poor man meeting the Bishop, and asking alms, he immediately dismounted, and ordered the horse, with all his royal trappings, to be given to the beggar; for he was very compassionate, a great friend to the poor, and, in a manner, the father of the wretched. This being
told to the king, when they were going in to dinner, he said to the Bishop, “What did you mean, my lord Bishop, by giving the poor man that royal horse, which it was fitting that you should have for your own use? Had not we many other horses of less value, or things of other sorts, which would have been good enough to give to the poor, instead of giving that horse, which I had chosen and set apart for your own use?” Thereupon the Bishop answered, “What do you say, O king? Is that son of a mare more dear to you than that son of God?”

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A horse and a kingly bridle, or a story of Christian generosity

arles38, 2 magi and their horses waiting

Horses of the three kings, part of the Nativity story, from the church of saint Trophimus in Arles (12 c.)

What would you do if, going along on your business, you met with a beggar, and you were short of cash? Christian duty notwithstanding, you probably wouldn’t give the beggar your good new Jaguar with keys and all-cover insurance into the deal?

However, it is exactly this – with a small correction in view of medieval realities – that the Bishop Aidan did, according to the venerable Bede:

“It was a little time later when he was sitting on his horse that a certain poor man came and asked him for alms. Then he alighted immediately and commanded that the poor man be given the horse with the kingly bridle which was on him, because he was so merciful and generous to the needy, and like a father to the poor.” (Old English Bede)

Mercifulness and generosity notwithstanding, the Bishop’s actions seem to be beyond what the occasion demanded. One may wonder whether he was indeed short of cash that moment – but then, couldn’t he have asked one of his followers to give something to the poor man? What would the beggar do with a royal horse? And why is the bridle singled out of all equipment that might have been on the horse?

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Call for papers for session papers on medieval equestrian history at IMC Leeds 2019

via Call for papers for session papers on medieval equestrian history at IMC Leeds 2019

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