‘In the days of Chivalry it was deemed a disgrace to ride upon a mare, and no greater indignity could be inflicted on a recreant Knight than to cause him to be placed upon one’ (Lady Charlotte Guest, The Mabinogion, 1838, vol. 1). Did you ever wonder why a knight could never ride a mare and be considered a man? Was it because the patriarchal, male-dominated chivalry admitted no female to its inner circles of power, even if that female was equine? Or should the narrative of homosocial bonding and rampant feminism be abandoned in favour of a more mundane – or indeed, of a more exotic – explanation? Was it even true that the western male elite rode only stallions, never mares, geldings or mules?
In her article the ‘English metrical romance of Percival’, appended to the tale of ‘Peredur the Son of Evrawc’, Lady Guest comments that, in the English version, ‘Percival is therefore doubtless represented as mounted on a mare, in order to add to the absurdity of his appearance and equipments’. Interestingly, the Welsh version of the tale is not gender-specific: Peredur is riding an old working horse, thus appearing poor and, doubtless, ridiculous, but not unmanned, as in the English romance.
In her notes on the continental chivalry, Lady Guest here relies on St. Palaye’s Mémoires sur l’ancienne chevalerie, which she must have seen before its publication in 1838, as her own volume I of the Mabinogion appeared the same year. She, thus, had access, to most up-to-date research and collaborated closely with other scholars of the time, including those working on the French material. One of them was Hersart de la Villemarqué, who edited for her Chrétien de Troyes’ Owain, (published in the notes), and went on to author a number of works on medieval literature, including an edition of Breton folklore, as in the nineteenth century folkloric material was generally accepted to be dating back to the medieval period.
In his edition of the Breton songs, Villemarqué includes ‘The March of Arthur’, which he introduces as an ancient war song of the Bretons. The song enumerates the vengeance the army would wreck upon the enemy, among it ‘Stallion for horse, and mule for donkey! general (or ‘war leader’) for soldier, and man for child! blood for tears, and flames for sweat!’ A stallion, as different from the generic ‘horse’, is of the same order as other superior military attributes, war leaders, men, blood, fire, and, surprisingly, mules, though these could have been used as comparatively swift and enduring pack animals.
There were, however, some exceptions: in the east, the unashamed Saracens and pagans rode mares and geldings indiscriminately, even though the practice was scorned by the westerners. In medieval Wales, the a warhorse or destrier could have been a gelding, or so the Southern version of the Welsh law intimates (the Latin redaction of the laws of Hywel Dda). Mares, however, were used neither for riding nor for work by the Welsh, and their compensation value was fixed, while the compensation value for (male) foals would depend on their age and level of training and for other working horses – on their use. Definitely, the Welsh Peredur had a poor working horse for a mount, but not a mare.
So, why did medieval western society have such an issue with mares? Did people think that relying on a female mount would have compromised the knight’s masculinity? Then why would women ride stallions?
Female horses are not specifically inferior in strength, endurance or intelligence, neither are gelded horses, as one can see by looking at the performance of modern sport horses. The explanation for the absence of mares from among the working stock could be purely practical: they were used for breeding. Indeed, broodmares could be named and valued by their owners, who knew well enough that it takes both a good mare and a good stallion to produce a quality foal. In most of the Western Europe, mares and young horses were usually kept at pastures throughout the year, often in the wooded areas. This, in fact, is still the practice in certain large studs, where foals are allowed to run practically wild with the mares until the age when they can be trained. Nowadays, the most valuable horses would be kept in stables from a very age. In the Middle Ages, they need not be even priced individually until they were broken in: mares had a statutory price from the age when they could be put in foal, and the price of young horses increased with time until they could be broken in. Again, in the Welsh law, a new compensation was set when for a horse that was caught and haltered, and, after it had undergone suitable training, its final value under the law would be fixed. The horse’s price could vary, depending on the skill of the dealer and the willingness of the buyer, but, interestingly enough, leaving a warhorse on pasture would entail the loss of its status for a destrier in the independent Wales…
Medieval economy required an enormous amount of horses, especially in wartime. Not all foals would have matured into working horses, either, due to injury and epidemics and other eventualities. Thus, mares could have been much too valuable to be used for work, unless by the very poor. In fact, it would have been cheaper to leave them on pasture rather than training and using them with intermittent ‘maternity leaves’. In the more nomadic economies, mares would travel with the rest of the household, and there was little to no additional expenditure in feed and labour for using them as mounts and even warhorses.
Ideology comes into play, at some point, too. Stallions, indeed, are more likely to fight or to play for good reasons or for no reason at all, and they are often more active and more attached to their owners or carers than mares. Certain scholars argue that the western knight was, in cultural terms, an assemblage, a cyborg-like construct of arms and armour, trained, obedient body and powerful yet controlled mount. In this case, of course, a stallion fits in the picture better than a gelding or a mare: though it does not explain why mares were of little use for the non-combatants.
I may be totally wrong in all of these respects, of course, but if I am, I hope some kind soul may point out my error. Or, better still, give a paper at one of those excellent Equestrianism sessions at the IMC Leeds.
Lady Charlotte Guest (ed. and trans.), The Mabinogion, from the Llyfr Coch o Hergest and other Ancient Welsh Manuscripts: with an English Translation and Notes by Lady Charlotte Guest, vols I-III (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1838)
St. Palaye, Mémoires sur l’ancienne chevalerie (1838)
Hersart de la Villemarqué, Barzaz Breiz. Chants populaires de la Bretagne recueillis, traduits et annotés par le vicomte Hersart de la Villemarqué, member de l’institut (Paris: Librairie académique, 1883), 8th edition