The breaking-in and training of horses in medieval France

I am Camille Vo Van Qui and I am a new PGR student at the University of Exeter. In September, I started a PhD on the breaking-in and training of horses in medieval France, under the supervision of Professor Oliver Creighton (Archaeology) and Dr Helen Birkett (History).

I had started to work on this subject for my Master’s degree at Sorbonne Université (Paris IV) in Paris, prompted by a passion for real life horses and horse-training. At the end of this two-year degree, I decided to go on with a PhD, as I felt there were still many aspects of medieval horse-training to uncover. The University of Exeter’s Warhorse project made it the ideal environment in which to do so.

The main source I am intending to use is the De Medicina Equorum, written in Latin by the Italian knight Jordanus Rufus (Giordano Ruffo) of Calabria (c. 1200 – c. 1254) in 1250. It is a veterinary treaty and has been extensively studied from a hippiatric point of view, but its first chapters contain a very complete method for taming, breaking-in and training a horse – assumedly a warhorse given the context and the identity of the author. In the years following its production, the treaty was translated in several vernacular languages, including Italian, Sicilian, French and Occitan.

I am intending to study the French versions of this text: there are, to this day, nine manuscripts in that language. What interests me is to determine how the method elaborated by Jordanus Rufus was reinterpreted by the copyists and translators: the text varies greatly from one manuscript to the other, with some significant changes which could point at different training techniques and traditions. In several manuscripts, the chapters on horse-training have been abridged. Others show variations in the type of equipment used. To give one example, some versions state that the horse should first be ridden without spurs and that the rider should have a crop, while others omit that recommendation.

Rufus’s text has also been reused by other authors, such as Pietro de Crescenzi (1230 – c. 1320), in the Opus Ruralium Commodorum (also translated in French), in the first years of the 14th century or Guillaume de Villiers, in another veterinary treaty, in the mid-15th, among others. Again, analysing the changes they may have made to the original source can help to have a more complete picture of how horse-training was put into practice, or at least discover what techniques were the most widespread in a given cultural and geographical landscape.

Those changes also raise the question of knowing what type of horses were concerned by this training method. Rufus certainly had warhorses in mind when he wrote. However, Pietro de Crescenzi’s Opus Ruralium Commodorum, is an agricultural treaty. Do the transformations he makes to Rufus’s method indicate a focus on rounceys rather than destriers? How significant are those changes? Horse breaking and training is always done with a purpose: the future use of the horse. Though some techniques transcend this, the way a draught horse used for ploughing, a riding horse and a warhorse are trained will vary as much as what is expected from them differs.

In the case of warhorses, those expectations would have been to have an animal who would listen to his rider, respond to his aids and be easily controllable on a battlefield. He would have had to turn, stop and gallop, easily and on demand. Yet, having an obedient mount was not the only goal. Horse-training is, whatever the time and culture it takes place in, influenced by the way those animals are perceived, by the symbolism applied to them and by a degree of anthropomorphising. It goes further than the simple usability of the horse, and this is also what I intend to study.

It would be limiting to work on a subject such as the breaking-in and training of horses from a purely literary and theoretical point of view. This is the reason why I am also going to look at archaeological evidence, such as the remains of bits and spurs. Horse-breaking and training necessitates a number of tools, some of which, like the bits, are precisely described by Rufus. Those descriptions can be compared to the available archaeological material. The study of archaeological sources can also help to ascertain what effect the equipment used would have had on actual horses.

I look forward to furthering this project and to working alongside the Warhorse team!

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About Carly Ameen

I am an archaeological scientist specialising in zooarchaeology. My research focuses on the use of Geometric Morphometrics (GMM) to distinguish between the faunal remains of closely related animal species and identify domesticates in archaeological contexts. I am primarily interested in how changes in animal morphology are related to changing husbandry practices and the unique cultural roles of animals in the past.

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