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  • Writer's picturejulesfrusher

Horses and Hounds

Horse Containment

A marshal’s (man in charge of looking after horses) equipment would most certainly include a travis. This was a structure made of wooden beams - a bit like a modern cow crush - where a horse could be contained safely while it was shoed.

1st Class Hounds

It was by no means unusual for hunting hounds to be transported from hunt to hunt, especially as the court moved from place to place. Thomas de Condovere and Robert le Sanser, who were huntsmen of the hart-and-buck-hounds during the reigns of Henry III and Edward I, were paid to transport 66 hounds and five lymers in a horse litter.

The Size of Medieval Horses

There have been many debates about the average size of the medieval horse, especially that of the destrier (warhorse). However, the research carried out on skeletons, existing horse armour shows that most horses were probably between 12 ½ to 15 hands, with the taller warhorses standing at around 16 hands. The larger horses would have resembled either today’s Welsh Cobs or hunters, but certainly not the magnificent Shire-type horses of popular imagination. Even the cart horse, albeit a stocky animal, was by no means a heavy horse as we would recognise them today.

The Marshal

The term ‘Marshal’ often brings to mind a high office, such as the Earl Marshal of England, as well as the office of marshal in noble households, the man who was responsible for all things to do with the household’s transportation: horses, carts, grooms, etc.. Its original meaning, though, was that of ‘horse-servant’ and marshals were also to be found in humbler positions. They were basically horse experts who were able to shoe a horse and give advice on buying one as well as knowing the best medicines. In 1356, the marshals of London submitted some ordinances which defined their role as: 'horse-shoeing and the farriery of horses, which also included health care of sick or injured horses’. The ordinances also determined to make clear the differences between the responsibilities of the marshal and that of blacksmiths. Later, the title of farrier overtook that of marshal, but it wasn’t until the rise of veterinary science that the shoeing became separate from the curing side.

Smithfield Horse Fair

In today’s London, Smithfield is a large and well-known meat market, but in medieval times it was a horse fair. William Fitzstephen, writing in the late 12th century describes it thus: ‘In the suburb immediately outside one of the gates there is a smooth field, both in fact and in name. On every sixth day of the week, unless it be a major feast-day on which solemn rites are prescribed, there is a much frequented show of fine horses for sale. Thither come all the Earls, Barons and Knights who are in the City, and with them many of the citizens, whether to look on or buy.'

Smithfield Horse Races

It seems that Smithfield horse fair also saw a form of horse racing aimed at showing the qualities of the horses. William Fitzstephen writes about it in the late 12th century: ‘When a race between such trampling steeds is about to begin, or perchance between others which are likewise after their kind, strong to carry, swift to run, a shout is raised, and horses of the baser sort are bidden to turn aside. Three boys riding these fleet-foot steeds, or at times two as may be agreed, prepare themselves for the contest. Skilled to command their horses, they curb their untamed mouths with jagged bits, and their chief anxiety is that their rival shall not gain the lead. The horses, likewise, after their fashion, lift up their spirits for the race; their limbs tremble; impatient of delay, they cannot stand still. When the signal is given, they stretch forth their limbs, they gallop away, they rush on with obstinate speed. The riders, passionate for renown, hoping for victory, vie with one another in spurring their swift horses and lashing them forward with their switches no less than they excite them with their cries.’

Horses for Hire

Hiring a horse wasn’t always straightforward, or inexpensive. Take the example of the unfortunately named Thomas Bastard of Essex in 1365. He hired a horse to carry a sick woman to Canterbury, however, it only got as far as Singlewell, near Gravesend when it died. Not only did it die, the horse also managed to damage a wall in the process of becoming deceased, which cost Thomas 4d. On top of that, he had to pay 10s. to hire horses for onward travel (which was way over the normal price!), plus pay 30s. compensation to the owner, who claimed that the horse had died because it had been ridden too hard.

Ugly Horse Equals Holy Horse

Gilbert of Sempringham, the founder of the Gilbertine Order in 1130, not only required his followers to look plain and simple in their habit, but also required any sumpter horses belonging to the order to look ‘contemptible and disfigured’. This was done by docking their tails and cutting their manes short to distinguish them from the well-groomed and fancier horses of the nobility.

Hire a Hackney!

Owning a horse was an expensive business in the middle ages, so many people, when they needed the use of one, hired it. The hiring business was especially popular on the roads at places of pilgrimage. The most common type of horse for hire was a ‘hakenei’ or hackney, an everyday riding horse and the men who hired them out were known as hackneymen.

I Name This Dog ... Bearded Lady!

Medieval hunting hounds were given names, just like today. Edward II’s huntsman, William Twiti, mentions two, called Richer and Beaumon. Alfonso XI of Castile wrote about several:Natural, Abadin (Little Abbot), Frontero (Frontiersman), Vaquero (Cowherd), Vasallo, Laguna, Fragoso, Preciado (Precious One), Barbada (Bearded Lady), Barbado, Guerrero (Warrior), Bustera, Ermitano (Hermit), and so on.

How to Judge a Greyhound

According to one medieval manuscript, ‘The Condyscyons of a grehounde and of hys propyrteys’ should be: ‘heddyd lyke a snake/ ineckyd lyke a drake/ ibrestyde lyke a lyon/ isydyd lyke a noynon/ ifotyde lyke a catte/ italyd lyke a ratte. Thenn ys the grehounde welle ishapte.’ Or, in modern English: ‘headed like a snake/ necked like a drake (or dragon)/ breasted like a lion/ sided like an onion (in other words, tight and firm)/ footed like a cat/ tailed like a rat.’

Functional Breeds

Dog breeds as we think of them today did not exist in the middle ages. Rather, dogs were divided into types according to function, with their own preferred properties. There were the hunting dogs, such as the greyhounds, lymers, alaunts, harriers and terriers. There were guard dogs, such as the mastiff, and, of course, pets types, such as the spaniel and the Melitaean (a dog originating in Malta. However, there was always bound to be some cross-over. For instance, greyhounds were often kept as pets by the noble classes and spaniels could be used in hunting.

Medieval Spaying

Hunting hounds were of both sexes. However, it was recommended that, unless one specifically wanted to breed from them, bitches should be spayed. However, it is not described how this was done, and it must have been a dangerous, unhygienic and painful process for the animal.

Types of Horse

As with dogs, individual breeds of horse were not a thing in the middle ages. Instead, they were defined by their function. One of these was the ambling horse, also known as a palfrey. These were the highly desired riding horses of their day because of their smooth gait - where the animal moves in a four beat. That is, the two legs on the left-hand side move forward together, then the legs on the right-hand side, instead of the usual two beat movement of a trot that is so common today. This gives a comfortable and fairly fast pace, somewhere between a walk and a canter and is able to be sustained over long distances by both horse and rider. The ambling trait was usually a genetic one but it could be trained into a horse who didn’t have it naturally. As roads improved and transport became faster, ambler horses more or less died out in Europe, however, they are still popular in North and South America.

A Lurcher by Any Other Name...

In John Cumming’s book ‘The Art of Medieval Hunting’, a greyhound cross or a rough-coated greyhound was known as a ‘bastard’. This type of dog is probably what we would call a lurcher today, although, ‘Oi you bastard, come back!’ has also been heard from the many lurcher owners when the said dog disappears off into the sunset chasing a rabbit!

In the Days Before Pedigree Chum!

Hunting dogs were mostly fed on bread, only being allowed meat (or offal) at the end of the hunt (the curee). This was thought to make them more keen to seek out and bring down prey. However, if they were ill or ‘disheartened, they were sometimes given offal or blood in the form of a pottage.

Dodgy Dealers

Just like today at the local second-hand car salesroom, it was possible to be sold shonky horses at horse fairs. In 1276, one Nicholas Curtenay bought a horse from John de Elylaund at Smithfield Fair, that he later complained was blind. The seller denied the allegation, stating instead that the animal just had poor sight! Obviously, warranties didn’t apply back then!

Doggy Comforters

Despite some criticism of keeping dogs as ‘spoilt pets’ by the church, it was also known that they raised the spirits. It was also believed that a small dog, if pressed against the belly, would ‘asswage the sicknesse of the stomacke being oftentimes therunto applied as a plaster preservatiue, or born in the bosum of the diseased and weake person, which effect is performed by theyr moderate heate.’ (Medieval Pets - Kathleen Walker-Meikle)

So True, Hildegarde, So True

Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179) liked dogs. She held that they could tell the character of a person, as well as foretell happy or less fortunate events either by wagging their tails or by growling and gnashing their teeth. She also maintained that, because of the love and loyalty they showed to their owner, the devil hated them.

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