How Great were Great Horses?

The Myth That Just Won’t Die

Not what I’d want to ride to war

I was shocked, and dismayed, to hear someone at IMC Leeds 2016 make a comment about monstrously large, draft-horse-like destriers. I shouldn’t really be surprised. This myth is pervasive, heavily supported by prior histories, and catches the urban imagination, all of which makes it difficult to stamp out. The repetition of this exact myth, by a scholar whom I greatly respect, is what convinced me to go into research. That was then more than ten years after the publication of John Clark’s The Medieval Horse and its Equipment and Ann Hyland’s The Horse in the Middle Ages, which I had thought settled the “argument” (forgive me, I was a starry-eyed undergrad).  Here I will talk about how this myth developed, how it was perpetuated, and some of the evidence put forth to dismantle it. I am, in part, drawing from my first “real” research paper, but I welcome the opportunity to revisit it and update my thoughts on the topic (despite cringing at old writing and some of my own assumptions and generalizations). 

Where did this idea come from?

     Hollywood is littered with images, in movies like “A Knights Tale” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” of medieval knights on mammoth horses, thundering down lists and over battlefields. Lesser characters may ride thoroughbreds or quarter horses (they’re cheaper) but the hero inevitably appears on some sort of draft. Renaissance Faires and dinner theaters use draft horses and draft crosses almost exclusively. As a rider, this always struck me as another Hollywood fiction. These horses, as much as 18 hands high (or more),[1] have heads the size of a human torso, and feet as large as a human head. They are impressive, and they are loud. However, they lack maneuverability, and they lack enough speed to increase to force of a lance hit. And of course, a horse of that size with the aggressive attitude expected of a warhorse would have been an incredibly dangerous animal to train. A smaller, lighter, but faster horse would have been more manageable, have been able to do more damage, while still being able to take his[2] rider to safety. It seems, however, that Hollywood is not alone in this image of the medieval warhorse. Nor do they seem to be the source of it, as I once believed.

   The modern Shire Horse Society supports this myth, as do many other draft breed associations. It’s good for business, and there is likely a grain of truth to the idea that they are related to the medieval “Great Horse,” though the later was type rather than a breed and bore little resemblance to the modern draft.[3] However, when these Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 4.39.35 PMregistries were being founded in the nineteenth century (the SHS was founded in 1878), histories were created out of the Victorian imagination. Sir Walter Gilbey’s 1888 publication of “The Great Horse; Or, The War Horse: from the Time of the Roman Invasion Till Its Development Into the Shire” was not likely the origin of the idea, but it is certainly the most quoted, and likely also why the SHS is more vocal than any other draft breed about its noble origins.

The More-Modern Historiography

Earnshaw Ideal, Shire Stallion

For most of the twentieth century, the perception of many historians seemed to be of a medieval arms races resulting in ever larger and heavier horses; this remains, to some extent, supported. What exactly “larger” and “heavier” means, and how extreme (or not) the change was is the current debate. It was generally suggested that the final product was akin to the modern Shire, an animal standing as much as eighteen hands at the whither,[4] with legs a foot or more in circumference. Each of these historians point to, as evidence, mentions of “large” horses in chronicles, as well as Henry VIII’s notorious “Bill for Great Horses” and further ban on “small” horses. H.J. Hewitt (1983) supposed an average height of “sixteen or seventeen hands.”[5] Livingston & Roberts (2002) describe 

Zoe here is just shy of 16hh and weighs 1,400lbs

these horses as “neither fast nor agile” and “sixteen hands or more and weighing 1,400-plus pounds.”[6] An animal of sixteen hands at that weight would be as thick as the heaviest draft horse today. R.H.C. Davis (1989) goes further, defining the “Great Horse” as an animal of seventeen to eighteen hands. With Davis’ work having been the most recent and thorough by an academic (more on this next), it was heavily relied on. Davis, in turn, used (and appeared to agree with) Gilbey’s 1888 “The Great Horse.

“New” Views

     In the mid nineties, Ann Hyland started publishing equine history (her previous work had been primarily on modern training, especially of endurance horses). Hyland has a multitude of books, but her most referenced are The Medieval Warhorse from Byzantium to the Crusades (1996) and The Horse in the Middle Ages (1999), precisely because they filled a gap in the scholarship. Despite their titles, they do have a good bit of overlap, though the former engages more with non-European cavalries. Because Hyland was not working as a traditional academic, her books are often discarded when they are not the only works available. While her books do sometimes suffer from disorganization, and from working primarily in translation, it does a disservice to the field to not engage with the arguments directly. One of her largest contributions was the measuring of bits, shoes, and barding, primarily those held by the Royal Armouries. She compared these to her own animals, and a variety of others, gives a maximum height of around 16 hands, with many under. These findings were corroborated by John Clark (The Medieval Horse and its Equipment, 1995/2004) based on skeletal evidence and holdings at the Museum of London.

     The idea of anyone willingly riding a modern draft-horse to war I find farfetched, to say the least. Tournaments are a somewhat different matter, as the primary disadvantage of a draft is their lack of maneuverability– something that is not as critical on the list. While there clearly was a push to breed larger horses, we must keep in mind that the definition of “large” varies with time and place. Often in dismantling the ridiculous image of a knight on a lumbering draft, we then assume that all historical horses were small. This is not the case either. Any discussion of size must be placed in local context, and must also consider the wide variation of heights within even a single breed today. History is not always linear, and neither are genetics.[7]

[1] Six feet tall. One hand is 4 inches, and each “point” is one. 15.2 hands is read fifteen point two hands, equaling fifteen and a half hands or five foot two.

[2] Medieval European warhorses were almost invariably intact males.

[3] The Old English Black (more type than breed, but with a somewhat geographically bounded gene pool) was used for the production of some Great Horses (defined by type and training, not blood). Descendants of the OEB almost certainly contributed to the creation of the modern Shire. However, there are two factors that separate the OEB and the modern Shire. The first is that the OEB was not a breed, and many other types and bloodlines went in to the creation of the Shire. The second is the type itself. While the OEB was considered a tall and heavy type for its time, it was not as tall, as heavy, or precisely the same type as the modern Shire. They are relatives, but not the same animal.

[4] Highest point above the shoulder.

[5] The Horse in Medieval England.

[6] War Horse: Mounting the Cavalry with America’s Finest Horses

[7] I am very interested to see these studies applied to historical samples; while increased feed quality and veterinary (especially dental and vaccination) care does account for the drastic increase in average lifespan, it has only a moderate effect on growth. Certainly, feed alone does not turn a quarterhorse-sized animals into a Shire-sized one; and while there has been great variety through time, our current ability to regularly reproduce horses weighing more than a ton relies in part on the preservation of these mutations.


Medieval Horses: A Glossary of Types

Charger: A warhorse. Initially used interchangeably with courser and sometimes destrier, later became common only for mid-level animals.
Courser: Initially used interchangeably with charger and sometimes destrier, but later comes to specify a lighter, faster horse. These horses are seen most often on hunts. This differentiation is very suggestive of new breeding practices where multiple types of horses are produced for the same rider, to be used in different activities. It is also one of the terms that, by existing as a contrast, illustrates ‘larger’ warhorses later in the period.
Destrier: Initially any warhorse. Came to have first a connotation of quality and advanced training, and latter used most often for French and Spanish animals.
Great Horse: Any warhorse. Initially, specifying “great” horse only meant that the horse was rideable (i.e., trained) for military purposes, but later inferred size. This term was used most often for English-bred animals, and very late in the period also Lombard animals. Both these types are actually somewhat shorter than the French and Spanish animals of the time, but significantly heftier. They do not, however, have the height or breadth of a modern draft horse.
Hackney: A general riding horse, typically of better quality than a rouncey but not often seen in battle. Although Hackney horses and ponies are today known for their trot, for most of the medieval period they tended to be gaited.
Palfrey: From a Latin phrase for a spare riding horse, this term was used for increasingly ‘refined’ animals over time. They were expected to be very quiet, very pretty (usually defined by their head and their hair, and often an unusual coat color), and later in the period they were expected to be gaited.
Rouncey: A low ranking general riding horse also used for war. Usually small, often described as ugly, but still expected to be very hardy. Used for the lowest ranking mounted warriors, and later for mounted infantry. The rouncey is the one horse that seems to lose honor as the centuries pass, becoming almost an insulting term.
Sumpter: Initially a term for the man who managed baggage, it latter came to be used for pack-animals. This is also one of the less universal terms, suggesting that it was not as important for this animal to be symbolically recognizable. This is not surprising as a pack-horse could be used by a peasant or a King. There does, however, seem to be a clear consensus that whether they are called sumpters, beasts of burden, or simply packhorses, that they are related but inferior to other horses.

There were a number of other horse ‘types’ that were identifiable in different regions, such as England’s ‘stot’– a particularly small common riding animal that might occasionally be found doing farm work. However, I have included here only those terms that were common to several languages. It is notable that all of the more prestigious animals had fairly universal terms, while the closer to peasant labor the less universal the term.

What Does that Do? Historical Horse Tack

Recently I stumbled across this bit, and was rather puzzled by it. It is ported, but has no way of engaging the port. So what does it do?

horse bit
Danish National Museum

  The standard answer is “tongue relief.” However, a narrow port like this does not actually provide significant tongue relief, no matter what the fans say. The corners where the bar of the mouthpiece meets the port actually create more pressure on the tongue, particularly if only one rein is used.

       It is possible, even likely, that this bit is displayed “inside out.” Although the toggles attached to the rings above the nose may have attached to a front portion of the bridle, originally attached to the face plate, configured something like these:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAbridle2

I’ve never seen a bit hung from the nose, and it  does seem particularly strange for a loose ring. Of course, you probably noticed that neither of these actually attach to the bit. Even with that stabilizer bar, the bit would fall into the front teeth. It’s possible one or more of the attachments to the ring are fixed, but if not the whole configuration was likely flipped, with the toggles attached to cheek pieces and the bulk of the ring behind the mouthpiece, almost like an oversize baucher, which keeps the bit from pulling through the mouth or into the upper molars:

       But wait, what about that port? No matter which configuration, or how many of the attachments are fixed, it still doesn’t rotate (I made a model and tried. No, not on a horse). What it would do is prevent the horse’s tongue from coming over the bit, which is a particular problem in horses with high palettes, no nosebands, and/or poorly fitting tack- all of which would likely have been the case if this bit was actually from early or pre-medieval Denmark.

Medieval Horses

Bayeux Tapestry

      Medieval historians are familiar with the many terms for horse types used in the middle ages, including destrier, charger, courser, palfrey, rouncey, hackney, and sumpter. These terms for differentiated types of horses seem to appear in literature before they appear in law.[1] This may be misleading because of the scarcity of medieval sources, but it does suggest that the laws were passed to support the ideals illustrated by the literature. Increasingly fine distinctions, such as between rouncey, courser, and destrier, keep pace with the increasingly complicated social classes of the late middle ages. These terms also become conflated with the animals’ breeding rather than pure utility, such as the use of palfrey for a finely bred (often of eastern extraction) general riding animal as opposed to hackney for a common bred general riding animal. Most of these names come from Latin, and have been assumed to be holdovers from Rome.[2] However, Rome had far fewer, and different, terms for their horses. As the horse in general becomes more symbolic of social station, each type becomes more strictly codified, and closely related terms, such as charger and destrier, are used less interchangeably.

             These terms are distinctly lacking from any source prior to the 11th century, and do not appear to be common until much later. These terms- even those such as palfrey and destrier, which may have Latin cousins- appear to be late medieval inventions to reflect changes in breeding practices that went along with agricultural inventions and societal restructuring.[3] The Oxford English Dictionary dates all of these terms to the early 14th century, a time that also saw a huge growth in literature, and changes in how horses were depicted in these texts. Le Dictionnaire Littré dates the French destrier, coursier, roussin, palefroi, and soummier to the late 12th or early 13th century. There is some disagreement among historians (when it comes up at all) as to what precisely each of these terms signifies. This is because their significance, both literal and literary, is not static. For example, a sumpter (soumpter) was first commonly a footman who handled packs, whether or not they were on an animal; but by the end of the middle ages it was any beast of burden.[4] The meanings are, however, fairly consistent within a given time period across English, French (including Occitan), and Spanish (including Catalan). Several terms have cognates which appear to date to the 13th century in Middle German, Middle Dutch, and Italian. The fact that there are close cognates of ‘new’ words in such disparate languages suggest that they were part of European culture as a whole during these centuries, and makes it more unlikely that they are simply remnants of Latin language and ideology. Most of these words, unsurprisingly, are rooted in French, and their usage spreads alongside chivalric culture.[5] This has supported the idea that the confluence of horses and rank stemmed from military usage; however, it is important to remember that chivalric culture bloomed in a time when pikeman, bowman, crossbowman, mounted infantry, and even the new cannon became vastly more important than the aristocratic knight. In addition, the symbolism surrounding medieval equines is not a linear hierarchy, nor does it apply strictly to military animals.  By the end of the middle ages, a person’s precise role in the increasingly murky societal fabric could be determined by a few words describing their horse. The animal’s own class, or proto-breed, it’s sex, health, age, and even color reflected a nuanced interpretation of it’s owners estate, role, rank, and wealth.

[1] Both dictionaries list the first occurrences of these terms as being from literary sources, though both cite legal and other documents for other vocabulary. While it seems that English is very late in using these terms, it should be noted that French was still commonly spoken among the nobility of England.

[2] R.H.C. Davis, The Medieval Warhorse: Origin,Development, and Redevelopment (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1989) is explicit about this, giving etymologies for a few words. As Davis’ work was for several decades the only modern work on the medieval horse, other historians have relied on it. The major problem with these etymologies is that he gives only that the word is “from the Latin.” They do not take in to account when or why terms changed drastically in meaning, such as Latin “para veredus” (literally “spare horse for riding,” a term for replacement mounts for messengers and soldiers) to the late medieval “palfrei”, a well-bred refined gaited horse generally suitable for aristocratic women.  This is, I believe, due to Davis’ focus on the horse as a tool for war.

[3] For more information see Lynn White, MedievalTechnology and Social Change (UK: Oxford University Press 1966) and Thomas Bisson, “Medieval Lordship” Speculum Vol. 70, No. 4 (Oct. 1995):743-759

[4] Most late texts will specify ‘sumpter horse’ or ‘sumpter mule,’ but not always. Regardless, the term came to be used more commonly for the animal than the man.

[5] For more on chivalric culture, see Keen, Maurice Hugh. 1984. Chivalry. New Haven: Yale University Press.