Equine objects – the horse in artefacts (Part 1)

One means of examining the ways in which the horse pervaded the medieval mind is to consider how often and in what ways it was represented in material culture. It is well known that the horse featured widely in medieval manuscript art, on wall hangings and in architectural sculpture. Its presence as/on/in artefacts (in two or three dimensions) has perhaps been less fully discussed, with the exception of the equestrian seal and the aquamanile (hand-washing vessel) in metal; both objects show knights on horseback and both hold elite associations. As a potential way into examining more popular reception of the medieval horse, in this blog post we will consider a relatively untapped source for exploring horse art – the corpus of metal-detected finds recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).

In a previous post on the PAS dataset we introduced the range of actual horse equipment – horseshoes, harness pendants, stirrup-strap mounts, and so on. But within the PAS database, now numbering over 1.5 million artefacts, there are also a number of objects which either show, or take the form of, a horse, but which are probably not items of equestrian equipment. Across the two parts of this post, Laura Jones and Rob Webley examine two groups of medieval object that loom large within the set of ‘equine’ (rather than ‘equestrian’) objects – the subject of Part 1 is a horse-shaped padlock moulded in the round. In Part 2 the focus turns to a chape (i.e. the metal point of a scabbard or sheath) with relief decoration that includes a horse and rider.

Padlocks

Zoomorphic padlocks reported to the PAS database commonly represent horses, with just under 40 examples of such padlocks recorded to date. They are elongated, in a moulded case, with holes for the padlock bolt in the rear end of the horse and the keyhole situated at the horse’s chest; the padlock bolt fits into a hole located in the horse’s head. Very rarely, examples are preserved with the bolt in situ (see SUR-D02FD3 below).

Medieval zoomorphic padlock (PAS: SUR-D02FD3) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Medieval zoomorphic padlock (PAS: SUR-D02FD3) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Regarding decorative details, these padlocks have lines that depict the horse’s saddle; others depict bridles, bands and even the mane of the horse – some decorative examples can be seen below.

Highly decorated medieval zoomorphic padlock (PAS: SOM-ABF421) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Highly decorated medieval zoomorphic padlock (PAS: SOM-ABF421) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Medieval zoomorphic padlock depicting a harness pendant (PAS: WAW-565B1A) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Medieval zoomorphic padlock depicting a harness pendant (PAS: WAW-565B1A) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Within these horse-shaped padlocks, there are certain distinct patterns – enough to suggest potential groupings of types, though no typology has been created as of yet. Many padlocks are rectilinear in profile such as SUR-D02FD3 (above). A particular challenge is how to group types of decorative zoomorphic padlocks such as SOM-ABF421WAW-565B1A and LEIC-CE40BE because of the differences in the stature of the horse and equestrian equipment depicted on these padlocks in comparison to the rectilinear padlocks. Lastly, an ever-present question is how do we classify a given padlock when we have to take into consideration damage to the objects or unique features?

Medieval zoomorphic padlock depicting girth straps (PAS: LEIC-CE40BE) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Medieval zoomorphic padlock depicting girth straps (PAS: LEIC-CE40BE) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

A good place to start is to focus on the equestrian equipment depicted on the padlocks such as the bridle on SOM-ABF421 (above) that is demarcated by two crossed grooves on the horse’s head. If we contrast this to the horse’s head on LEIC-CE40BE (above), which shows compression of the object (possibly, as the record suggests, by the padlock’s bolt), can we be certain that there were no other decorative or unique details? Also up for discussion is the shape of the horse. Some padlocks are described on the PAS as stocky, which could allude to a pack horse, and others look almost taller in stature and tend to be what I like to term ‘dynamic’ (legs in pose or active stances). However, it is important to note that it is common for either/both front and hind legs to be broken. This changes our perception of the horse’s stance and stature and makes it hard to decide on a specific classification. In addition, there are unique details depicted on these padlocks such as the harness pendant on WAW-565B1A (shown on the band on the upper sides above the front legs) and the girth straps below the saddle on LEIC-CE40BE – commonly seen in iconography of the ‘warhorse’. For now, we shall leave the grouping of types to future discussion and refer to the general classification given to them in a wider discussion of padlocks by Lewis (2016, 168-9) – Type V ‘zoomorphic’ padlocks.

Regarding the date of these Type V padlocks, we can use excavated examples to ascertain a rough date range. A padlock was found within Winchester’s medieval city within a context that included a Clark type 2B horseshoe (Goodall 1990, 1011), the horseshoe’s typological dating of c. 1150-1225 supporting the dating attributed to the site phase (12th to early 13th century). On the PAS, the relevant Finds Recording Guide provides a broad date range for these padlocks of between c. 1100-1400 because of similar models from the Middle East that date between the 13th and 14th centuries. The evidence from Winchester, plus the way in which these padlocks are decorated, makes a 12th- to 13th-century date for them plausible.

Lewis (2016) refers to the ambiguous nature of these zoomorphic padlocks – we do not know their specific function nor do we know their connection to medieval society. One possibility is that they are connected to high-status sites within the English landscape – locations such as manor houses, castles and palaces. Jervis (2011) was influenced by zoomorphic pottery found at high-status sites in Southampton and applied the idea of zoomorphic symbolism connected to wealth to these padlocks. This assumption is linked to elite symbolism of animals related to the hunt – by displaying them through objects, it may reinforce a message of wealth, hence reinforcing their connection to elite sites. Of note is the distribution of these padlocks across England; as you can see from the distribution map, most of the padlocks are situated in rural remote locations (apart from a few clusters around urban sites such as Winchester, York and Norwich).

Map of Lewis Type V padlocks (by Laura Jones)

Map of Lewis Type V padlocks (by Laura Jones)

When researching the context of the find location spots for these padlocks, all have medieval manorial links (medieval manor houses proximal/directly on or to the location of the padlocks). Interestingly, some find spots such as the above records from Warwickshire and Surrey have close connections to horses; the Warwickshire record was found in a medieval settlement tied closely to the area known as the Vale of the Red Horse (an area between Edgehill and the Northern Cotswolds); the Surrey record has surrounding horse-related place names such as The Paddock and elite place names like Kingwood Common and Earl’s Wood (all of the above forming the 12th to 13th-century parish where the de Grey family manor is situated). The exact function of these padlocks (beyond fastening a casket) is hard to ascertain, regardless of what the distribution map or the context of location spots may reveal to us. The links could support the theory of these objects being associated with the elite however the contextual information of a few records are not definitive evidence that they are solely linked with elite sites (and the location of the Winchester example is certainly not in a high status one). More research would have to be conducted into these sites by looking at further Type V padlock records, alongside additional historical records, to reveal more about the connection between medieval society and these padlocks, which may even reveal more about their precise function.

To be continued

Bibliography (Part 1)

Goodall, I. H., 1990. ‘Locks and Keys’, in M. Biddle (ed.), Object and Economy in Medieval Winchester: Artefacts from Medieval Winchester, Oxford: Winchester Studies 7, 1001-1036.

Jervis, B., 2011. ‘Placing Pottery: An Actor-led Approach to the Use and Perception of Medieval Pottery in Southampton and its Region c. AD 700-1400’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Southampton.

Lewis, M., 2016. ‘Mounts for Furnishings, Padlocks, and Candleholders: Understanding the Urbanization of Medieval England through Metal Small Finds Recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme’, in B. Jervis, L. G. Broderick and I. G. Sologestoa (eds), Objects, Environment, and Everyday Life in Medieval Europe, Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 159-185.

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