Horses for courses

(I promise that this is the last entry for a while I will begin with a non-medieval piece of token coinage. This one is relevant, but possibly only to one reader. Back to the real deal shortly, after I have met some deadlines…)

Reverse of a copper halfpenny token issued by an uncertain party between 1787 and 1805 depicting Pandora's Breeches afire with a serpent beneath, Fitzwilliam museum CM.BI.1925-R

Reverse of a copper halfpenny token issued by an uncertain party between 1787 and 1805 depicting Pandora's Breeches afire with a serpent beneath

… on the other hand, one persistent advantage of the attachment to Clare is the conversation. One Monday not long ago, after finding a fellow Thomas Spence enthusiast (see above), I got talking to my more immediate colleague Dr Tatsuya Mitsuda, who has now landed a job in Japan and so will not be my colleague for much longer. This means that he is wrapping up his current field of research, which has been on the ownership of and fascination with the horse in modern culture. Among the interesting things he said is that it takes till horse-racing becomes a popular sport for horses to become so personalised as to get names, as before that the focus is on the rider and also very upper-class; affection for horses, he suggested, was mainly a middle-class thing.

A stone carving of Odin on Sleipnir

A stone carving of Odin on Sleipnir

This, it seemed to me, was likely to be vulnerable to attack from the Middle Ages, which is a concern fresh in my mind as you know, but the only named medieval horse I could immediately think of was Sleipnir, who is something of a special case. Now, having been directed by the Unlocked Wordhoard, who were also good enough to link to me, to an almost-irrelevant post at In the Medieval Middle that referred to a relevant one, I have the full answer and a characteric recommendation to read more Jeffrey Cohen, which indeed perhaps I should do some day, though I may wait for his Leeds keynote before I judge the urgency of this given my to-read pile. Anyway, the answer is that, as I suspected, chivalric literature has quite a few named horses in it and Karl Steel also had some more twisty examples that you can follow up there if such things interest you. All the same, I think Tats has some safe ground to retreat to from this onslaught of the medievalists in terms of popular, that is widespread, ownership of horses and the identification of the horse as celebrity is still interesting. Just, perhaps, not as new as all that.

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18 responses to “Horses for courses

  1. Good horses are too expensive and too individual in their traits not to have names. How do you breed better horses w/o naming them?

    Plus in the era of “chevaliers” horses were a tremendous source and symbol of prestige.

    More later.

  2. A quote from my own book, Jousts and Tournaments, on the importance of horses in the later MA:

    “There is no doubt that personal reputation — and the social and financial gains that went with it — must have been the primary driving force behind any jouster’s desire to compete. Yet modern analogy suggests that the business of horseflesh
    was also a major consideration, even for the most noble. The consortia that own the best horses of the present day are
    no doubt motivated by a variety of factors. The intangible satisfaction of being involved with powerful and beautiful
    animals is certainly part of the picture; this attraction to horses, and their consequent prestige, continues long after
    they have ceased to be a practical part of daily life for almost everyone. But profit enters into it as well. Even the biggest
    prizes in the horse world may not be enough to justify the investments needed to support the championship horse; but the possibilities of profit through breeding are realistic enough to save investors from feeling entirely foolish about the massive financial commitment when talking with their
    Great lords of the fourteenth century were perhaps less likely to feel foolish in front of their accountants, but they were not indifferent to wealth, which served as the underpinning of their position in society. We must visualize them, however,
    as being far more intent on the question of horseflesh than the most committed horse-lover among modern investors in
    horse breeding, and probably even more businesslike. The investors of today go home from a horse meet or a race in an
    expensive automobile or perhaps a private jet, either of which is a mark of prestige in itself. Those investors can continue to
    play an important role in society if all of their horse stock is liquidated tomorrow. The loss of standing in the horse world
    might constitute a considerable loss in personal terms, but that could be shrugged off without much consequence in the
    larger world. In contrast, the lord rode for business, pleasure or war every day, and supported not only personal steeds but
    also those of an entire household and extended retinue. It is difficult to imagine a great lord, or even a simple knight, who was not an expert on horses, or at the very least imagined himself to be such an expert. They must have watched jousts with eyes keen to improve their stock.”

  3. I bow to your considerable expertise, here, but I’m not seeing, in what you quote at least, a clear link between prestige of horse-ownership and characterisation of individual horses. Does something have to have a name merely because it’s very expensive? Or even very important? After all, such a lord as you describe would have a number of horses. It strikes me now that my charters often use horses as a price, `a horse worth 50 solidi‘ or whatever—the beasts are never named—which suggests to me that for some people at least horseflesh was very precisely valued, but how that value was calculated and how the individual characteristics of the horse weighed into that, I’ve no idea. The trouble is that if Tats has any kind of point, modern analogies and experience may not be much help.

  4. A good yet succinct meditation on naming animals and the relationship it puts into place between namer and named can be found in Robert Bartlett’s _England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, 1075-1225_. Several examples of named horses there as well. I love that book because it contains a little bit of everything.

  5. Oho! Thankyou. That is, I freely admit, not somewhere I would ever have thought of looking, not least because I bought Clanchy’s England and its Rulers instead…

  6. You’re getting quite keen on this protochronism thing, aren’t you? Also, a friend of mine has a tattoo of that stone carving of Odin.

  7. If he’s feeling really thorough, after he’s done reading about Grigolet and Arondel, Tatsuya Mitsuda may find some inspiration in looking at hippophagy prohibitions in Western Europe. Some good places to look:

    François Sigaut, “La viande de cheval a-t-elle été interdite par l’église?.” Ethnozootechnie 50 (1992): 85-91.

    Rob Meens, “Eating Animals in the Early Middle Ages: Classifying the World and Building Group Identities,” in Angela N. H. Creager and William C. Jordan, eds., The Animal-Human Boundary: Historical Perspectives, Studies in Comparative History 2 (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2002), 3-28

    Pierre Bonnassie, “Consommation d’aliments immondes et cannibalisme de survie dans l’Occident du haut Moyen Age.’ Annales 44 (1989): 1035-56, page 1037, which lists every reference to the prohibition on hippophagy in Hermann Wasserschleben, Hermann, Die Bussordnungen der abendländischen Kirche. Halle: C. Graeger, 1851

    For later references, see
    Joseph Goering and and F. A. C. Mantello. “The Early Penitential Writings of Robert Grosseteste.” Recherches de Théologie Ancienne et Médiévale 54 (1987): 52-112, p. 120, “si pauper pro necessitate carnem asini aut caballi manducaverit, non nocet” (if a poor person eats an ass or horse out of necessity, it is not harmful)

    For another named horse, see Gervase of Tilbury, Otia imperalia III.92 (from my notes, using I think the Oxford UP ed. and trans.), knight in Catalonia, Guiraut de Cabrera, whose horse was “full of sound advice in any distress” [in omnibus angustiis consiliosum], and whose name was Bonus Amicus: the horse spoke in a sort of sign language known only to its master. Gervase wonders, “If it was a real horse, where did it get its sound judgment from, its intelligence, and its loyalty, which would have been remarkable qualities even in the wisest person?” [Si verus equs fuit, unde in eo consilium, intelligentia, fidesque etiam in disertissimo admiranda?] (740-41)

    See also in Gervase for another late reference to hippophagy,
    III.100, It’s Lent, and on Mardi Gras, a knight doesn’t have enough food for the feast, so he has his steward slaughter his best horse, hiding what had happened, and served it as beef. When the squire came back, he wanted to dry his horse and rub it down, but the lord tried to keep the squire from the barn, but miraculously, the slaughtered horse was in the barn, 754-55. We have another version at 757, in which one knight did the same with a mare for Mardi Gras, and another did the same with Easter. Their overlord gave a new horse — note, no miracle — III.100 — to the Mardi Gras knight, whereas the Easter knight just plain lost his horse.

    FINALLY, if he wants to keep reading, have him look at John Lydgate’s ‘Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep”….

    If you’re still with me, it’s a wonder to me that hippophagy returns [in France?] about the same time that bourgeois interest in horses is [purportedly] burgeoning. May be only coincidence, but perhaps worth tracking down.

  8. Karl, thankyou for further references here, nice to see Catalonia leading the field :-)

    TW, I’ve always been keen on it but it’s much easier to write about now you’ve given me a word for it!

  9. I grant that my earlier comments don’t prove that horses had names; I should have been clearer. I thought you had already granted that some medieval horses in lit and historical records had names. I was just expanding on this arguing that prize horses at least (or rather their owners) would have pretty well needed horse names. I can believe that ordinary horses. disposable horses as it were, which were part of large herds may not have had fixed names; and it would be interesting to know what horse naming practices were like. Hard to establish such things.

    Given that there are a lot of living horse-using cultures in the world today, an anthropological survey might be enlightening. It would at least give us an idea whether modern Euro-American horse naming is odd in any way. Instead of just guessing.

    The Romansch of the Alps have historically been nuts over cows, and most of their literature is about cows. I haven’t read any of it, but if the literary cows have names, it certainly has nothing to do with the development of a “modern middle class.”

    Then there is Irish lit…

  10. A whole response seems to have been eaten!

  11. Jonathan,

    I didn’t think that my earlier post proved the use of names for horses in the Middle Ages, since that had already been granted earlier in the conversation. I was just arguing why prize horses at least would logically have names. Perhaps very ordinary horses in large herds would not have names. Mediocre horses would be disposable. We don’t have to go very far back in history see that.

    If we are really interested in how common it is to name animals, or horses in particular, we could look at the evidence worldwide about the use of names in horse cultures, some of which are alive and well today. Certainly it’s better than just guessing protochronistically. Your friend seem to be postulating a version of tunnel history in which European developments started in some primitive state and develop in isolation over some period of time — about the time of the famous “rise of the middle class.” Since we potentially have tons of anthropological evidence about what human beings do with animals and names for animals, we don’t have to guess or put our template on Procrustes bed. (My dictation software can spell Procrustes right first time!)

    As for Europe, what about the Romansh of the Alps who have a whole literature entirely devoted to cows? I haven’t read it but I hear that it exists. Do the cows have names there? and what about the book of the dun cow? the possibilities if not endless are at least many.

  12. Let’s get protochronistic here and bring in Bucephalus who was Alexander the Great’s horse. Maybe you need a tame classicist who can tell you if there are many other named horses from classical history/myth. (I’m not sure Pegasus counts).

    There are also a lot of named horses (and named swords) in the Chanson de Roland etc. What might be interesting to know is the first mention of a horse’s name that isn’t in this kind of heroic literature. Does Chaucer have named horses?

  13. And specially for Steve, a recent study argues that named cows produce more milk.

  14. Steve, sorry, for some reason WordPress spam-trapped the first response but not the second. Both now displayed. I think that over at IMM it was established that we have plenty of horses with names from literature (which of course means that they are late, for me, but not for Tats!), but fewer, if any at all, in supposedly historical writing or documents. As I say, I’m used to seeing a horse as a price, which is rather the opposite impression. In eleventh-century Catalonia, at least, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a mediocre horse; the fifty-solidi example I was thinking of is bottom of the range. They were incredibly expensive, in fact one of the weird things about the area for us is that land is worth so little compared to livestock. But of that livestock the horse is the king and they’re worth, er, a quarter of a pound in gold it would seem.

    Magistra, indeed Bucephalus was one of the examples mentioned by Karl over at In the Medieval Middle.

  15. in fact one of the weird things about the area for us is that land is worth so little compared to livestock.
    I’m sure this has been dealt with rigorously by someone, but at first glance, it strikes me that without all that many people, land would of course be cheap and livestock, being a property that needs people to breed it and oversee it, would cost more. I would imagine we see this relationship reverse as human populations increase. [although, if I remember correctly, the warhorse remains enormously expensive at least through the end of the Middle Ages]

    Further horse names, although from heroic literature, discussed in Andrew Breeze, “The Name of Gawain’s Horse,” English Studies 2 (2000): 100-101 [note when I googled the title of the article to doublecheck it, I found this: incidentally, Breeze dates the name Grigolet in its earliest form at least back to the 11th century]

  16. As far as the land prices go, indeed, you have the mechanism perfectly I think. I’m not aware that it has been dealt with rigorously rather than just stated with more or less amazement, but as close as there has been for Spain at least is probably Wendy Davies, “Sale, price and valuation in Galicia and Castile–León in the tenth century” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (2003), pp. 149-174.

  17. Stuck in the spam locker again?

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