Oats from Paul’s High Altar: What do we know of horses in the Middle Ages?

Revisiting the Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies research seminar podcasts yesterday, I lit upon what seems to be a particularly outrageous boast by a Saracen tyrant, who claimed his horses would eat oats from St. Paul’s high altar in Rome. It came in a paper given by Philippa Hardman on February 15, 2011, ‘Making Use of the Matter of France in the Middle English Charlemagne romances’. The context in which this claim is reported is the fifteenth-century Europe, already threatened by the Ottoman advances in the near east, with the fall of Constantinople occurring in 1453. The Saracen theme in English and French literature is a theme in itself, and I am particularly fascinated by its manifestation in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur and its French sources (I have communicated my very provisional thoughts on some of its aspects in a paper I presented at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, 2010, entitled ‘Missionaries and Crusaders in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur).

What I saw in the ‘eating oats’ image was not the outrageous sacrilege implied, nor the clash of two seemingly irreconcilable cultures, but the prominence of horse in medieval warfare and daily life. It is a commonplace to underline the place of the horse both as a symbol and as a valuable asset in the eastern world, but one should not forget that up to the twentieth century, the horse remained as vital for the western civilization as it was in the east. In our digital age of virtual realities, ‘second lives’, etc., we tend to loose sight of the material realities which shaped the fortunes of people in the previous ages. In recent scholarship, the focus has changed from the study of ideas and texts as such to the study of texts and ideas in their context: thus, one would discuss a text such as Morte Arthure (not to be confused with Malory’s romance) as part of a miscellany in which it was preserved. The above-mentioned paper of Philippa Hardman is an excellent example of literature discussed in its manuscript context. However, it seems to me that further study of material culture is vital for a better understanding of history and literature in the Middle Ages. Moreover, one of the best ways of communicating the new developments in medieval studies to the public is by means of visual media, such as films, re-enactment and computer games, all of which require a good understanding of medieval material culture.

In particular, knowing the details of equine culture is crucial for approaching the understanding of medieval romance as they were read by their medieval audiences. Horses were more than the medieval equivalent of cars, mainly for the obvious reason that they were living beings, whose actions cannot be controlled to the same extent one can control a machine. Unfortunately, outside the circle of equine specialists, there is little understanding of the horse in today’s society.

Some time ago, looking at medieval illuminations, I noticed that the depiction of horses in one and the same manuscript were not uniform, but could vary to reflect on the rider’s status, including his moral condition as well as his physical prowess. Look, for instance, at the horses bearing two riders of the Apocalypse in the British Library Add. 22493 manuscript

St John and the Fourth Horseman

The Rider on Red Horse

– they do seem a bit different, don’t they?

I think this aspect of medieval illumination can enhance our understanding of a particular text by the producers and/or audiences of the illuminated manuscript. Moreover, with the texts surviving in several illuminated manuscripts, such as my favourite, the Queste del Saint Graal, it can show the change in the text reception over time and space.

Warhorses, ladies’ palfreys, rounceys and hackneys… Of course I will not be the first person studying the horse in medieval romance, but this field still promises a rich harvest. So I invite everyone interested to join me!


About thegrailquest

Anastasija Ropa holds a doctoral degree from Bangor University (North Wales), for a study in medieval and modern Arthurian literature. She has published a number of articles on medieval and modern Arthurian literature, focusing on its historical and artistic aspects. 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 art and literature, and she is also engaged as part-time volunteer horse-trainer. In a nutshell: Lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education Graduate of the School of English, University of Wales, Bangor. Graduate of the University of Latvia Passionate about history, particularly the Middle Ages A horse-lover and horse-owner
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