Medieval war horses were surprisingly small, study finds

Newswise – Medieval warhorses are often described as massive and mighty beasts, but in reality many were no more than the size of a pony by modern standards, according to a new study.

During this period, horses were often less than 14.2 hands tall, but size was clearly not everything, as historical records indicate that huge sums were spent to develop and maintain networks for breeding. , training and keeping horses used in combat.

A team of archaeologists and historians seeking the truth about the Great Horse discovered that it was not always bred for its size, but to be successful in a wide range of different functions, including tournaments and long-distance raiding campaigns.

Researchers analyzed the largest data set of English horse bones dating between AD 300 and AD 1650, found at 171 separate archaeological sites.

The study, published in the International journal of osteoarchaeology, shows that the breeding and training of warhorses was influenced by a combination of biological and cultural factors, as well as behavioral characteristics of the horses themselves, such as temperament.

Depictions of medieval warhorses in movies and popular media frequently feature massive scale mounts of Shire horses, 17-18 hands tall. However, evidence suggests that horses of 16 and even 15 hands were indeed very rare, even at the height of the royal stud network during the 13th and 14th centuries, and that animals of this size would have been considered very great by medieval peoples. .

Researcher Helene Benkert, University of Exeter, said: “Neither the size nor the strength of the limb bones are enough on their own to confidently identify warhorses in archaeological records. The historical records do not give the specific criteria that defined a warhorse; it is much more likely that throughout the medieval period, in different eras, different conformations of horses were desirable in response to changing battlefield tactics and cultural preferences.

The largest recorded Norman horse was found at Trowbridge Castle, Wiltshire, estimated to be around 3 p.m., similar in size to modern small light horses. The high medieval period (1200-1350 AD) saw the first emergence of horses around 4 p.m., although it was not until the post-medieval period (1500-1650 AD) that the average size of horses became significantly larger, finally approaching the sizes of modern warm-blooded and draft horses.

Professor Alan Outram, University of Exeter, said: “The large medieval steeds may have been relatively large for the period, but were clearly still much smaller than one would expect for equivalent functions today. Selection and breeding practices at royal stud farms may have focused as much on temperament and physical characteristics correct for war as on raw size.

Professor Oliver Creighton, principal investigator of the project, said: “The hobbyhorse is central to our understanding of medieval English society and culture both as a status symbol closely associated with the development of aristocratic identity. and as a weapon of war famous for its mobility and shock value, changing the face of battle. ”

Research, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. was directed by Carly Ameen, Helene Benkert, Malene Lauritsen, Karina Rapp, Tess Townend, Laura May Jones, Camille Mai Lan Vo Van Qui, Robert Webley, Naomi Sykes, Oliver H. Creighton and Alan Outram of the University of Exeter , Tamsyn Fraser from the University of Sheffield, Rebecca Gordon, Matilda Holmes and Will Johnson from the University of Leicester, Mark Maltby from the University of Bournemouth, Gary Paul Baker and Robert Liddiard from the University of East Anglia.

James C. Tibbs