Popular culture presents a deep-rooted perception of medieval warhorses as massive and powerful mounts, but medieval textual and iconographic evidence remains highly debated. In new research, archaeologists from the University of Exeter and elsewhere analyzed the zooarchaeological dataset of English horse bones from 171 unique archaeological sites dating between 300 and 1650 CE. The results show that 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.
A medieval knight on a warhorse.
Depictions of medieval warhorses in films and popular media frequently portray massive mounts on the scale of Shire horses, some 17 to 18 hands high.
However, the evidence suggests that horses of 16 and even 15 hands were very rare indeed, even at the height of the Royal stud network during the 13th and 14th centuries, and that animals of this size would have been seen as very large by medieval people.
“Neither size, nor limb bone robusticity alone, are enough to confidently identify warhorses in the archaeological record,” said Dr. Helene Benkert, a researcher in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Exeter.
“Historic records don’t give the specific criteria which defined a warhorse.”
“It is much more likely that throughout the medieval period, at different times, different conformations of horses were desirable in response to changing battlefield tactics and cultural preferences.”
The tallest Norman horse recorded was found at Trowbridge Castle, Wiltshire, estimated to be about 15 hands high, similar to the size of small modern light riding horses.
The high medieval period (1200-1350 CE) sees the first emergence of horses of around 16 hands high, although it is not until the post-medieval period (1500-1650 CE) that the average height of horses becomes significantly larger, finally approaching the sizes of modern warmblood and draft horses.
“High medieval destriers may have been relatively large for the time period, but were clearly still much smaller than we might expect for equivalent functions today,” said Professor Alan Outram, also from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Exeter.
“Selection and breeding practices in the Royal studs may have focused as much on temperament and the correct physical characteristics for warfare as they did on raw size.”
“The warhorse is central to our understanding of medieval English society and culture as both a symbol of status closely associated with the development of aristocratic identity and as a weapon of war famed for its mobility and shock value, changing the face of battle,” said Professor Oliver Creighton, also from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Exeter.
The study was published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.
Carly Ameen et al. In search of the ‘great horse’: A zooarchaeological assessment of horses from England (AD 300-1650). International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, published online August 31, 2021; doi: 10.1002/oa.3038