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Breeding Medieval Horses: Then And Now (Blog 6)

Leading up to the Middle Ages, a great deal of quality breeding horses had been lost due to a lack of need for well-bred riding horses and uncontrolled breeding. This was a significant factor in the way horses were bred during this time: based much more on size and ability than whether they shared bloodlines or defining features with the stock they were bred from. The Spanish were an exception: having already developed a reputation as a horse breeding land, they maintained several significant bloodlines and “Spanish horses” were renowned throughout Europe as the highest quality, and most expensive, horses.

Since the medieval war horse didn’t belong to any particular breed, nor do we have records of any of these horses’ bloodlines, it is unclear exactly what breeds it originated from. Popular theory usually suggests that the Spanish Jennet, a type of draft horse that was an ancestor to modern Andalusian and Friesian horses, was also the principle ancestor of the medieval warhorse. Another breed, known as the Nisaean breed (now extinct, but may be akin to the modern Turkmen horse or Akhal-Teke), is thought to have contributed to medieval breeding stock as many of these horses were brought back to Europe from the Crusades. Some sources from Germany also allude to quality horses from Scandinavia, though what breeds they are referring to is unknown.

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Depiction of destriers with light feathering on the legs, similar to modern draft breeds such as the Belgian and Percheron

Selective horse breeding became more common once the people realized how important good warhorses were to success in battle. The implementation of these practices was due in large part to the influence of Islamic culture both through the Crusades and the Moors’ invasion of Spain. Many of these cultures, especially the Arabs, kept detailed pedigrees of their horses through oral tradition. We have a very thorough knowledge of modern Barb and Arabian breeds as a result, and many breeders can trace their horses’ ancestry back almost a thousand years.

While most Europeans didn’t start keeping record of their horses’ pedigrees until the 13th century, the Spanish kept some of the earliest records of horse breeding on the continent. These were written mostly by Carthusian monks who, since they had the ability to read and write, were tasked with keeping records of breeding horses by the Spanish nobility. Hundreds of years of careful breeding resulted in what was known in Medieval times simply as the Spanish horse. Conversely, the English and French obtained much of their breeding stock by rounding up wild moor ponies.

fell pony

This is a Fell Pony, a small, stocky breed with feathered legs. The medieval destrier may have looked something like this.

The medieval warhorse is considered an extinct breed today. As the use of horses changed over time, so did the way people bred them and selected for traits. Horses have become gradually larger over time, small, stocky ponies were replaced by taller and lighter horses for riding, and huge, heavy draft breeds for farm work. The specific type of horse known as the destrier disappears from record around the 17th century, making it difficult to trace exactly what breeds evolved from it. Many modern draft breeds claim connection to the famed medieval warhorse, including the Percheron, Suffolk Punch, and Belgian. Some historians think this is likely, while others contend that the destrier would have been much smaller and somewhat lighter than the draft breeds, as well as being known for its “hot-blooded” nature. A suggested solution is that the destriers were crossed with more “cold-blooded” draft breeds as the use of horses shifted to farming, and the modern draft breeds evolved from there. The Friesian is often claimed to be a direct descendant of medieval French warhorses, though, again, the modern version of this breed must have evolved to some degree. Proponents of this theory often point to the previously mentioned practice in England and France of rounding up wild ponies to use for breeding. The Fell pony, a small, hardy breed found in the mountains between England and Scotland, is known to share ancestry with the Friesian. Many therefore argue that the breed has at least some relation to the medieval warhorse.

Works Cited:

“Horses in the Middle Ages.” Wikipedia. November 21, 2018. Accessed November 30, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horses_in_the_Middle_Ages.

Bennett, Matthew. The Medieval Warhorse: Origin, Development, and Redevelopment. Wiley Blackwell.

Hyland, Ann. The Medieval Warhorse from Byzantium to the Crusades. Royal Asiatic Society, 1994.

Bennett, Matthew. “The medieval warhorse reconsidered.” In Medieval Knighthood, 5. Papers from the Sixth Strawberry Hill Conference 1994, pp. 19-40. 1994.

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Warhorses in Europe and the Middle East (Blog 5)

Middle Eastern, or “Oriental” horses, were bred with much more precision than European horses. Breeds such as the Arabian, Akhal-Teke, and Barb developed in this region and are all considered to be among the oldest horse breeds on the planet due to their long history of selective breeding practices and careful pedigree records. People in the Middle East also bred for different characteristics than Europeans. Part of this was due to climate—Europeans tended to favor the shaggy highland ponies that could withstand cold temperatures as well as breeds with feather around their feet that protected their legs while traveling difficult terrain. Middle Eastern horses on the other hand were thin skinned and much lighter and slimmer in build.

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An Arabian horse in the desert. Antoine-Jean Gros, c. 1810

Both regions used their horses for war as well as for ceremony and sport. As previously noted, European cavalry orchestrated its offense by charging enemy lines, using the strength and numbers of their horses to overpower their opponents. Middle Eastern people on the other hand often raided enemy settlements and needed a fast, agile horse to do so. Often very lightly armored, these horses were also characterized by extreme endurance and hardiness, with some legends saying they could run for fifty miles without slowing. While these claims may have been exaggerated somewhat, modern Arabian horses are the undisputed champions of endurance races and are one of the hardiest breeds in existence today. The breed is also characterized by having greater bone density than other horses along with lean muscle, giving them a strength not often attributed to their relatively small size (14.1—15.1 hands is the modern breed standard height).

Both Middle Eastern and European warhorses were considered to be “hot-blooded” breeds. This trait, broadly defined as being spirited, quick to learn, and generally more suited to speed and agility than strength, was an important characteristic for a warhorse to have. The horses from both cultures displayed this trait very differently however: many sources point to European warhorses as being fierce and difficult to handle, while the Arabian horse in particular traveled with nomadic groups and was prized for its cooperative and good-natured disposition. Middle Eastern people also rode mares into battle almost exclusively, which could have been a contributing factor in their horses’ friendliness and how easy they were to control. Mares could also be kept close together without fighting, while the stallions favored by Europeans sometimes turned on one another during battle. Additionally, mares tended to be much quieter (stallions often neigh to establish dominance), and the nighttime raids the warhorses were most often used for required stealth.

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“Mameluck en Attaque” 18th-century painting by Carle Vernet depicting an Arabian warhorse

Additionally, Middle Eastern cultures such as the Bedouin people prized their horses much more highly than Europeans, who saw them more as a commodity that could be easily replaced. To protect their horses from theft, the Bedouin often allowed them to stay inside the family tent at night. As only the horses with a good temperament were used for breeding, the Arabian horse has evolved over time to have a good relationship with people. The draft breeds that (may or may not have) descended from the European warhorse can be quite friendly, but no other breed of horse has had quite the same long-term partnership with humans as the Arabian. This partnership was important because humans were the only source of food and water in the desert, and both the nomadic people and the horses had to learn to work together to survive.

Works Cited:

Głażewska, Iwona. “Speculations on the origin of the Arabian horse breed.” Livestock Science 129, no. 1-3 (2010): 49-55.

An Arabian horse in the desert. Antoine-Jean Gros, c. 1810

Raber, Karen, and Treva Tucker, eds. The culture of the horse: Status, discipline, and identity in the early modern world. Springer, 2016.

Bennett, Matthew. The Medieval Warhorse: Origin, Development, and Redevelopment. Wiley Blackwell.

Hyland, Ann. The Medieval Warhorse from Byzantium to the Crusades. Royal Asiatic Society, 1994.

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Horse Armor (Blog 4)

Horse armor, known as “barding,” was as important to the success of an army as the armor that knights wore. As armor technology became better and better, opposing armies began to target the knights’ more vulnerable horses, unseating the riders and making them easy prey for heavy infantry. The idea of putting armor on horses was not a new one, but prior to the middle ages it was made primarily of hardened leather (or metal scales in the case of the Byzantines) rather than chain mail and metal plating.

There were many different pieces of armor that horses could wear, but the amount of armoring they needed varied depending on the way a particular army used their cavalry. Some only wore chest and head pieces, while others were almost completely covered by armor.

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Open chanfron with rondel

A chanfron (or “shaffron”) was made of interlocking metal plates and was designed to protect a horse’s face. The size of these pieces varied, with some chanfrons covering only the forehead and top of the nose and others with hinged cheek plates that went down to the jowls and covers for the ears and eyes. Chanfrons often had a rounded spike in the center of the forehead called a rondel which, despite looking like a weapon, was purely decorative. The chanfron was known to be used by cavalry in ancient Greece, but wasn’t seen in Europe until the 12th century when metal armor began to be used for horses rather than hardened leather.

An open chanfron was open around the horse’s eyes, with some believing that this was done to allow full range of vision. More common were chanfrons with flanges protecting the eyes. While this helped keep a vulnerable part of the horse safe (enemies would often aim for the eyes of horses to try and get them to throw their riders or crash into other horses), it acted like a set of blinders and prevented the horse from seeing very far to the sides or behind. This in turn could cause the horse to panic in battle if they were surrounded by loud noises that they couldn’t see.

The criniere (also called a manefaire) was a series of segmented metal plates called lames used to protect a horse’s neck. Each piece was held together by cloth laces or leather straps, allowing the horse to bend its head while still maintaining the protection of the armor. Heavy cavalry often wore two sets of lames, one over the mane and another around the front and sides of the neck. Light cavalry only covered the mane, with thin leather straps running across the horse’s chest to hold it on. The criniere was often buckled or strapped to the chanfron to keep it in place. Additionally, it was common for chain mail to be attached to the top row of lames and wrapped around the neck for extra protection.

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Full set of armor with plate croupiere, criniere, and peytral (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.)

A croupiere was used to protect a horse’s hindquarters. Since this area faced away from a charge and was not likely to be targeted to bring a horse down, horses typically wore less or lighter armor on their hind end. Croupieres could be made of any combination of plate armor, chain mail, or leather. Chain mail was the most common, usually attached to the back of the saddle and draped over the horse’s hindquarters like a blanket. Plate armor, while providing better protection, wasn’t flexible like leather or chain mail and often had to be made too large so that the movement of the horse’s hind legs was not impeded. Additionally, there was no one-size-fits-all design for these types of croupieres, since horses vary in size and build. When they were used, plate croupieres were attached to the back of the saddle either by leather straps or a molded metal front piece to the armor that fit over the rear cantle.

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Peytral with decorative openings, early 16th century, Germany

The flanchard was used to protect the horse’s flanks. It could be made of riveted metal plates sewn on top of leather, or a type of hardened leather called cuir bouilli, which was boiled and sealed with beeswax. Flanchards were attached to the saddle and usually had a strap that wrapped around either the front or the rear of the horse to keep the armor from pulling the saddle to the sides. This strap often took the form of a peytral, a curved band of metal that protected the horse’s chest and sometimes stretched as far back as the saddle. The flanchard sometimes had small round or oblong openings that allowed the rider to use spurs. Another piece often added to horses’ armor ensemble was metal plates or chainmail links riveted to the reins so they couldn’t be cut.

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Two knights jousting, with horses in full caparison

Perhaps one of the most recognizable parts of medieval horses’ armor is the caparison. These were cloth coverings, often bearing heraldry designs, that could range in size from what was essentially a large saddle covering to blankets that covered the horse from neck to tail and nearly to the ground. It is not known exactly how well they functioned as armor, but modern reenactments have shown that a loose covering made of relatively thick material is reasonably good for blocking arrows and other projectiles, or at least lessening their impact. Caparisons may have also had an undercloth layer called a gambeson. These were quilted from linen or wool, and partially stuffed with horse hair or straw to provide padding. The caparison could also have had an underlayer of chain mail or flexible riveted plates, though this likely would have been used only by heavy cavalry as the traditional armor beneath combined with the full-body protection of the caparison would have been more than enough to protect the horse by itself, not to mention the excess weight of a full coat of chain mail would add unnecessary weight.

Heraldry and the display of a rider’s coat of arms was very important both in battle and in tournaments such as jousting. The caparison worn by a knight’s horse in particular usually displayed colors and symbols unique to its rider. The main tincture of a knight’s coat of arms was usually the base color of the caparison, with charges (symbols located on the shield of a coat of arms, often animals, mythical creatures, or geometric designs) painted or embroidered along the sides. The color of these designs could have multiple meanings: sometimes it represented the tincture (secondary or “top” color on a coat of arms) and other times it represented the knight’s livery colors (indication of a noble’s status or wealth).

Works Cited:

Breiding, Dirk H. “Horse Armor in Europe.” The Met. March 2010. Accessed November 30, 2018. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hors/hd_hors.htm.

Breiding, Dirk H. “Horse armor in medieval and Renaissance Europe: An overview.” The Armored Horse in Europe (2005): 1480-1620.

Clark, John, ed. The medieval horse and its equipment, c. 1150-c. 1450. Vol. 5. Boydell Press, 2004.

Bennett, Matthew. The Medieval Warhorse: Origin, Development, and Redevelopment. Wiley Blackwell.

Shaffron (Horse’s Head Defense). Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art. In The Met. Accessed November 30, 2018. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/14.25.1664/.

“Barding.” Wikipedia. August 12, 2018. Accessed November 30, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barding.

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Medieval Horse Training (Blog 3)

Warhorses needed to be at least somewhat trained before they could be ridden in battle. They had to learn to respond to cues from their rider’s legs rather than the reins, as the knights needed their hands free to wield weapons. Horses were known to kick and bite at enemies in the heat of battle, though it is not known whether they were trained to do so or if it was simply a natural response to the chaotic situation. Europeans were known to prefer stallions as warhorses, as their natural aggressive tendencies made them useful in battle and less likely to be frightened, but it is not known whether a significant number of stallions were actually used. If a mare nearby was in heat, a stallion quickly became a liability for anyone trying to control it. In addition, stallions often become very aggressive with one another, which presented a significant danger to them and their handlers. It would have been impractical to expect a bunch of stallions to line up close together in any sort of cavalry formation. However, some sources report that warhorses frequently fought each other in the middle of battle, often after their riders had been unseated or killed and no one was around to restrain them. They were most useful when it came to charging enemy lines and taking down soldiers on foot, so perhaps their tactical advantage would have outweighed the difficulty of handling them.

Jousting was another important way that warhorses learned the skills they needed for battle. Jousting tournaments were held frequently throughout the Middle Ages, and allowed a horse to get used to potentially frightening sights and sounds of lances striking armor and riders falling off around them. It also taught them to charge straight and respond to their rider’s cues, two skills that were essential to any good warhorse. It allowed them to build up their strength and endurance as well as get used to carrying the weight of a knight and his armor. The tournaments also gave knights an opportunity to test out prospective war horses and see which ones would be best suited for riding in battle.

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Depiction of a joust

While warhorses would have to build up their strength to some extent to perform at the necessary level, most of this was manifested as endurance and speed rather than actual physical strength needed to carry an armored rider. A common misconception surrounding knights’ armor is that it was very heavy—this often leads to the additional assumption that warhorses had to have been huge and draft-like to carry so much weight. Tournament armor was significantly heavier than field, or battle, armor, and still only weighed around 90 pounds. Field armor could weigh anywhere from 40 to 70 pounds, depending on whether the knight was part of a heavy or light cavalry, and the armor worn by the horse rarely weighed more than 70 pounds. All together this added up to around 1,100 to 1,400 pounds for (fully armored) horses being ridden in battle. As horses can easily carry around 30% of their body weight, such a load would have been reasonable for a heavier built riding horse, and a large draft breed would not have been necessary. Also worth noting is the need for horses within the 14-16 hand range so that knights could mount without assistance. While this was likely due in some part to the pride of being able to leap onto a horse’s back while fully armored, it really came down to necessity. If a knight fell off his horse during a battle he was left very vulnerable if he couldn’t get back on without help.

Works Cited:

Bennett, Matthew. “The medieval warhorse reconsidered.” In Medieval Knighthood, 5. Papers from the Sixth Strawberry Hill Conference 1994, pp. 19-40. 1994.

Raber, Karen, and Treva Tucker, eds. The culture of the horse: Status, discipline, and identity in the early modern world. Springer, 2016.

“Horses in the Middle Ages.” Wikipedia. November 21, 2018. Accessed November 30, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horses_in_the_Middle_Ages.

Bennett, Matthew. The Medieval Warhorse: Origin, Development, and Redevelopment. Wiley Blackwell.

Codex Manesse, UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 52r: Walther von Klingen

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Medieval Horses in War (Blog 2)

Horses used in battle had to be large and strong enough to carry the weight of a fully armored knight on their back. They also had to be relatively fast and agile enough to turn rapidly and accelerate quickly. Battles were also loud, chaotic, and difficult to follow, and these horses had to be desensitized enough to respond to their rider’s cues even in circumstances that would normally frighten them.

Before medieval times, cavalry was defined almost exclusively by small, light horses and riders with little armor. The medieval era saw the beginning of heavy cavalry use. However, such occurrences were rare as almost all offensive medieval battles took place in the form of sieges. Any cavalry used in these situations were light and fast. In fact, cavalry typically rode through for an initial charge, then left their horses at the rear of the army and continued fighting on foot. By the late Middle Ages however, large pitched cavalry battles became more and more common and heavy cavalry was introduced as an attempt to counter the increasing success of infantry attacks. This era saw the introduction of knights and horses in plate armor, armed with lances and spears rather than axes and swords.

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Horses in battle, with riders carrying lances

The development of new riding technology was crucial to the success of knights and warhorses in battle. The invention of the solid-treed saddle by the Romans allowed a rider’s weight to be distributed evenly over a horse’s back, with the heaviest point resting on the shoulders rather than the spine. Not only did this prolong the useful life of work and riding horses, it made carrying a fully armored knight much more feasible. The seat was also more built up, providing the rider with greater security and further reducing the amount of weight placed directly on the more delicate part of the horse’s back. The cantle of the late medieval saddle was also built up enough to allow a rider to wield a lance more effectively.

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8th century solid-treed saddle

In addition, the solid-treed saddle allowed for the attachment of stirrups. Stirrups were invented in China around 480 AD. By the late 8th century, largely due to Central Asian invaders, they began to be adopted by European riders. Stirrups were beneficial to riders because they allowed them to distribute their weight through their feet rather than gripping with their legs to stay on the horse. Along with the raised cantle for support, a knight could now stand up in the stirrups and lean much further to the left or right in battle. Knights began using a wider variety of weapons as a result, including javelins and sometimes swords rather than the typical couched lance that could be used from a stationary position.

Works Cited:

Bennett, Matthew. The Medieval Warhorse: Origin, Development, and Redevelopment. Wiley Blackwell.

Hyland, Ann. The Medieval Warhorse from Byzantium to the Crusades. Royal Asiatic Society, 1994.

Clark, John, ed. The medieval horse and its equipment, c. 1150-c. 1450. Vol. 5. Boydell Press, 2004.

Paolo Uccello – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing

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Horses in the Middle Ages (Blog 1)

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Bayeux Tapestry Panel 62

Bayeux Tapestry Panel

The Bayeux Tapestry. approx: 1070-1080. The Bayeux, Normandy. “The Bayeux Tapestry scene62.jpeg” Wikimedia Commons. Accessed 11/20/2018. 

The full sentence at the top of this section of the tapestry reads “Hic Ceciderunt Lewine et Gyrd Fratres Haroldi Regis,” or “Here fell Leofwine and Gyrth, brothers of King Harold.” The name Gyrth is spelled with a Nordic D on the tapestry and is therefore thought to have been written by an Anglo-Saxon.

This section depicts the start of a second phase in the battle, where the English infantry led an attack along the entire Norman front. The soldiers in the tapestry can be seen carrying javelins and spears, as well as sticks, stones, and axes. Leofwine, brother of King Harold who died later in the battle, is believed to be depicted near the center of the panel, wielding an axe with his head turned. To the right of Leofwine, an English soldier is stabbed in the face by a Norman cavalryman’s spear. This is believed to be Gyrth. We know that both men were killed on October 14, 1066.

Both Leofwine and Gyrth were earls back in England, Leofwine over Buckinghamshire and Surrey to Essex, and Gyrth over East Anglia and Oxfordshire. Together the brothers controlled almost all of east England, which would have made them fairly important figures at the time, but very little is known about them besides what we can deduce from the tapestry. One of the only sources to mention them by name, William of Malmesbury, says that Gyrth tried to persuade King Harold not to lead the English army against William of Normandy, and offered to do so himself so that his brother could remain in London to lead their people. Harold refused, and he was subsequently killed in the battle along with Gyrth and Leofwine.

When using the Bayeux Tapestry to learn about history, specifically as an account of the Battle of Hastings, one must keep in mind that it was likely made to celebrate the victory of William of Normandy. Accounts of war are told and remembered from the victor’s point of view, and the lack of detailed English records at the time make the Bayeux Tapestry one of the only, and by far the most detailed, source of knowledge about the Battle of Hastings.

Works Cited:

Wilson, David M. The Bayeux Tapestry: The Complete Tapestry in Color. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1985. Print.

“Battle of Hastings.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Sept. 2017. Web. 20 Nov. 2018.

“Gyrth Godwinson.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 7 May. 2018. Web. 20 Nov. 2018.

Gameson, Richard. “The Authority and Interpretation of the Bayeux Tapestry.” The Study of the Bayeux Tapestry. Rochester, NY: Boydell, 1997. 89. Print.

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