Horse and Human Interface in the Middle Ages

Were medieval horses loved by their riders? Or were their regarded as pieces of functional machinery, discarded when they run out of order without a second thought? So many sources, both modern and medieval, refer to them as if they had been mere machines, complex but replaceable (Jeffrey Forgeng suggests as much in his ‘Introduction’ to The Book of Horsemanship). The matter-of-fact testimony of restauratio equorum, analyzed for Edwardian England by Andrew Ayton, certainly suggests as much. Likewise, knights in romances rarely stop to grieve their fallen mounts, as long as they have replacements at hand. Even Dom Duarte I in the The Book of Horsemanship  has little to say about the personality of a medieval horses, except that it must be a ‘good horse’.

But what was a ‘good horse’ in the Middle Ages? …

Symbolically, the medieval horse was the emblem of obedience: it is the people ruled by the king or the body governed by reason and soul. In fact, this symbolism links the horse with the irrational, the unpredictable, alerting the horseman to the rebellious, inherently dangerous nature of the animal. This awareness, largely lost among non-horsemen today, provides the clue to the emotions characterizing the  horse and human interface in the Middle Ages. The affection – or aversion – could develop between the horse and the rider, influencing their performances and, often, becoming a matter of life and death.

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Lioni, the first horse I have broken in on my own

As a long-time horse-lover and horse-owner, more recently, a volunteer horse trainer, I have very strong feelings about horses. To put it more simply, I love most horses, adore quite a few, and hate very few of them. I usually try, and succeed, at loving the horses I ride and train, and to preserve a distance from all but my own girl. I have found that having a positive, caring attitude towards the horse with which I work is crucial. If I feel indifference, the horse answers with the same. If I dislike it – well, it could be dangerous, given that I mostly work with young and ‘problem’ horses. But even the most ‘vicious’ or ‘crazy’ horses tend to behave better when loved.

A check on my affection is necessary, because I do not want to be brokenhearted when the horse I have helped to train is sold, usually abroad, or goes back to her owners. I can imagine that medieval riders, especially those who, due to their rank or station would come into contact with a lot of horses and change them frequently would have the same measured affection towards their mounts.

Over the years I have been riding, I have encountered different horses under different circumstances, and I can remember every single one of them – if not their names, I can remember their gaits, their looks and their habits. As to the horses I helped to train, I can remember not just the names, but also their whimsies and preferences, their ‘vices’ that turned into virtues, their fears and their passions. Interestingly, I have the strongest affection for the horses who gave me most trouble – and they were always the best, too.

This brings me to another point – or another horse, my own horse, who enjoys my unchecked affections and all the privileges and troubles that come with it. In fact, I have recently made a video dedicated to this wonderful horse, a slideshow of photos over our six years of companionship set to the music of a religious hymn, ‘You Raise Me Up’. It seemed an appropriate choice, as we do a lot of jumping. Another reason for my music choice is that, as Dom Duarte never tires of reminding his reader, the practice of physical arts, and equestrian arts in particular, is as important as fostering spiritual and moral virtues. Indeed, there is a link between the bodily and moral exercises.

Returning to medieval horses and singular affections, there is certain evidence that, among the mass of ‘good horses’, good warhorses and just horses, there was still place for companionship between the horse and rider. Horses share in their riders’ fortunes and misfortunes, ups and downs, both physical and spiritual, as I have argued in my paper on ‘Feasting and Fasting with Horses’ at IMC Leeds 2016 (and will develop further at the IMC 2017). Medieval romances, chronicles as well as the Welsh triads all preserve some names of individual horses associated with the most celebrated knights. In the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the horses of both the title characters are described in detail and, to an extent, individualized. Gawain’s horse is called Gringalet and, when he travels in search of the Green Knight, the poet reminds us that the stallion was the only company: ‘o comrade had he save his steed, and none save God with whom to take counsel’. In the Welsh triads, we find the name of Sir Owain’s horse, though Lady Charlotte Guest cautions us against identifying the animal with any of Owain’s horses in the Mabinogion:

The name of Owain’s horse is recorded, with the epithet of ‘irrestrainable,’ (Anrheithfarch,) but we cannot venture to affirm that the Carn Aflawg (or grasping hoofed) of the Triads, was either the charger which he received from the Lady of the Castle, or that which met with so disastrous a fate at the falling of the portcullis.

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Ywain on a white horse pursuing the black knight (Lady Guest’s Mabinogion, ‘Lady of the Fountain’

The Russian chronicles credit the death of the tenth-century ruler, Oleg of Novgorod, also known as Oleg the Prophet, to his stallion (the legend was romanticized by A. Pushkin in the poem ‘Song of the Wise Oleg’)… In other words, there is evidence that, alongside the body of anonymous horses in romances and lists (inventories, restauratio equorum, court documents), there lived and breathed individual, named and loved, cared for and caring horses. They were not machines. They were friends, just like the horses we ride today.

Further reading:

The Book of Horsemanship by Duarte I of Portugal. Translated by Jeffrey L. Forgeng

Andrew Ayton, Knights and Warhorses. Military Service and the English Aristocracy under Edwrad III

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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
This entry was posted in Arthurian Literature, equestrian history, History, Medieval horses, Medieval Literature and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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