Of the Livonians’ Cults, religion(S) and (Im)morality – Again

A Winged DragonDyonisius Fabricius, writing his Livonicae historiae in the first half of the seventeenth century, more than half a century after Balthasar Russow, makes the history of Livonian mores – and immoralities – so much more exciting to read, as well as adding curious observations about the local climate and fauna. Snow can be ordered at will by those skilful in sorcery even on the hottest day. And – did you know it? – Livonia had dragons lurking in its woods and marshes! Of course, not everybody had a pet dragon even in those remote days, so some women had to make go with snakes in between their thighs. A titillating site they must have made to the Jesuit’s amused eyes, though one may wonder in what circumstances he gathered the curious pieces of information not found in Russow’s more austere description of Livonian debaucheries. As I have mentioned previously, Fabricius frequently borrows from Russow the material for the earlier history of Livonia, but the chapter entitled ‘De cultu, religione et moribus incolarum Livoniae’ has no precedent in Russow or, to my knowledge, any other chronicler.

Continue reading

Posted in History of Livonia, Medieval animals, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Count of May Festival in Riga


Stealing the Excalibur…


…with the help of Sir Ivan

With history being in fashion today, it is not surprising that many old traditions are revived or reinvented, attracting tourists and enriching the communities’ cultural lives. A good example of it is the Count of May festival in Riga, a revival of late medieval or early modern tradition, which is described already in Balthasar Russow’s Chronicle of Livonia.

Continue reading

Posted in Historical Sites and Monuments, History, History of Livonia, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sex and witchcraft in early modern Livonia: the eyewitness accounts by Balthasar Russow and Dionysius Fabricius

No photo description available.

A Latvian witch

It’s been a long time since my promised post on the outrageous morals of early modern Livonians, which fired Protestant pastors (Balthasar Russow, quoted from in my previous post) and Jesuit brothers alike. In fact, I have found another chronicle of Livonia, the History of Livonia written in the seventeenth century by the Jesuit Dyonisius Fabricius. Fabricius borrows on Russow, but he has a slightly differing view of the Livonian native peasants as different from the debauched nobility of Livonia. The former appear to be uneducated, semi-pagan, yet interested in listening to sermons delivered at churches. Fabricius notes that, because of the dearth of priests, the simple folk have insufficient knowledge of Christianity, especially in forested, scarcely populated areas around the borders

Continue reading

Posted in Historical Sites and Monuments, History, History of Livonia, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

I dreamt a dream… Or horsemanship for Arthurian enthusiasts


I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming… A book about horses in Arthurian romance… My own book…

It is a laconic book, with many pictures reproducing miniatures in famous French and English romances, with lots of references to studies by earlier horse historians and Arthurians and by my colleagues, with the analysis kept as concise as possible and the amount of professional jargon – both equestrian and Arthurian – kept to a strict minimum.

A book envisaging a double audience: Arthurian scholars and horse historians. Also all medievalists interested in the context – in knowing more than just their own field, in feeling the Middle Ages as they felt to the people inhabiting them, in knowing what people knew then and reconstructing the way people thought then.

Continue reading

Posted in Arthurian Literature, equestrian history, Gender and Literature, History, Medieval animals, Medieval horses, Medieval Literature, Practical Equestrianism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Practical Horsemanship in Medieval Arthurian Romance


The figure of a knight on horseback is the emblem of medieval chivalry. Much has been written on the ideology and practicalities of knighthood as portrayed in medieval romance, especially Arthurian romance, and it is surprising that so little attention was hitherto granted to the knight’s closest companion, the horse. This study examines the horse as a social indicator, as the knight’s animal alter ego in his spiritual peregrinations and earthly adventures, the ups and downs of chivalric adventure, as well as the relations between the lady and her palfrey in romance. Both medieval authors and their audiences knew more about the symbolism and practice of horsemanship than most readers do today. By providing the background to the descriptions of horses and horsemanship in Arthurian romance, this study deepens the readers’ appreciation of these texts. At the same time, critical reading of romance supplies information about the ideology and daily practice of horsemanship in the Middle Ages that is otherwise impossible to obtain from other sources, be it archaeology, chronicles or administrative documentation.


Anastasija Ropa holds a doctoral degree from Bangor University (North Wales), for a study in medieval and modern Arthurian literature. She has published several articles on medieval and modern Arthurian literature, focusing on its historical and artistic aspects. Anastasija is a member of the British Branch of the International Arthurian Society and of the Centre for Arthurian Studies. She is currently employed as guest lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education. Anastasija’s most recent research explores medieval equestrianism in English and French literary sources and documents, and she has been one of the organizers of sessions on medieval equestrianism at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds since 2016.

For reading a free sample from the book and ordering it, visit Trivent Publishing

Posted in Arthurian Literature, equestrian history, Gender and Literature, Medieval animals, Medieval horses, Medieval Literature, Practical Equestrianism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Livonia’s Horses and Immorality in Russow’s Chronicle

ARBaltica3In 1577, Balthasar Russow, a pastor from Revel, completed The Chronicle of Livonia. In the chronicle, he provides a full history of Livonia from its beginnings in 1158, when merchants from Bremen entered the land, to his own days. Relying in the early part on previous sources, he quickly goes through the conquest of the land and the 42 masters of the Livonian Order. The latter reads mostly as a list of warlike guys who came to Livonia to make war, collect as much booty from the heathen neighbours as possible, then retire to the more pleasant and quiet whereabouts in Germany. Unless they got killed or were quite old already and died in this unhospitable land.

Continue reading

Posted in equestrian history, History, History of Livonia, Medieval animals, Medieval horses, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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)


Posted in Arthurian Literature, equestrian history, Gender and Literature, History, Medieval animals, Medieval horses, Medieval Literature, Practical Equestrianism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Continue reading

Posted in Arthurian Literature, equestrian history, Medieval animals, Medieval horses, Medieval Literature, Practical Equestrianism | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Continue reading

Posted in Arthurian Literature, equestrian history, Gender and Literature, Medieval animals, Medieval horses, Medieval Literature | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Continue reading

Posted in Arthurian Literature, Gender and Literature, Medieval Literature, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment