By Bernard S. Bachrach
The Study of Chivalry: Resources and Approaches, edited by Howell Chickering and Thomas H. Seiler (Medieval Institute Publications, 1988)
The little poem “For Want of a Nail” has for centuries conveyed to children a glimpse of the fundamental technical underpinnings of the chivalric world. These grubby details were, of course, a commonplace to the mounted fighting man of the Middle Ages, whose life or death often depended upon his equipment and the health and training of his horse. Knowledge in these matters was grasped by the greater nobles who served an apprenticeship which has come to be identified with the roles of page and squire; men of lesser status continued throughout their careers to care for their own mounts and pack horses. By contrast, the creators of chivalric literature and their modern explicators have largely ignored the less than romantic aspects of chivalric and military life. Maxims such as “an army travels on its belly” condition medieval as all other warfare. The purpose, in part, of this study is to discuss some of the basic biological, veterinary, and ecological factors concerning horses and their use which, through the collective experience, written and oral, of Western tradition and practice, were well understood by medieval military men.
From the vast corpus of surviving medieval illustrations and sculptures that are easily studied through the thousands of photographs that have been assembled by the Index of Christian Art, many useful observations can be made concerning medieval war horses. Among the most forthcoming sources for many aspects of military life, including the horses of the period before the First Crusade, is the Bayeux Tapestry which was designed and executed sometime before 1082 and depicts the Norman invasion and conquest of England in 1066.
William the Conqueror’s war horses, as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, were a breed of rather large and heavy equines. The animal’s head, as compared to the rest of his body, seems to have been disproportionately small, but it was rather thick and its nose was full. The crest was rounded. The neck, shoulders, and chest were very fully developed and probably thickly muscled rather than simply fat. The croup was markedly arched, while the haunches and thighs were heavy and give the impression of great strength. The mane was relatively short, and the tail was long and scraggly. These horses appear to have been considerably more bulky and stronger than the lean Arab breed with its dishface and small, wedge-shaped head that was found primarily in the Muslim East. European war horses also may be differentiated from the ponies of Central Asia and the South Russian Steppe used by the Huns and later by the Mongols. These animals had great hooked heads, manes hanging below their knees, drawn bellies, lean rumps, and bushy tails. The ponies used in Scandinavia and later in Iceland much more closely resembled the horses of the Steppe, especially in size, than they did the war horses used by William and his contemporaries.