Jousting at the Royal Armouries

Helene Benkert, a doctoral student studying at the University of Exeter as part of the Warhorse project, went on a fact-finding mission to the Royal Armouries to experience their world-famous Easter jousting event. In future years the project hopes to develop display materials that can help engage with members of the public at these events.

Helene writes:
The International Jousting Competition at the Royal Armouries in Leeds is a huge event. Even in our modern times, jousting can still draw a big crowd. It wasn’t any different back in the medieval period.

Perhaps a little like football matches today, nobility would come together to ride, fight and cheer. Those knights successful enough would be celebrated like stars. Often enough, however, a career was ended prematurely through serious injuries or even death of the combatant, and attrition rates for horses were notoriously high.
Tournaments emerged in eleventh and twelfth centuries as a way to train for war and pass time between battles and campaigns. Soon they developed into the biggest sports events for nobles and a stage to show off skill as much as wealth and status.

The joust, where two knights on their valuable warhorses would charge at each other with lances, is the most widely known part of these competitions. Horses, of course, were an integral part of these tournaments.

The horses competing with their “knights” at the Royal Armouries in 2019 are sporting their owner’s colours and shiny metal chaffrons are protecting their heads. They pick up on the excitement of the audience and reenactors around them, ears pricked and prancing about the arena.

These are stunt horses – professionals – from Atkinson Action Horses, and they are used to all sorts of noise and racket. They are highly trained, just like medieval war and tournament horses had to be excellently trained to ensure their riders’ safety and, of course, victory. The horses were and are the real stars, directed by the knight in the saddle.

Back in the Middle Ages, a destrier or charger would have been the best bred and trained horse on the market and sold for exorbitant prices only the very rich could afford. Bigger than normal working horses, these were swift, fierce and strong stallions, clad in silver armour.

They certainly are impressive to watch in the tilt yard of the Royal Armouries as they gallop towards each other in the bright colours of their owner’s house. It is easy to imagine people enjoying this kind of entertainment so many centuries ago as the modern crowd cheers for their favourites.

Next year we will be back, with lots of facts and fun on and around medieval horses. So come and join us for talks, activities, crafts or a chat.

Written in bone: Zooarchaeology and the Warhorse project

A large component of the Warhorse project is the analysis of horse bones from medieval archaeological sites across Britain. Zooarchaeology, the study of ancient animal remains, provides insight into the unique roles that animals held in the past, both as food but also more significantly as important companions critically linked to social and cultural practices. The bones of these animals can tell us about their physical appearance, health, age at death and lifestyle, all of which combine to help us better understand the use of horses in the medieval period, and particularly to highlight the impact of their use in warfare.

   Fig.1 Assorted animal bones, including horse from Ipplepen, Devon

Animal bones are frequently recovered in large numbers from archaeological sites in Britain, often in refuse pits where the bones are the remains of food waste (Fig. 1). However, animal bones are also found as part of special deposits that could include animals which were given their own burials, animals included in human burials, or animals which were ritually deposited in other contexts. Understanding the context that remains are found in is an important first step for interpreting the roles of horse in the medieval period. While some burials of complete horse skeletons do exist, more often horse remains will be isolated elements as part of larger bone assemblages of many different species.

Fig.2 Disarticulated horse skeleton

For the Warhorse project, we will be using a combination of approaches to analyse these horse remains to integrate as many strands of evidence as possible for understanding the variation of medieval horses. We will begin by using traditional zooarchaeological techniques, which include taking a series of standardised measurements from the animal bones. These metrics will be used to provide evidence of size changes related to stature, including a detailed and systematic study of size, robusticity and shape, which could help us identify changes related to the increased use of horses in military activities. We will also record pathologies associated with working horses, such as spavin in the lower legs, back pathologies and bitting damage, to provide evidence for activities associated with military use/training.

Fig.3 Anatomical drawing of horse skeleton, showing location of elements used for GMM

Alongside these traditional metric analyses, we will apply advanced 3D geometric morphometrics (GMM) to study variations in astragalus and calcaneus bones. These particular elements have been selected as they are easily identified within archaeological assemblages and tend to preserve very well in one piece, an essential criterion for 3D GMM. Because these elements are located in the limbs (Fig. 3), their morphological variation is likely to indicate during life changes related to locomotor requirement. These requirements would likely differ between horses used for military and domestic purposes. Digital 3D models will be created through a well-used method of structure-from-motion photogrammetry (Fig. 4), which is quick, inexpensive, and does not damage specimens. By combining both the traditional metrics with these more advanced GMM techniques, we will be able to generate a new, independent chronology of changing horse size, morphology and appearance which will increase our ability to detect husbandry practices and management strategies during the medieval period, and hopefully identify a unique horse morphology specific to horses used for military purposes.

Fig.4 (top) Horse astragalus being photographed using photogrammetry, and (bottom), horse calcaneus during the modelling process.

 

Website Launch

Welcome to the webpage for a new research project on the archaeology of medieval warhorses that has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. While the website is still at an early stage of development — do watch out for new content as it builds — we hope that our page provides you with an initial snapshot of the work we have planned and that it gives some flavour of why we are so excited by it.

Over the next three years, our team of archaeologists and historians will be conducting the first ever integrated and systematic study of that most characteristic beast of the Middle Ages — the warhorse.  As well as being a famed weapon of war, the medieval horse was an unmistakable symbol of elite social status closely bound up with the development of knighthood, chivalry and aristocratic culture. Crucially, in developing a new archaeological approach to the subject, our project hopes to add something different and distinctive to our understanding of horses but also, by extension, to speak to some of these other intriguing and much-debated topics.

Our work will be wide-ranging: team members will be re-examining the physical remains of horses in the form of bones as well as the material culture associated with them, including horse apparel and armour, and mapping the landscapes in which horses were bred and trained. As such, we hope that our work will be engaging and interesting for a really wide range of people: not just medieval and military historians, zooarchaeologists (specialists in animal bones) and those interested in the historic landscape, but also people with a passion for all things horsey! We will be working closely with our collaborating institutions, the Royal Armouries and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, to develop events and activities that seize on the depth of public interest in equine culture and showcase our work more broadly.

One of the fascinating things about starting on an ambitious research journey of this sort is knowing that as well as making new discoveries on these various different fronts, other new possibilities and will reveal themselves as the work progresses. A project of this scope is also bound to have unanticipated spin-offs that we look forward to seizing upon and sharing. We hope that you look forward to following our journey on this website, via our Twitter feed (@AHRC_Warhorse), or — a little further down the line — through the events, publications and displays that our project will create.

The Project Team

February 2019