THE MIDDLE AGES, 600 A.D.
Charlemagne, 742-814 - Greatness on Horseback
Horseshoe, Doors, and Devils...The Legend of St. Dunstan, 925-988 A.D.
The Battle of Hastings, October 14, 1066, and the Bayeux Tapestry
In the Middle Ages, Horses Were Specially Bred to Meet the Requirements of Warfare and Chivalry and the Needs of the Mounted Knight
From War to Sport
Rules of the Game
The Challengers' Charges
From Swords to Plow-Shares; New Uses for an Old Friend
The Horse on the Feudal Farm
From Racing Chariots to Reluctant Carts
Carriage Development Awaited Improved Roads
Anne of Bohemia Helps Popularize the Sidesaddle
The fall of the Roman Empire began the Middle Ages which lasted some seven hundred years. The early portion of this period is sometimes called the Dark Ages since the glories of the former Roman Empire virtually vanished. In this period learning and invention stagnated except in a few isolated monasteries. These were times of religious wars and barbarian invasion. The horse became largely a vehicle for battle or the hunt since the Roman roads, which had previously united Europe, fell in disrepair. Travel from one area to another was dangerous due to the hostile relations between kingdoms. For the most part, chariots fell from use and the wagon remained a farm vehicle. Despite a decline in the quality of technological innovation in many spheres of life, the Middle Ages saw the horse adapted to new roles in such diverse areas as warfare and agriculture.
Charlemagne ("Charles the Great") created the Holy Roman Empire out of what had been largely a continent of illiterate, feuding tribes. Charlemagne was great in many ways. He stood 6 feet 4 inches in height, a foot taller than the average man of his time. He could be brutal and once had 4,500 Saxons beheaded in one day. But Charlemagne loved learning and sought to bring literacy throughout his kingdom, which comprised a large part of continental Europe.
Charlemagne personally led his men in conquest, and until his empire grew larger than his ability, he frequently traveled through out his domain on horseback, impressing his subjects with his image of greatness.
Why do many people place a horseshoe over their door to ward off evil? In the Middle Ages, there lived a blacksmith named Dunstan. One day the Devil came to Dunstan's forge to have his cloven hooves shod. Dunstan agreed to make the Devil's shoes, but instead he lashed the Devil to the anvil and furiously beat him with his hammer. The Devil begged for mercy. Dunstan made the Devil promise never to visit a door where a horseshoe hung. The Devil quickly agreed; and since then, blacksmiths and others have placed a horseshoe over their doors. The horseshoe must be placed with the toe down so that it can catch goodness from heaven. And what of the noble Dunstan? He did not remain a simple blacksmith, but became the Archbishop of Canterbury and was made a saint after his death.
In 1066, William the Conqueror of Normandy put 3,000 horses on 700 small sailing ships and headed across the channel to England. William had come to secure his right to the English throne from King Harold. They met in a valley near Hastings where William's army was victorious due largely to his cavalry assisted by archers. They charged into the wall of shields put up by the Saxon infantry, but shields were little defense against war-horses and knights.
One of William's cavalrymen was his half brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux. He
swung a club from his horse so that he might not draw blood as befits a clergyman.
Some years after the battle, Odo commissioned the tapestry, 231 feet in length
and intricately embroidered in brightly colored wools. The importance of the
horse to this battle is reflected in the fact that there are 190 horses shown
on the Bayeux tapestry.
It is commonly believed that the great war-horses, also called destriers, were developed during the Middle Ages to support the great weight of the armored knight. Actually, a good suit of armor was not over 70 pounds in weight; and therefore, the horse would only be expected to carry some 250 to 300 pounds. The real reason large horses were useful was because their weight gave greater force to the impact of the knight's lance, both in warfare and in the tournament. A destrier weighed twice as much as a conventional riding horse; and when the knight struck a conventionally mounted opponent, the impact could be devastating. The destrier was sometimes shod with sharp nail heads protruding so that he could trample foot-soldiers in his path. The destrier was a very potent weapon, and yet his descendants are the mild mannered and docile work horses of today who put their strength to less brutal use.
The destrier was the horse of battle, but would not have proved a comfortable mount for the " off duty" knight.
Instead, the knight rode the palfrey, a short-legged, long-bodied horse which had a gentle amble for a gait. The smooth ride
afforded by the palfrey also made it a suitable mount for the wounded or aged who might have difficulty mounting and riding a
While the destrier and palfrey excelled in power and comfort, respectively, they were not fast horses. The need for a fast carrier of messages between armies or kingdoms, gave rise to the courser, the ancestor of the race horse. Coursers were strong, lean horses which probably had "hot" (ie. Turkish, Arabian, or Barb) blood in their veins. A principal source of coursers was the kingdom of Naples. The Neapolitans acquired horses from Africa and bred them to European stock. The result was an extremely fast horse sought by kings from as far away as England who wanted to add speed to their stables.
Many sports have historically prepared the individual both physically and emotionally for battle. In the Middle Ages, the "tournament" became the most popular form of recreation for knights all over Europe. The events of the tournament - joust, the melee, and fighting on foot - kept the knight in condition for the role he played in warfare. The tournament lasted well after the heavily armored knight became tactically obsolete and remained a sport in which nobility, valor, and grandeur were a continuing reality.
The "pas d'armes"or "passage of arms," was one form of the tournament. Traditionally, an individual sent a proclamation to many different countries announcing that he would take on challengers at a certain time and place. The hosts for the pas were called tenants or holders. The challengers, who came from all over, were called venants or comers.
The tenants hung two shields from an elm tree, one designed as a symbol of war and the other as a symbol of peace. When a venant approached, he would touch the "peace" shield if he wished to joust with a blunt lance (or "courtesy lance") or he would touch the "war" shield indicating a pointed lance. Once a challenge was accepted, the venant was inspected by a heraldic expert to ascertain that he was a knight of honorable standing. If the venant chose, he could fight on foot with a sword or an ax and also fight from a horse. Once a challenge was made, the venant was treated with lavish hospitality based on the motto "ce que vouldrez," meaning "whatever you like."
The horse in the tournament usually had a tent for a stall and was given very good care by his groom. Horses were draped in flowing cloth, called a caparison, which was patterned according to its owner's heraldic signs. An iron face shield, called a chanfron, protected the horse's head in case it was hit by a lanceor sword. The horse in a joust "ambled" (paced) to give the knight a smooth ride and a better aim with his lance. The pas d'armes was a grand pageant for both man and horse.
Chivalry, and the sporting events associated with it, gave rise to a complex body of customs and behavior. The innovations in equipment associated with the knight's horse were similarly complex. As a type of horse, the destrier had been in existence for some time, but chivalric customs demanded new designs in equipment and tack for the battle horse turned athlete.
The knight's spurs had long necks since he rode long (with his legs extended). The long neck allowed the rowel, the sharp, circular element, to reach the horse's flanks. Ornate spurs were bestowed on a young man in a colorful ceremony to symbolize his readiness for chivalric feasts. The material of which spurs were made also indicated the owner's rank: a knight's spurs were made of gold, a squire's of silver, and a man-at-arm's of iron or brass.
The knight's horse was usually covered with a large ornate cloth called a caparison. The ornamental designs on the caparison corresponded to the knight's heraldic patterns, and served as a form of identification. In one form of the joust, the horse was blindfolded to keep him from shying. He wore a huge cushion stuffed with straw around his chest and shoulders. This cushion protected the horse and the knee and legs of the knight in case of a collision.
The Bit and Bridle
The mighty destrier required firmness for him to respond in the intensity of battle. Bits used on destriers had long cheeks or shanks and high ports since these would provide greater leverage on the curb which exerted pressure on the horse's mouth. The reins were covered with metal plates to protect them from being cut by an opponent's sword.
Stirrups were essential to help the rider remain on the horse and also to give him greater leverage when swinging his sword or thrusting with his lance.
The high-backed saddle used by knights in warfare and jousting gave the knight greater leverage and kept him in his seat when he charged his opponent. The impact of the lance, which was up to 15 feet in length, could be immense due to the weight of the destrier propelling it forward.
In 1492, knights and soldiers from all over Europe joined in the fight to drive Moors out of Spain. The Spanish monarchy insisted that, before Columbus could begin his voyage, the Moors must be driven from Spain. The Moors had dominated Spain for centuries, but their Islamic customs and religion were never totally accepted.
The photo shows a tableau representing the encounter of a Christian knight and a Moor, perhaps during the Battle of Grenada. The two used distinctly different fighting styles as well as types of horses. The knight is mounted on a cold blooded European horse, while the Arab rides a warm blooded horse typical of the Arab and Barb horses used by the Moors. There is no biological difference between a warm or cold blooded horse. Horses descended from the smaller Arabian or Barb are considered "warm blooded." All other horses are "cold blooded," including modern day draft horses descended from the type of large horse being ridden by the knight. While the added weight of the knight's mount provided extra leverage for his lance, the Arabian horse was good for quick turns and endurance, and often allowed the Moor to out maneuver the Knight's slower horse. For many years it was thought that the Moors had brought horses with them when they came to Spain. Now it appears that while some light, Barb type horse must surely have been introduced by the Moors, the majority of their horse came from indigenous stock already in Spain.
Prior to the Middle Ages, horses were mainly utilized in transportation and warfare. Moreover, horses were both expensive to buy, and, compared to oxen and donkeys who were foragers, horses were expensive to keep. Horses required specialized feed, constant care, and good shelter. The feudal system of the Middle Ages placed the farmer on his land under the control of a lord, but the lord, in turn, had the means of supplying the farmer with horses to use in the manor's fields. Therefore, the Middle Ages saw the horse used on a large scale in agriculture for the first time in history.
The Middle Ages in Europe witnessed the loss of the cultural life and technological innovations achieved by Romans. European roads fell into disrepair because, after Rome's disintegration, no one had either the ability or evidently the desire to maintain them. Chariots were no longer used after the fall of Rome, and decent transportation in all forms vanished. Thereafter, only sluggish carts and wagons moved between farms and villages.
It is estimated that between 1350 and 1600 the number of vehicles in England remained roughly the same. One of the few improvements in transportation in England occurred when Anne of Bohemia married Richard II in 1382. When Anne came to England, she brought a carriage with her which was probably made in Kocs, Hungary. Kocs was renowned for its excellence in carriage making and it is from this town's name that we derive our word "coach." Anne's carriage, and others which came after it, had a strong influence on English vehicle design.
Anne of Bohemia, an elegant European princess, arrived in England in 1381 to become the bride of Richard II. She brought with her more than charm and beauty. Anne is credited with having popularizing the sidesaddle In England so that women could travel in a fashion which befitted their dress. Until the sidesaddle was created, probably in the Middle East during the 12th century, women were obliged to ride astride as men did. This would have been very uncomfortable given the elaborate dress of the time. If they chose not to ride astride, women were packed into rough carts called " litters" which consisted of little more than a few boards and wheels and haphazardly assembled. Anne remained a beloved queen until she died of the plague at the young ageof 28. Her husband, Richard II, was so grieved that he ordered the destruction of Sheen castle in which she died.
In the Middle Ages, hunting the stag from a horse became a very popular sport, especially in France. By the time of the Norman conquest, the stag hunt was enjoyed by most noble Norman gentlemen. When William defeated Britain in 1066, he brought the sport, with all its rules and traditions, with him. "Ty a Hillaut" was the old Norman phrase used to alarm the huntsmen that a deer had been roused. This cry was Anglicized to become Tally-ho, familiar to the fox hunter of today.
Stag hunting continued to be a favorite pastime of the Plantagenent and Tudor dynasties. In his painting "Night Hunt," Uccello portrayed a stag hunt in darkness. The beaters on foot would flush the deer, the hounds followed chase, pursued by the mounted huntsmen who would finally take their fleet-footed prey.