Locusts: the apocalyptic iconographical representation of the Warhorse.

I am Laura Jones, and I joined the project as a University of Exeter undergraduate Archaeology and History student in the summer of 2020. I am grateful to all the team for taking me on board and bringing me into the world of all things horse-related. Being a former secondary teacher, an intern at the University’s Digital Humanities Lab and a volunteer within the archaeology collections at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, I hope to bring my experience of material culture and public engagement to the project. Working alongside Rob Webley, I am focusing on the material culture package of the project that includes the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s (PAS) data to bring more understanding to our knowledge of medieval horse equipment – see Rob’s previous PAS post here. Whilst interpreting the PAS data, we have also been on a hunt for medieval horse iconography from across the UK/Europe to enhance our understanding of medieval horse equipment and how the medieval warhorse was perceived and represented.

Figure 1- Exeter Cathedral misericord of a locust like figure- ‘courtesy of the Dean & Chapter of Exeter Cathedral’ 2020.

Strikingly apparent is how the warhorse was an iconic figure within the medieval world and its imagination; most interestingly- and quite apt at the time writing, amidst the 2020 Covid pandemic – is how horses were depicted within medieval apocalyptic manuscripts. Brought to our attention by the Principal Investigator of the project Professor Oliver Creighton, is the representation on Misericord no. 41 (c.1240-70) at Exeter Cathedral (see Figure 1) of a locust-like figure – one of the Bible’s ‘locusts’ from the Book of Revelations (9:3). These locusts ‘“were like unto horses prepared for battle [with] breastplates of iron [and] their sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots [of] horses rushing to battle”’ (KJV, Rev. 9: 7-9). The locust figure is equipped with protective mail barding and a saddle with a high pommel and cantle – designed for keeping the rider on their horse. Does the representation of horse equipment in apocalyptic iconography, despite perhaps being as far removed from reality, give us some insight into medieval horse equipment? How did artists grapple with their depiction of ‘breastplates of iron’ in the phase prior to horse armour usage in the late 12th century in comparison to before plate armour was consistently used in the 14th century?

Figure 2: Selden Supra Part 2 Folio 69r, sourced from: Medieval and Renaissance Manuscript Illumination (from 35mm), Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Folio 94 – from Beatus of Liébana’s Las Huelgas Apocalypse (1220), now held in The Morgan Library and Museum, New York (MS M.429, f.94), depicts the riders wearing mail but not the locusts. On first inspection, one could assume the locusts could be wearing armour; the white highlights on the horses in the breast and hind regions create a shine to the locusts: something that is usually seen with armour. However, when compared to other depictions, it is clear the highlight accentuates the musculature qualities and powerful strength of those areas that drive the warhorse. The saddles once again hold their riders in with a high pommel and cantle. Using iconography, despite its artistic nature, therefore allows us to assess trends in horse equipment, how it was used and in combination with the archaeological data and to apply chronological information to it.

Figure 3: Canonici Apocalypse, Folio 10v, sourced from: Medieval and Renaissance Manuscript Illumination (from 35mm), Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Mail barding worn by horses was very common by the 13th century. Similar to the misericord at Exeter Cathedral are the examples of locusts wearing mail barding (see Figure 2) in the Selden Supra, circa 1315-1325 (MS. Selden Supra 38, Part. 2, f.69r). Another good example is seen in Figure 3 from the Canonici Apocalypse, 1320-1330 (MS. Canon. Bibl. Lat. 62, f.10v). This shows a range of horse equipment. The familiar trend of the saddle that holds its rider in (high pommel and cantle), a girth to keep the saddle in place and horseshoes which aid durability of the hoof are clearly illustrated, linking the locust to the figure of the warhorse. This folio clearly depicts the importance of horse equipment being suitable for battle. What is interesting is that it is rare to find mail barding depicted earlier than the 13th century. However, Rob Webley came across Folio 23 (Figure 4) from the Bamberger Apokalypse of c.1020 (Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Inventar-Nr. Bibl. 140, f. 23r.) which is one of the earliest examples of mail barding depicted in medieval iconography that we have personally found so far on a horse or horse-like figure.

Figure 4: Bamberger Apokalypse, Folio 23r, sourced from: Staatsbibliothek Bamberg, Msc.Bibl.140. Photo: Gerald Raab. Made available through CC-BY-SA 4.0.

These examples are relevant to our discussions of not only how the medieval warhorse and its equipment were perceived but also how and why they could have been used. Applying due source criticism, we can match up iconographical depictions with material culture, understand typologies within the equipment and try to establish chronological frameworks for our understanding of the medieval warhorse. As our iconographical horse hunt continues alongside our work on material culture for the project, it will be interesting to see what other depictions/material comes to light and what we can learn from them.

MANAGING ENGLAND’S ROYAL WARHORSES IN THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY

Dr Gary Baker, Postgraduate Research Fellow on the Medieval Warhorse Project, has been systematically working through the accounts of royal warhorses in medieval England. Here he presents some of the findings of that work

Sir Geoffrey Lutterell, assisted by his wife and daughter-in-law

The warhorses of England’s medieval monarchs were some of their most prized possessions. Not only did they have a practical use in war and the tournament, but they also served to represent the king’s wealth and power to his people, with coursers, and especially the elite destriers, acting as physical embodiments of this power. They were important as gifts to those whom the king wished to reward for good and loyal service, and those wishing to curry favour with the king often presented him with prized destriers. Warhorses, therefore, acted as an important social glue which bound the king to his people.

(Fig. 1) Detail of an account showing the monthly expenses of stabling Edward I’s horses in 1299-1300

The maintenance, care, and upkeep of the royal warhorses has generated a huge number of records, many of which can be found in The National Archives UK. The amount of money spent on these animals shows just how important they were. From November 1298 to the end of his reign in July 1307, for example, Edward I spent nearly £16,000 on stabling his horses alone; nearly £1,800 a year (fig. 1). Edward and his successors continued to spend large amounts of money on the upkeep of royal horses. They were also keen on improving the quality of their warhorses, acquiring new animals from both home and abroad. In 1334-35, for instance, Arnold Garcy, keeper of the king’s great horses south of the Trent, travelled to Spain to purchase great horses for Edward III, including the purchase of 23 such animals for a total of £715 13s 4d.

Account of Arnold Garcy, keeper of the king’s horses south of the Trent, going to buy horses in Spain in 1334-35.

Edward III’s reign provides particularly rich information on the maintenance of the royal warhorses. From the start of his reign the king appointed separate keepers of the ‘great horses’ (a catch-all term applied mainly to destriers and coursers, but which sometimes incorporated other types of horse), north and south of the Trent. The accounts of these keepers provide minute details relating to their receipts and expenses including fodder (oats, cut grass, hay, bran, horse bread) equine equipment (bridles, lunges, reins, saddles, stirrups, trammels, hobbles, horseshoes, and halters), the wages of grooms and farriers, medicines purchased to treat ailments (including vinegar, honey, powdered ginger, tallow, ointments, and bandages), and candles for lighting the lamps around the stables and helping the grooms to see in the dark winter months.

The destriers in particular were well-fed on a diet of oats and hay, with each animal consuming up to half a bushel a day (with a bushel weighing roughly 40lbs) which would have made them more likely and liable to bite and kick. Unfortunately the records do not record the size of these elite animals in horse hands (hh), though the destriers’ diet would suggest they were large by contemporary if not modern standards, perhaps 15hh. Indeed, stature and musculature were likely more important qualities for warhorses to possess to the medieval mind than height, which explains why the latter information is never recorded in medieval English accounts. It has been estimated, given the volume of oats they consumed, that destriers probably weighed 1,600lbs or more. Compared to present-day thoroughbreds which weigh roughly 1,000lbs, the medieval destrier was doubtlessly an impressive animal.

The famous Warwick shaffron, housed in The Royal Armouries

Every care was afforded these horses, as disease could ravage a herd. ‘Murrain’ (a catch-all term which was applied in the accounts to a variety of equine ailments) was a particular problem. At the stud at Ightenhill in Lancashire in 1331-32, twenty-one out of the twenty-three newborns that year succumbed to the disease. Other diseases could be just as contagious. In October 1326 one grey at Reading died of farcy, a serious bacterial disease which causes growths in the lymph vessels. Wooden and thatch buildings where the horses were stabled were also at risk of fire. Three of the king’s ‘great horses’ (2 destriers and 1 courser) being kept in stables at Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, died in a fire that started in the night of 14 April 1352 outside of the stables, though the clerk was quick to assert that their keeper, William de Fremelesworth, was not at fault.

 

Copper, a mare at the Leeds Royal Armouries in her full armour. Mares like Copper were not used as warhorses in medieval England. Instead they were utilised as riding horses and baggage animals on campaign.

The adult stallions – all destriers and coursers in medieval England were male – were accounted for and, presumably, stabled separately from the mares, colts, and foals, which were kept at the king’s studs which were located all over the country. Some of the major studs in the north were at Ightenhill, Knaresborough, Burstwick, and Plumpton; whilst in the south, Cornbury, Guildford, Rayleigh, Princes Risborough, Stratfield Mortimer, Woodstock, and Windsor predominated. From at least Edward III’s reign these studs do not appear to have had resident stallions, with the great horses being sent to cover the mares at different studs in rotation.

The accounts also provide information on the number of the horses present within these studs, with detailed records kept of the numbers throughout the year, as can be seen from this example for Stratfield Mortimer, Berkshire, in 1349-50. Detailed descriptions were also provided of the coat colours of the animals to aid identification.

Type Start End Total Acc. for Males at End Females at End
Mares 17 16 17 0 16
Colts 4 0 4 0 0
Fillies 7 4 7 0 4
Newborns 0 6 6 3 3
Total 28 26 34 3 23

Mares: start 17 (1 bay with white spots and two rear white feet, 1 bay, 1 white-grey with one left rear foot, 1 black which blends into grey, 3 greys, 1 brown bay with two rear white feet, 2 blacks with stars in front, 3 sorrels with white spots, 1 black with two white front feet, 1 grey with white spots, 1 brown bay, and 1 bay-grey); 1 brown bay mare died on 4 October 1349, as appears in the inquiry headed by Adam de Dene, ordered by the king to inquire into the deaths of the king’s horses in the memoranda delivered to the treasurer enrolled in the Hillary term of the 25th year of Edward III (1351–52) (16). Colts: start 4 born the previous year; 3 were delivered to Odiham on 4 October 1349 for breaking in amongst the king’s great horses (1); the remaining colt died on 3 October 1349. Fillies: start 7 (1 of 2.5yrs old, 1 of 1.5yrs old, and 5 born the previous year); 1 black filly, then 3yrs old, died on 5 June 1350, and on 11 June 1 grey then 1yr old died, and 1 black filly, then 1yr old, died on 16 June (4). Newborns: 6 born this year (3 colts and 3 fillies), all of which remain at the end of the account.

When young horses reached maturity (usually around 3.5yrs old for fillies and 2.5yrs old for colts) the colts were sent for training and breaking in amongst the king’s great horses, and some of the mares were selected for breeding. The remainder were either sold or sent to the household to act as horses for messengers, as riding horses, or as gifts to members of the household.

Warhorse numbers in the royal studs and stables obviously varied over time, ranging from 500-600 horses of all types over the period 1320-60. From c. 1360, however, the large numbers of horses were sold and the new position of Master of the Horse was created. The man occupying this position became an important official in the royal household, but instead of dealing with hundreds of animals, he was tasked with maintaining a smaller number of more elite beasts.

Horse Island: Place Names and Early Equine Landscapes

Look at a large-scale Ordnance Survey map and it is perhaps surprising to see how many places that exist today owe their name to the presence of horses: Horsham, Horsely, Horsebridge, Studleigh and so on (Fig. 1).  One of the aims of Warhorse is to shed more light on what we might call ‘equine landscapes’ of the Middle Ages, and place-names represent an important category of evidence for investigation. Significantly for the project, many of our modern ‘horse’ names have Old English origins and so provide a valuable dataset for analysis.

Fig. 1 Horse place-names – East and West Horsley in Hampshire

Terms that refer to horses appear in both ‘major’ place-names given to settlements and also as more ‘minor’ names often given to fields or farms. Nationally there are literally hundreds of them. Clearly at some point in the past horses were such a feature of these places that they warranted naming as such and so our horse place-names potentially provide us with evidence for the location of specific breeding sites or concentrations of hooves on the ground. So far, so good.

But the interpretation of place-names is complicated by a number of factors. Firstly, there is the difficulty of whether names attest to the commonplace – a name relating to horses might indicate an abundance that made for a distinguishing feature – or the opposite – a scarcity of horses in any given area might mean those places where they did exist were distinctive. Secondly, names are not always straightforward: Maresfield in Sussex derives from Old English mere ‘pool’ rather than denoting the presence of equines.  Thirdly, names are often very difficult to date precisely. Clearly a proportion of the horse names found today are relatively recent (think of how many Black Horse pubs there are out there) and the exact date of many minor names, which are probably medieval, but where we would like more precision for the purposes of analysis, are frustratingly elusive. Fortunately, for major place-names, documentary evidence often confirms an early date (Domesday Book is very helpful here) and these cases must reflect in some way horse management in the pre-Conquest period.

Fig. 2Modern Landscape of Horsey, Norfolk

One such place is Horsey in north east Norfolk on the edge of the Broads (Fig. 2). In 1086 Domesday Book records the name Horseia meaning ‘horse island’ – from the Old English hors ‘horse’ and ēg ‘island’. Go there today and while you will struggle to find it (this is Norfolk remember), there are traces of a gentle hill where the church now stands and from which the ‘island’ part of the name was presumably taken. In the late eleventh century this island would have stood at the mouth of what is now the river Thurne and today’s semi-drained farmland would have been a wide expanse of estuarine salt marsh and grazing, something readily appreciable today even if the ‘island’ is not (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3 What is now drained farmland would have been wetland grazing in the eleventh century.

 

 

So why ‘horse’ island? As the project is discovering, there is some evidence that the place name hors, denoted feral or semi-feral herds, and here it is interesting that Domesday Book also records large numbers of what it calls ‘wild mares’ in neighbouring manors. Such feral herds were presumably exploited much in the way that they are today, perhaps with young animals being drawn off on a cyclical basis for breaking in and use elsewhere.

So – should we be imagining a feral horse population around Horsey in the Anglo-Saxon period grazing on the extensive wetlands, perhaps analogous to Camargue horses in modern France? Perhaps the Norfolk Horsey was not unique as ‘horse islands’ are also found in the Somerset and Pevensey Levels, the Peterborough Fens, on the Essex coast and what is now Portsmouth harbour – once all very similar environments. And would the horse living in these landscapes had different characteristics to those grazing in different surroundings, such as upland Exmoor and Dartmoor, which Domesday Book shows was clearing taking place? Warhorse is currently exploring these and many other issues and it will be fascinating to see if the zooarchaeology and material culture strands of the project can help us to further refine our understanding of these early horse landscapes. It’s all in the name (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4 A dim echo of a horse landscape of the Anglo-Saxon period? The clue is in the name…

Visiting a Destrier of the Royal Collection

At the end of February, Prof. Alan Outram and Helene Benkert had the honour of meeting one of the formidable Destriers of the Royal Collection. Copper, a lovely chestnut mare, used to serve as a jousting horse at the Royal Armouries in Leeds and starred in many cinematic productions during her time. She is now enjoying her well-earned retirement near York, under the loving care of Matt Cooper.

Copper, Destrier of the Royal Collection

We went north to visit them to use Copper as a guinea-pig for our studies of horse morphology. She graciously endured her role and kindly accepted mints as payment.

First, Matt discussed the various aspects of conformation that a horse should sport in order to be suitable for jousting. We then armed ourselves with tape measures and began putting numbers to the features Matt had pointed out. Though Copper was a little sceptical of our tools at first, she allowed us to continue so long as she had hay to munch in the meantime.

Copper has her own full set of armour which she very patiently donned once again for us to inspect and admire. She certainly looked dashing, though perhaps a bit unhappy.

Copper in her full armour

Putting on all the different bits of armour followed a meticulous protocol and took quite a bit of time, but it helped to understand how all the parts work together and in relationship with the horse. Seeing her move with her metal shell, the impact full armour had on the horses’ movements became clear. Though she was not hindered in her mobility, she walked differently to counterbalance the weight. When working in the armour, she would have had to balance the rider’s weight and movements as well, highlighting the achievement of an excellent warhorse.

Putting on the armour

Our particular interest was on her shaffron and how its measurements would translate to her head. It turned out that it is rather complicated to find the corresponding measurements on both shaffron and head in a way that is reproduceable.

Her measurements will be used to understand the relationship between armour, horse, and skeleton. In the absence of actual horses in the archaeological record, we rely on such modern references to draw conclusions from the materials that we do have available: the bones and the armour. Copper will help us to better understand and interpret this data.

We are very grateful to Matt and Copper for their patience and willingness to help and, of course, their valuable insight into the working side of a medieval jousting horse.

Back in the Laboratories after Lockdown

The project team were delighted to be back in the laboratories this week and thought that followers of our blog might be interested to see some images of us in action.

Following the nationwide lockdown in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the University of Exeter is now able to facilitate access to laboratories and other technical facilities for some prioritised work, and it is excellent that we have been able to make some good early progress with the zooarchaeological (animal bone) work package of our project.

In the ‘new normal’, health and safety requirements are of primary importance course, and we have been finding new ways of working in our COVID-secure spaces.

This week we have been concentrating on taking small samples from horse bones and teeth that we will be sending to the laboratory of our project partners in Toulouse, France (see https://orlandoludovic.wixsite.com/pegasus-erc). In this world-leading specialist laboratory, our French collaborators will look to extract the ancient horse DNA that can hopefully shed light on where our medieval specimens fit into the ‘family tree’ of equine evolution.

The process of extracting samples, which is captured in the photographs below, is delicate and complex. Cleanliness is paramount, so the person taking the samples wears protective gear and a double set of gloves, while the cutting takes place on tin foil, so that all residue can be easily removed between samples. Tools need to be cleaned with ‘DNA-Away’, a decontaminant that prevents cross-contamination between samples.

To minimise damage to the bone, only a small sliver is removed, by cutting two small parallel slots with a dremel (a rotary cutting tool) or a small electric saw. The sample is then prised out with a screwdriver and bagged for dispatch to the lab in Toulouse. The project team are looking forward to hearing back on the preliminary results and thinking through their implications…

Members of the project team working on bone sampling in COVID-19-compliant working conditions.

Cutting a horse tooth from Whitby Abbey, Yorkshire, in order to extract a sample.

Sampling medieval a horse bone from Windsor castle. The small electric cutter allows precision work in order to minimise destructive damage to the bone.

One of the sliver-like samples of bone. This one (from the medieval settlement site of West Cotton, Northamptonshire) appears to be very well preserved, which bodes well for the prospects of being able to extract ancient DNA from it.

Our set of bagged and labelled samples, ready for dispatch to the laboratory in Toulouse.

Equipping the warhorse: Horseshoes, harness pendants and stirrup fittings

This month Rob Webley joins the ‘Warhorse’ team – here he introduces himself and the project’s examination of equine material culture

It is a pleasure to have started working on the ‘Warhorse’ project, where my focus will be on the objects used to ride horses and to decorate them – their material culture. One of our aims, by studying images and artefacts, is to see which objects were associated with the warhorse, or essential to using horses in combat, and which were used in other contexts. My background in archaeological artefacts comes from over a decade’s work for the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) for whom I made nearly 10,000 records of objects found by members of the public. Many of these objects related to the early-medieval, medieval and post-medieval horse, and much of this equestrian equipment has, in turn, featured heavily in my PhD thesis undertaken at the University of York. My thesis considers developments in portable material culture focused on the 11th and 12th centuries, part of which has been to assess and contextualise the impact of the Norman Conquest.

Medieval horseshoe with possible orthopaedic plate (PAS: SUSS-973667) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Medieval horseshoe with possible orthopaedic plate (PAS: SUSS-973667) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

The database of the Portable Antiquities Scheme will feature heavily in my ‘Warhorse’ work, as it holds over 16,000 records of equestrian equipment from our period of study. Most objects recorded by the PAS are non-ferrous (not made of iron), because the majority of those reporting to it are metal-detector users. This is both a challenge and a blessing. Taking horseshoes as an example, being iron, PAS records number only in the hundreds (a particularly interesting example is featured above), while we know that during the Hundred Years War horseshoes were being forged in their thousands every year in Nottinghamshire alone. To assess changes in shape and size in horseshoes, information will have to be extracted primarily from excavation reports and museum examples: this can then be compared to zooarchaeological data to establish whether such changes are useful approximations of changes in horse size and stature.

Examples of medieval horse harness pendants

The most exciting challenges posed by PAS data come when it throws up large numbers of objects that are otherwise neglected in the documentary record. A case in point is the harness pendant: a copper-alloy item which came to real prominence in the 12th century as a means primarily of decorating a horse’s breast strap (examples to right). Nearly 6,000 of these pendants have been recorded on the PAS database. This quantity inevitably raises questions about what type of horse was decorated with these objects: Who used such horses? Did this change through time? Hopefully the evidence of representations of harness pendants in art, along with the objects themselves, will – if approached with due caution – yield some answers.

A final example may be provided by stirrup fittings. A fashion in the 11th century (running on into the 12th century) saw stirrups – generally iron objects – embellished with highly decorative copper-alloy terminals at the ends of their tread-plates (see the example below). Also made of copper alloy are contemporary mounts which protected and decorated the stirrup leather where it passed through the apex loop of a stirrup. Both are often decorated with zoomorphic (animal) designs. Many hundreds of such ‘stirrup-strap mounts’ are now known, and, alongside the stirrup terminals, provide evidence for large numbers of horse riders in late Anglo-Saxon England. They therefore serve as a counterpoint to perceptions of the innate ‘horse-mindedness’ of the Normans. As with harness pendants, their sheer numbers challenge our sense of where to situate them socially, suggesting more people were riding or engaging with horses than previously thought.

Late early-medieval stirrup terminal with a beast's head (c. 11th century) (PAS: SOM-C2BC82) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Late early-medieval stirrup terminal with a beast’s head (c. 11th century) (PAS: SOM-C2BC82) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Because so much equestrian equipment was lost in transit, and so little has, proportionally, been recovered archaeologically, it has not always been studied in depth and there is plenty of work to be done on bringing new data together and starting to associate it with different horse roles. For unequivocal equipment of the warhorse – its armour – you may want to explore some of our other posts.

What can equine armour tell us about the warhorse that wore it?

As you will have seen from previous posts, our project team are busy trying to find out as much as we can about the size and shape of medieval horse types from their skeletons. However, warhorses also had exoskeletons (external skeletons). While we might think of animals with exoskeletons as being creatures such as insects and crabs, warhorses had artificial exoskeletons in the form of armour. What can horse armour tell us about stature and shape of the horse that it fitted?

On the face of it, this sounds easy. The size of armour surely tells us a lot about size of horses selected for warfare and jousting. When one starts to examine the prospect more closely, however, some difficulties emerge. Leg lengths tell us most about withers heights, but horses didn’t wear greaves. Peytrals and cruppers certainly tell us a bit about the width of a horse’s chest or rump, respectively, but they don’t tell us much about height as they differ greatly in design in that respect. The crinet on the neck is designed to expand and contract with head movement, so there are not appropriate fixed points to measure. The other big problem with horse armour is its rarity: pieces survive in fairly small numbers, mainly in important museum collections. We are going to take measurements where we can, but those elements are unlikely to yield the datasets we need.

Shaffrons, on the other hand, survive it quite large numbers and were fitted quite closely to the horse’s face, with just a little paddling in between. They might give us lots of data on the size and shape of horse’s heads.

Shaffron being measured

A 16th Century shaffron being measured in the collections of the Royal Armouries (Photo: O. Creighton).

Diagram showing shaffron measurements

We are taking many measurements, both in straight lines and in contour between key landmarks on the shaffrons.

Deciding what to measure on shaffrons is not easy as they also vary in design quite considerably. Some extend fully from the back of the head to the nose, but then have a wide range of designs around the nasal area. Some ‘half shaffrons’ don’t extend as far as the nose. Shaffrons also vary in the way they extend down the cheek, with some having separate cheek pieces. Eyes holes can be plain or have additional guards of different types. Our best course of action is to be thorough in our metrical recording, so that we don’t regret the choices we made at a later point.

While some measurements will mainly tell us about shaffron design, there are others that relate directly to the size and shape of the horse’s head. These include overall width measurements and measurements between eye and ear holes in various combinations. Overall length is quite difficult because of the difficult designs at the nose. We have started to collect our shaffron data, but there is much yet to do. We have also been carrying out equivalent measurements on live horses of different type, breed and withers height so that we can understand what our shaffron data mean.

measuring equipment

Our measuring equipment and recording form ready for use (Photo: O. Creighton).

half shaffron being measured

A half shaffron being measured in the Royal Armouries stores (Photo: O. Creighton).

horse being measured

Our honorary fellow Karina Rapp, measuring one of our sample of live horses.

 

We’ve still got to measure many more shaffrons and horses, but what do we know so far? As you might imagine, horse head size doesn’t have a simple relationship to withers heights, but there is nonetheless some relationship, and we will be able say something about varying stature and head shape. We can already see that shaffrons can be of radically different sizes and some were clearly fitted to pony-sized animals. However, there are some impressively large examples out there too! As our project develops, it will be fascinating to see how our data from shaffrons relate to the zooarchaeaological material, especially in terms of trying to answer the big question about the size and appearance of medieval ‘great’ horses…

The Price of Riding

The horse’s body was not meant to carry a saddle, let alone a rider encased in clanking metal.

Riding is unnatural, and although there are ways to keep the damage to a minimum, it will take a visible toll on the horse’s skeleton.

These pathologies — deviations from the normal structure of bones and teeth caused by disease, age, or stress — are a valuable tool for the zooarchaeologist as they can illuminate aspects of the animal’s life and sometimes death.

For the Warhorse Project, pathology is a true treasure trove. Injuries, possibly sustained in battle or on the tournament field, or evidence for regular riding, all hold the potential to tell us something about the lives of horses in the Middle Ages.

Bony changes in the horse’s spine are a relatively common result of riding. Fusion of several vertebrae or even entire backs can frequently be seen in the zooarchaeological record.

Abnormal bone growth caused by ‘Kissing Spine’ in a medieval horse from Latvia (Photo: H. Benkert)

The abnormal weight of a rider (or any heavy load) on their back forces the spine to bend downwards, which brings the spinous processes of the vertebrae (long bony projections protruding from the top of the vertebrae) much closer together than they should be. When they touch and grind against each other repeatedly this causes new bone growth around the affected area — a painful condition called ‘Kissing Spine’.

Fusion of vertebral bodies in a horse spine from early Anglo-Saxon Britain (Photo: H. Benkert)

To counter this, the horse will become stiff in the back in an attempt to minimise movement between the vertebrae. Similarly, the bones themselves will react to the repeated strain by growing bony bridges between vertebrae, locking them into place. Such fusion in the spine can be a normal consequence of old age and it is not uncommon to find it in two or three lumbar vertebrae. However, exceptional strain on a horse’s back may eventually lead to the complete fusion of the spine, known as a ‘bamboo spine’.

 

 

For any pathological condition to grow as severe as an immobile spine, the animal must have survived it for a considerable amount of time. That means its owners or caretakers cared for the animal, indicating a bond between humans and horses that reached beyond mere exploitation. It paints the horse as a companion and partner that did not lose its value even when it outlived its usefulness.

The morphology of movement

In our search for Medieval warhorses, we naturally will encounter a large quantity of horses not used in combat. The zooarchaeological record in Britain is full of horses, from the impressive Iron Age human/horse chariot burials, to the Post-Medieval remains of work horses. The task for those of us working on the bones of these animals is identifying signs that could indicate what the horses were being used for while alive. Because of the biased nature of preservation of biological remains, we frequently encounter bones and teeth, but rarely find evidence of more delicate materials, such as skin, fur, hair and muscle. Thus, it is our job to find proxies for these things with the faunal data we do have.

Muscles are a hugely important factor in how a horse moves, and those used for work (draught horses) would have utilised their muscles in very different ways from those used primarily for riding, or combat. Though we cannot study the muscles themselves, bones leave evidence of the nature of musculoskeletal loadings at the point where the muscle is attached to the bone. By looking at these areas of muscle attachment, we can investigate changes in robusticity, and changes in size, shape and surface complexity of horse bones.

As an analogy, imagine a draught horse as a front wheel drive car, deriving its power from the forelimbs, pulling with the aid of a harness. In contrast, in combat a horse is a rear wheel drive car, and would need to be able to perform short bursts of speed, and turn in tight, quick movements. It is likely this power would be derived from the hindlimbs. These vastly different movements repeated over the life of the animal would induce stress to the muscles, and the attached bones. 

But, what can we expect to see on these bones? There are a few different ways that we are investigating these morphological changes, and a previous blog post discussed the 3D methods we are using. However, in-life movement and stress not only affect the surface of the bone, but also the internal structures. Studies of living horses have successfully used CT scanning and x-ray to investigate the internal structures of the lower limb bones (metapodia) providing a measurement of cortical thickness which has been shown to change depending on in-life usage of the horse. A few weeks ago, we used the x-ray in the archaeological science labs at the University of Exeter, to investigate the ability of x-ray to show the cortical thickness in archaeological bones.

We investigated how the cortical thickness changed at different locations on the bone (i.e. near the ends and towards the centre of the shaft). This was preliminary investigative work to determine a sampling strategy for all the bones in our assemblage. We wanted to see how the cortical thickness changed along the bone, and decide on a standardised place to measure its thickness from. From the x-ray images of the horse bones, we will be able to measure the thickness of the cortical wall and compare this with the thickness of modern horses with known in-life activities.