Proceedings No 14         31 October 1989        the Wellcome Foundation Institute, London

HORSE-BREEDING IN THE MIDDLE AGES, a paper by Professor R.H.C. Davis.

The meeting was chaired by the President of the Society who thanked Dr Gul Russell and through her the Foundation for its hospitality. He then welcomed Professor Davis, recently returned from a tour of the U.S.A. to promote his new book The Medieval Warhorse.


What made a Norman? Not, in the opinion of the speaker, any thought of Norse origins. One became a Norman, he argued, rather than being born one. Men were attracted to Normandy from all over France by the Norman success in war. And Normandy was the place for warriors not so much because of the pr owes of Norman knights as because of their equipment and the secret of this equipment was the Norman warhorse. The Norman countryside, notably such chalk and limestone regions as the Pays de Caux was still known as good breeding ground in our own day; it was quite possible that the Carolingians had stud farms there and the Normans took these over. Traditional stories supported the idea of Norman horse superiority. One told how Duke Robert the Magnificent returned a blacksmith's gift of two knives with a present of two fine horses. Horses were also used both by nobles and monasteries, such as Jumieges or Fecamp, in payment for ducal grants of land. These were beasts of the highest quality costing up to 14-times as much as run-of-the-mill animals. By the early 1000s it seemed that the Norman breeders were improving their stock with Spanish Arabs either brought back by knights fighting in the Reconquista or presented as gifts to the dukes by Spanish kings.

In general, the secrets of the medieval horse breeders could only be deduced since no contemporary texts on breeding survived. This was for a variety of reasons. A] In the 11th and 12th centuries, by and large noblemen and their servants could not write. b] Clerks who could write either were not interested or considered the subject improper because it was rooted in sex. C] Breeders and their patrons were reluctant to broadcast professional secrets which brought commercial or military advantage.

Deductions could be drawn from the veterinarian treatise de medicina equorum by Jordanus Rufus of Calabria, knight farrier to the Emperor Frederick II (d.1250) who commended the strength of horses bred in limestone or chalk country. As we now know, pasturage on such terrain tends to be high in calcium and hence good for bones. No skeletal material of medieval warhorses had survived and even surviving horseshoes could not be confidently ascribed to a specific function, i.e. whether for packhorses or warhorses.

The speaker indicated a surprising variation in horses over the ages. 'Deep frozen' Siberian tomb horses, dating from 3000 BC, were not especially large. The earliest depictions of Assyrian cavalry horses in the 630s BCE, after the change over from chariot warfare, and other evidence suggest that they like the Chinese got their animals from trans-Oxiana. The Romans not only used the animal in war but also had studs all over the empire both for cavalry and chariot horses. But with the collapse of the empire the whole system collapsed, as a result early medieval Europe had no horses of any value. A breed took 20 or 30 generations to perfect but would be lost through inadvertence in a mere 4 or 5 generations.

Developing stock required in-breeding in the early stages and the art was to judge correctly as to when to broaden by breeding out If mares mated with undesirable, loose-running males, ponies could go feral in 3 generations. The fact that Europeans mainly fought on stallions for preference compounded the problem for it meant large numbers of stallions which of course increased the chance of strays--just one stallion could service 200 mares in a season. As a result, the European breeder not only had to chose his breeding stallions with care, he also had to keep his brood mares corralled in well-fenced parks and because horses would not eat round their own droppings, an establishment needed at least two parks to enable the periodic movement of stock. The whole business was very expensive and estimates suggested a staff of one man to each two mares. The preference for fighting stallions was based on the theories of such writers as Albert Magnus. Yet, as one German commentator pointed out the Turks fought on mares and often won! The Arabs too had preferred mares on the battlefield, in consequence they needed to maintain only a few, select, stallions while, since grasslands were sparse in their home territory, herds often had to be culled to make best use of the scarce fodder. Given the potency of the stallions it was natural to cull these in favour of the mares. Moreover the stock generally kept on the move. While the break up of the empire ensured ideal conditions for the return to the feral state within erstwhile Roman territories, horse breeding continued among the Arabs and also the Berbers of north Africa which so that from the beginning barbarian Europe would have respect for the Arabian.

The tradition was carried into Moslem Spain. The region was to become a principal source of much prized Arab horses in medieval Christendom. As early as the 790s, we hear of Arab horses in the Spanish March of Charlemagne's empire. Carolingian laws forbade trade in horses with the Vikings or even their use to ransom lords or relatives. The Franks used the horse in warfare, but not to deliver a mounted shock charge of lances. A 6th century account, suggested that lightly armed horsemen were accustomed to able to leap on and off their mounts in battle. The shock charge (probably not standard practice until the 12th century) may not have come in until the 11th when saddles began to be made with raised front and back. While this obviated horse leaping, it also enabled the warrior to deal much heavier blows with sword or lance without unseating himself. Even so, the Bayeux tapestry shows only one knight with his lance couched for the charge, the others using theirs as throwing or stabbing weapons. The horse itself was already beginning to increase in size.

From the start, the Arabians were valued for their speed and elegance but they were also small by the requirements of European warfare. If one posed the question ‘How was the breed enlarged?’ The obvious answer, ‘by feeding them’, probably held much of the truth. Emperor Frederick II (d.1250) was importing Arabian horses from Libya into South Italy. When Charles of Anjou conquered the territory in the 1260s, he paid his north Italian allies with these horses. Pastured in the lush plains of Lombardy they gave rise to famous breeds of great Lombard horses. In 1341 a Milanese chronicler recorded that they put stallions in with great mares so that noble destriers were bred in our territory and fetched a great price. By this time, in fact, the term ‘great horse’ had acquired semi technical status. The 11th century Norman horse had been no more than 14 hands; those in the 14th century were up to 18 hands. This seemed to have been the maximum size attained by the medieval warhorse. Beginning with the English, armies began to reduce the role of the cavalry in the mid 14th century. Armour and weapons at last began to come under control (the combination of hauberk, plate-reinforced mail and plastron de fer heavier in total than the complete plate armour of the 15th and 16th centuries). Only in the tiltyard did the heaviest type of warhorse remain in demand. In the 1660s William Cavendish, later Duke of Newcastle, wrote that ‘the middling or less horse is best for war’, since ‘the high and strong horses, although strong for the shock’ lacked spirit and stamina.

Thanks to the extensive nature of English records there was material for comprehensive and detailed account of the medieval horse establishment there. Contrary to conventional historical opinion, the Anglo-Saxon armies had mounted forces. King Athelstan (925-39) had decreed that every man should provide two well-mounted men for every plough in his possession. King Edward the Confessor (1042-66) had an official called a staller in charge of the royal horses. But the Conquest followed by the ~pacification of the country, notably the harrying of the north, wrought havoc which must have set back horse breeding. By the reign of John (1199-1215) however, the royal "scutarius" had charge of the king’s horses among them "our Spanish horses". From the reign of Edward I (1272-1307) the royal household kept separate accounts for "horse business’ [equital] His son Edward II (d.1327) was an enthusiastic horseman and greatly promoted the royal stud. Later in the 14th century, it was said that English soldiers of fortune like Sir John Hawkwood promoted the export of great English warhorses to Italy where, to the surprise of sophisticated observers, the cumbersome destrier remained in vogue long after it had been abandoned by northern armies.

The President thanked the speaker for an important as well as very entertaining talk and invited discussion from the floor.

Summary by Geoffrey Hindley