Medieval knights rode small horses into battle
Popular culture describes medieval war horses as majestic, tall, muscular, and powerful creatures with shining knights on top. But new research shows that medieval couriers were probably much smaller than we expected.
A team of zooarchaeologists in the UK analyzed 1,964 horse bones from 171 different archaeological sites dated between 300 and 1650 CE, and compared how these remains measure up to horses today. Medieval horses, they found, were much lighter than their modern descendants – usually no more than the height of a pony. Their findings were published last August in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.
The classification of an equine as a horse or a pony depends entirely on its size. The animal is usually measured from the ground to the ridge between its shoulder blades, in units called hands, with one hand equaling 4 inches. Modern horses stand at least 14.2 hands, or 4 feet 10 inches, and racehorses and riders are often taller, around 16 or 17 hands. Archaeologists have found that medieval English knights led their charges on horses under 14.2 hands high – today they would be classed as ponies, not horses.
Yet these horses had a huge impact, despite their small stature. “The war horse is central to our understanding of medieval English society and culture as a status symbol closely associated with the development of aristocratic identity and as a weapon of war celebrated for its mobility and valor. of shock, changing the face of the battle,” University of Exeter archaeologist and lead researcher Oliver Creighton said in a statement.
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The authors note in their paper that while these horses may seem too small to engage in battle, historical records are “notably silent on the specific criteria that define a warhorse.” They add that it is likely that “throughout the medieval period, at different times, different conformations of horses were desirable in response to changing battlefield tactics and cultural preferences”. Size, in other words, wasn’t the only thing that mattered. Medieval horses were likely bred and trained with a combination of biological and temperamental factors in mind, which may have changed as military strategies changed requiring the animals to perform different functions.
But it is also impossible for archaeologists to identify with certainty the remains of horses belonging to the steeds that engaged in combat. Without other indications such as specific burial records, there is no way to discern the remains of a war horse or farm horse from bones alone, even if researchers had access to skeletons. whole, rather than the single bones they usually obtain from an individual site.
To unravel more stories from these horses, the authors write that they will need to conduct more detailed investigations of how bone shape differs between horses. Future studies could also use ancient DNA analysis to track ancestry and observe how the genomes of English horses have changed over time.