Medieval warhorses were not the massive and powerful mounts of popular culture, according to researchers.
Scientists in search of the “Great Horse” from England from the Middle Ages found that medieval warhorses were surprisingly small in stature — no more than pony-sized by modern standards.
Horses during the period were often below 14.2 hands, Professor Oliver Creighton and his fellow researchers reported in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.
While their mounts may not have been typical of the towering horses we see today, historical records indicate that huge sums were spent on developing and maintaining networks for the breeding, training and keeping of horses used in combat.
Archaeologists and historians have found they were not always bred for size, but for success in a wide range of different functions, including tournaments and long-distance raiding campaigns.
In their research, the study team analysed the largest dataset of English horse bones dating between 300 AD and 1650 AD, found at 171 separate archaeological sites across England.
Their findings reveal that breeding and training of warhorses was affected by a combination of biological and cultural factors, as well as behavioural characteristics of the horses themselves, such as temperament.
The findings challenge depictions of medieval warhorses in films and popular media as massive mounts on the scale of Shire horses, some 17 to 18 hands high.
The evidence suggests that horses of 16 and even 15 hands were very rare indeed, even at the height of the royal stud network during the 13th and 14th centuries. Animals of this size would have been seen as very large by medieval people.
“Neither size, nor limb bone robusticity alone, are enough to confidently identify warhorses in the archaeological record,” said researcher Helene Benkert, from the University of Exeter.
“Historic records don’t give the specific criteria which defined a warhorse; it is much more likely that throughout the medieval period, at different times, different conformations of horses were desirable in response to changing battlefield tactics and cultural preferences.”
The tallest Norman horse recorded was found at Trowbridge Castle, Wiltshire. Estimated to be about 15 hands, it was similar to the size of small modern light riding horses.
The high medieval period, from 1200 to 1350 AD, sees the first emergence of horses of around 16 hands, although it is not until the post-medieval period (1500-1650 AD) that the average height of horses became significantly larger, finally approaching the sizes of modern warmblood and draft horses.
Professor Alan Outram, from the University of Exeter, said a high medieval knight’s warhorse may have been relatively large for the time period, but were clearly still much smaller than might be expected for equivalent functions today.
“Selection and breeding practices in the royal studs may have focused as much on temperament and the correct physical characteristics for warfare as they did on raw size.”
Creighton, who was principal investigator for the project, said: “The warhorse is central to our understanding of medieval English society and culture as both a symbol of status closely associated with the development of aristocratic identity and as a weapon of war famed for its mobility and shock value, changing the face of battle.”
The authors said the variation of sizes found in horses across all periods supports historical records which describe a diversity of horses in England during medieval times, including various types of military horses, as well as riding horses and domestic horses used for traction, ploughing and pack-carrying.
They said the closest modern comparison to activities performed by a medieval warhorse might be western performance horses, particularly those used for barrel racing.
“The requirement for a modern horse to work at high speed while being prepared for an instantaneous change in direction or an abrupt stop is unique to modern western performance horses, with clear parallels to mounted battlefield tactics,” the authors wrote.
“For performance horses, the ideal conformation would be relatively short-backed, with powerful hindquarters, and strong bones and ligaments which allow them to gather and stop quickly after running at all-out speed.”
They said although the evidence presented in their study — overwhelmingly representing horses who never went anywhere near a battlefield — points to smaller and more slender horses than those of both the preceding Saxon and later high medieval periods, this does not negate the effectiveness of Norman horses on medieval battlefields.
“The changes observed during the Norman period could in part reflect an influx of Arabian blood into Western European horse stock, which is known from Iberia from the 8th century AD,” they wrote in their paper.
“During this period, the Islamic Conquest in Spain provided Europe with access to novel horse lineages, written sources mention that the Normans were gifted horses of Spanish, French and Moorish origins – something also reflected in ancient genomics.
“It is possible that these more gracile Norman horses of mixed lineage were perfectly designed for Norman cavalry tactics, which were different from the ‘heavy’ cavalry tactics of later periods.”
They said that although pony-sized horses would have been capable of carrying this increased weight, it is likely that a combination of new equipment as well as environmental and tactical needs, led to the breeding of larger warhorses during the later medieval periods.
They noted that, by the post-medieval period, the impact of agricultural improvement can be seen in the overall size increase of horses from this period, based on height at the withers.
“Indeed, as early as the 14th century, the emergence of new military technologies and tactics began to challenge the primacy of the warhorse on the battlefield.
“Instead, post-medieval breeding standards were driven by a need for power for traction from agricultural horses, and to meet the increase in demand for coach horses as well as those used in sport.”
The research, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, was carried out by Carly Ameen, Helene Benkert, Malene Lauritsen, Karina Rapp, Tess Townend, Laura May Jones, Camille Vo Van Qui, Robert Webley, Naomi Sykes, Oliver H. Creighton and Alan Outram from the University of Exeter, Tamsyn Fraser from the University of Sheffield, Rebecca Gordon, Matilda Holmes and Will Johnson from the University of Leicester, Mark Maltby from Bournemouth University, Gary Paul Baker and Robert Liddiard from the University of East Anglia.
In search of the “great horse”: A zooarchaeological assessment of horses from England (AD 300–1650). Carly Ameen, Helene Benkert, Tamsyn Fraser, Rebecca Gordon, Matilda Holmes, Will Johnson, Malene Lauritsen, Mark Maltby, Karina Rapp, Tess Townend, Gary Paul Baker, Laura May Jones, Camille Vo Van Qui, Robert Webley, Robert Liddiard, Naomi Sykes, Oliver H. Creighton, Richard Thomas, Alan K. Outram
International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 31 August 2021 https://doi.org/10.1002/oa.3038
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