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Thursday, October 10, 2019

Forgotten Heroes of the Middle Ages

When I bestride him, I soar,
I am a hawk;
he trots the air; 
the earth sings when he touches it...
He is pure air and fire
 (Henry V, Act III, Scene 7)

If any one image is associated in the popular mind with the Middle Ages then it is the knight in shining armor on a (usually) white horse. 


Nor is the image entirely misleading.  Throughout the age of chivalry, the mounted knight dominated both the battlefield and popular culture. Yet, as I will explain, it was not the warhorse (destrier) alone that made the horse the true hero of the Middle Ages.

A 13th-century encyclopedia of animals written by the Dominican scholar and bishop Albertus Magnus lists four kinds of horses: warhorses (destriers), riding horses (palfreys), racehorses, and workhorses. Of these, riding horses and racehorses can be said to vary little from the horses of today, at least in terms of function, with the caveat that "riding horses" of the Middle Ages had to travel long distances in often difficult terrain and all weathers. Their role in medieval society and economy were not exceptional, however, being the same as it had been for thousands of years before and hundreds yet to come. Warhorses and draft horses, on the other hand, were fundamental in shaping medieval society in unique ways.

Starting with the more obvious, a knight could not fulfill his military function without a warhorse.  From Hastings to Bannockburn, the charge of heavy cavalry (knights) was the dominant offensive tactic of the age. Although a cavalry charge could rarely lift a siege and never secure a castle, when enemies confronted one another across a battlefield, knights clashed on horseback. Furthermore, a  well-timed, well-led charge was almost invincible.

In order to be able to deliver such a knock-out blow, however, knights trained for years to master horsemanship, mounted combat, and fighting in teams/units. So did their horses.

Not every horse could cope with the noise, the sudden movements, the flash of sunlight on metal, the blows, the crush of horses, and the smell of blood. Not every horse had the strength or stamina to carry an armored knight for hours, or the agility to respond to sudden changes of direction, the need to spin about or sidestep. This meant that warhorses had to be carefully selected -- and trained. Ultimately, man and horse had to respond as one being if they were to be an effective fighting machine with a chance of survival. 

It was to train for mounted combat -- particularly in small units as teams -- that tournaments developed. Historian Andrea Hopkins in her excellent work Knights [London: Collins & Brown, 1990] notes: “it is hardly possible to overestimate the importance of the tournament to the culture of medieval knights.” She notes that in addition to being “a crucial training ground in which young knights could practice the handling of their horses and weapons, tactics of attack and defence, and of co-ordinating their actions with a team of companions," the tournament also: 
  ...provided an arena for the display of all important knightly virtues: prouesse in combat, courtoisie to the watching and judging ladies, largesse to crowds of minstrels, heralds, armourers, squires and other assorted hangers on, and qualities such as the franchise and debonairete with which a knight should conduct himself in triumph and disaster (the qualities which later developed into the European gentleman's sense of fair play), and the pite which he should exercise to his defeated opponents. (p. 108) 

Indeed, over the centuries, tournaments were transformed from training events very similar to genuine combat into sporting and social events quite divorced from the reality of war. By the 16th and 17th century they were little more than pageants  -- but that was after the end of the Middle Ages. In the High Middle Ages, they retained their value as training while also providing entertainment.

In the world of the tournament, a knight's destrier was not only a tool of war in training with him but a part of his persona. Like his armor, his coat of arms, and his crest, his horse formed a component part of his image and identity. A beautiful horse made a good impression on the ladies, but an exceptionally responsive, fast or determined horse might make the difference between victory and defeat. The death or injury to a good mount, on the other hand, could destroy a knight's prospects -- and his financial position as well because warhorses were extremely expensive. 

It was a measure of just how important good warhorses were that a knight forfeit his destrier along with his armor in a tournament defeat. Successful tournament champions could opt to retain a captured mount -- or sell it back to the owner at a handsome fee. (Or, if inclined, show pity and largess by restoring it without charge or for only a nominal fee.) Likewise, inadequate reserves of good warhorses could have an impact on the outcome of battles. One can only imagine what might have happened at Jaffa, for example, if Richard the Lionheart had disembarked with his warhorses!

While the warhorse was not a specific breed as we know today, it was the product of centuries of horse breeding in the Early Middle Ages that had systematically produced larger horses than those of previous centuries and other regions, i.e. the horses of the Greeks and Romans or contemporary Mongols and the Arabs. Significantly, medieval horses were strong enough to carry a fully armored knight, but that does not mean that they were similar to draft horses in other ways. 

Furthermore, what defined them was not size and strength alone, but rather temperament and character. For a start, in order to keep them aggressive and spirited, they were not castrated. Albertus Magnus further claims: "It is a trait of these [war]horses to delight in musical sounds, to be excited by the sounds of arms, and to gather together with other chargers. They also leap and burst into battle lines by biting and striking with their hooves." (On Animals: A Medieval Summa Zoologica, translated by Kenneth F. Kitchell Jr. and Irven Michael Resnick [Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1999]) 

Shakespeare captured this aspect of warhorse character in the opening of Henry V, Act IV, when he writes: "Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs."

It is hardly surprising given how much time a knight spent training with his destrier -- and how dependent he was on the horse for his success and survival -- that strong bonds often developed between a knight and his charger. There is one recorded incident of a horse defending his unseated knight during judicial combat, preventing the opposing knight from delivering the coup de grace by repeatedly imposing his equine body between the human combatants. 

Albertus Magnus also writes:  "They sometimes care so much about their masters and grooms that, if [the latter] are killed, they grow sad and pine away, even to the point of death." The grief of knights for a good horse was also recorded in various texts. The images below of knights sleeping beside their grazing horses seem a lovely tribute to this close and trustful relationship.


Yet it was arguably the medieval workhorse that made the greater contribution to medieval society. The evolution of larger, stronger horses was critical to the agricultural revolution that greatly increased production and improved the nutritional intake of the common people dramatically. The stronger horses and tack designed to harness them to advanced plows enabled medieval peasants to not only scratch the soil but to turn it over, turning up more nutrients. The horses were faster too, plowing roughly twice as much in a day as the alternative draft animal, oxen -- much less human drawn plows. 

With more land under cultivation and greater productivity per acre, peasants could afford to leave one-third of their land fallow -- rotating crops and leaving land fallow to regenerate every third year. This further increased productivity and so diet as well. It has been argued that this agricultural revolution enabled human beings to reach their full genetic potential for size and strength for the first time in human history. Certainly, it resulted in human beings who were on average taller and stronger than people in other parts of the world in the same period.

Nor was it the plow horse alone who made such a dramatic contribution to the medieval economy. More powerful draft horses could also be employed in transport. The ability to transport heavy materials such as timber and stone was crucial to construction and ship-building. The more powerful draft horses could also be used to transport other commodities and finished products in larger quantities, thereby contributing to commerce and overall economic growth particularly inland, away from the waterways that had been the lifelines in the past. Unfortunately, the mundane, if essential work, of transport horses rarely captured the imagination or attention of medieval artists. The best I can do is a medieval "carriage."

Last but not least, draft horses also played a role in war, transporting heavy siege equipment, baggage and the wounded.  The ability to transport heavy equipment was cited by crusade historian John France as one of the West's significant advantages vis-a-vis their Saracen opponents.

 Horses play a role -- with names and personalities -- in all my crusades era novels:

                                                                                                         Best Biography 2017

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                                                    Best Christian Historical Fiction 2019
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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.

She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her current series describes the civil war in Outremer between Emperor Frederick and the barons led by John d'Ibelin the Lord of Beirut. Dr. Schrader is also working on a non-fiction book describing the crusader kingdoms. You can find out more at:

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