Those reading accounts of medieval history might not have noticed the part where a horse’s tail was cut off, but for medieval people it was one of the worst insults that could be inflicted on someone. In his article, ‘“Tails” of Masculinity: Knights, Clerics, and the Mutilation of Horses in Medieval England’, Andrew G. Miller offers dozens of examples of when this form of assault was carried out.
Miller, who teaches at DePaul University, notes that that this was a kind of ritualistic and symbolic act – a way to attack the masculinity of your adversary, with the horse’s tail serving as a phallic symbol. While his article concentrates on medieval England after the Norman Conquest, he also notes that this act took place in other parts of Europe and even the Arabic Middle East.
Miller writes, “Few greater images of power, wealth, and manliness in the Middle Ages can be conjured than that of a mounted knight charging into battle or of a nobleman astride a magnificent steed, falcon at his wrist, leading a braying pack of hounds on the chase.”
In the Middle Ages the horse was perhaps the animal with the best reputation – they were seen as loyal, caring and beautiful. These animals were also very much as a status symbol for the upper class and the nobility. In his book, The Care of Horses, Jordanus Ruffus writes that “No animal is more noble than the horse, since it is by horses that princes, magnates and knights are separated from lesser people and because a lord cannot fittingly be seen among private citizens except through the mediation of a horse.”
The Normans in particular were concerned about the appearance of their horse. Miller writes, “As a symbol of its magnificence, the animal’s physical condition and appearance were of the utmost importance, for a handsome horse complemented its rider. Medieval people accordingly bred horses to have long tails and manes for the same reason that they valued long hair—that is, because these features were perceived as beautiful.”
The Normans were also pre-occupied with their own manliness and were much more open to using punishments such as castration and blinding than other medieval Europeans as they saw it as a way of destroying and emasculating their enemies. The same notion applied when attacking the horse’s tail – the perpetrators were symbolically attacking one’s manhood. Miller notes that Thomas Aquinas even found this to be the case when he wrote: “Vengeance is wrought on dumb animals and any other irrational creatures, because in this way their owners are punished.”
The most notorious example took place on Christmas Eve, 1170, when Robert de Broc and his men attacked a park owned by Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, where they cut off the tail of one of the archbishop’s horses. The animal was brought to Becket, who exclaimed, “a mare in my service has in contempt of my name had its tail cut off—as though I could be put to shame by the mutilation of a beast!” The archbishop then excommunicated Robert. A few days later, on December 29th, Robert de Broc led the four knights who came from Henry II’s court to Canterbury, where those men would enter the cathedral and murder the archbishop.
Clerics and religious figures were often targets for these kind of attacks, since they were not supposed to be riding horses (or acting in a manner that was too close to a lay person). For example, in 1357 the Bishop of Lincoln sent one of his clerks as a messenger to John de Pavely, a knight hospitaller, with an order to appear in front of the Bishop. The Hospitaller was not pleased with this summons, and took it out on the messenger:
[He] threw him in a stank of water there, and kept in the water as far as to submersion until to escape death he made oath not to sue against the prior or any other of the said transgressors by reason of any trespass done to him, in the king’s court or elsewhere, and that afterwards, drawing him out of the stank they assaulted and grievously wounded him and likewise maimed his horse, worth 100s. and cut off its tail and ears, then set him, so wounded, thereon and led him through the market of the town in the sight of all the people assembled there with loud shouting.
Besides cutting off the tail, an attacker might also cut off the ears or lips of a horse, make a captive kiss the buttocks of a horse, or have him dragged around by its tail. For example, in 1313 a group of townsmen from Canterbury attacked the archbishop’s home, where they found and seized Richard Cristien, the archbishop’s dean. According to the complaint made, these men took the dean and “put him on his horse with his face to the tail and inhumanely compelled him to hold the tail and ride, with songs and dances, through that town and afterwards cut off the tail, ears, and lips of his horse, cast the dean in a filthy place, carried away writings, muniments and some privileges of the archbishop in his custody, and prevented him from executing his office.”
The article ‘“Tails” of Masculinity: Knights, Clerics, and the Mutilation of Horses in Medieval England’ appears in Speculum, Volume 88:4 (October 2013). You can click here to visit Andrew G. Miller’s webpage at DePaul University.