For want of a nail…

Horses have been an integral component of civilization’s progress for at least five thousand years, and it is only in our modern, Western, industrial and post-industrial age that the horse has become an object solely of sport and play. In the eighth century the horse was an essential element of agriculture, war, and social status. Let’s start our survey with a look at what the law codes had to say about horses.

The Salic Law contains four chapters specific to horses. These include “On Mounting a Horse Without the Consent of Its Owner,” which called for a massive fine of 30 solidi. There was also “Concerning the Theft of Horses and Mares,” “On Skinning a Dead Horse Without the Consent of Its Owner,” and “Concerning Stolen Horses.” Other chapters mention horses in the context of other offenses against animals.1.Laws of the Salian Franks, pp.85, 99, 125, and 205.

In the Burgundian Code there is a chapter titled “Of Horses Which Have Bones and Sticks Tied to Their Tails.”2.Burgundian Code, ch.LXXIII, p.69-70 Fences were not as imposing as they are today, and oftentimes horses and other animals would escape their paddocks and roam other fields. If an offender tied sticks and bones in the horse’s tail to scare the animal and intimidate the owner, and the horse was injured or killed because of this, then the offender owed two horses to the owner.

The type, size, and training of a horse affected its value. In general there were three types of horses, regular riding horses, draft or pack horses, and war horses, and “a war horse was usually worth three times as much as a pack horse or a draft horse and twice as much as a regular riding horse.” All types were vital to the continued success of Carolingian military expeditions, and received commensurate attention. “Among other things, Charlemagne codified previous practice, which went back well beyond the days of his grandfather, Charles Martel, to ensure that large numbers of horses were raised on royal estates for governmental use.”3.Bachrach, Carolingian Warfare, p.120.

Mentioned in the famous Capitulary de villis, Charlemagne’s instructions to his stewards on the proper care and maintenance of royal estates, are several instructions concerning horses.

ch14: That they shall look after our mares well, and segregate the colts at the proper time. And if the fillies increase in number, let them be separated so that they can form a new herd by themselves.
ch15: That they shall take care to have our foals sent to the winter palace at the feast of St Martin.
ch23: And when they [stewards] have to provide meat, let them have lame but healthy oxen, cows or horses which are not mangy.
ch50: That each steward shall determine how many horses there should be in a single stable, and how many grooms with them.4.Capitulary de villis, in Loyn & Percival, Reign of Charlemagne, pp.67-71.

That reference in chapter 23 of the capitulary to the eating of horses deserves some attention. While apparently uncommon, horseflesh could be served, particularly in an age when famine and starvation were just one bad harvest away. “Horses do not appear to have been major source of food or of secondary products in the early Middle Ages, although a small percentage of horse bones do show signs of butchery…”5.Hamerow, Early Medieval Settlements, p.127, n.5. While human consumption of horse meat is illegal in the States, it can be found on many European menus.

We find the greatest amount of historical horse material when we turn to military affairs. The horse occupied a leading place in the planning, logistics, and fighting of war in the eighth century. The most humble function of the beast was simply hauling supplies and siege engines. The most esteemed was that of the sleek war horse, the raising of which took time, space, and money. “The training of a cavalry horse would take the better part of a year.”6.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.122. Bachrach has eight pages on the training details, if you want to get into the specifics. The training was more about becoming inured to threats and acting in a group rather than bearing great burdens. “The battle horse of the Carolingians was not the huge, heavy, and relatively slow horse of the High Middle Ages. That horse was bred to carry the warrior with heavy armor. The horse of the Carolingians was smaller, lighter, faster, and more mobile.”7.Butt, Age of Charlemagne, p.45.

A war horse was also a token of wealth. By law, when a man was called to war, the amount of land he owned or controlled determined what equipment he was required to bring to the muster. The poorest men were required to bring only a sword or pike and helmet or coat of mail, while at the next level of wealth and income a horse was required as well.8.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.55.

Part of the reason that the campaign season coincided with warmer weather was the availability of free forage for the horses that pulled the wagons and upon which the nobility rode. The animals “had been fed all winter on hay and oats, but now that spring had come, the horse could feed on grass in the field. This made it much easier to travel long distances, for much less food had to be carried for the horse.”9.Butt, Age of Charlemagne, p.34.

Sometimes it was the horses that were carried. Bachrach notes “well-established harbors where even mounted troops could be landed from especially constructed horse transports in battle-ready condition,” but he does not cite a source.10.Bachrach, Carolingian Warfare, p.247.

There is huge, decades-long debate over the humble stirrup and its role in early medieval warfare. I am not going to open that can of sandworms here, but will stand for that question in a future post.

Horses were just as susceptible to disease as any other herd animal kept in large groups. The Revised Royal Annals recount Charles’ war of retaliation against the Huns in 791 (which was successful, of course). On the return, however, “there broke out such a pestilence among the horses in the army which the king led that barely a tenth out of so many thousands are said to have survived.”11.Revised Annals, year 791, Translated Sources, p.124.

Finally, as today, horses could be a source of fun. Theodulf of Orleans was a prolific writer of prose and poetry in the early days of the Carolingian Renaissance, and a significant contributor to the life at court. He penned the following story about a horse, which as the editor and translator note, “was probably already hoary in Theodulf’s day.” People have been telling horse stories for a long time.

Brains can defend you where brawn can’t assist;
Often a weakling on wits can subsist.
So hear how a soldier, employing no force,
In his encampment retrieved his lost horse.
He stood at the crossroads and made this decree:
“If you stole my horse, then return it to me!
For if you should fail, I’ll be forced to proceed
Like my father before me in Rome—so take heed!”
The men all grew nervous; the thief felt remorse:
Fearing for all, he returned the man’s horse.
The owner rejoiced; celebration was made
By all of the men who’d been greatly afraid.
At last they inquired of him, every one,
Just what it was that his father had done.
“His bridle, his saddle, his old traveling-sack
He flung ’round his neck, the poor man, and walked back.
So useless his spurs; on his heels they stayed put.
Once a great horseman, he came home on foot.
Believe me, I almost pursued his sad course:
I’d have done the same thing had I not found my horse.12.Four Poems by Theodulf of Orleans, edited and translated by Jeff Sypeck, The Heroic Age, Issue 13, August 2010.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Laws of the Salian Franks, pp.85, 99, 125, and 205.
2. Burgundian Code, ch.LXXIII, p.69-70
3. Bachrach, Carolingian Warfare, p.120.
4. Capitulary de villis, in Loyn & Percival, Reign of Charlemagne, pp.67-71.
5. Hamerow, Early Medieval Settlements, p.127, n.5.
6. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.122. Bachrach has eight pages on the training details, if you want to get into the specifics.
7. Butt, Age of Charlemagne, p.45.
8. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.55.
9. Butt, Age of Charlemagne, p.34.
10. Bachrach, Carolingian Warfare, p.247.
11. Revised Annals, year 791, Translated Sources, p.124.
12. Four Poems by Theodulf of Orleans, edited and translated by Jeff Sypeck, The Heroic Age, Issue 13, August 2010.

3 thoughts on “For want of a nail…

  1. Very interesting article – like they all are. I’m not quite sure why weak fencing would cause someone to tie sticks and bones into horses’ tails. Was this a way of distinguishing them from one another?

    • Many thanks for your kind words! As I understood the law (which I read in English translation, of course), horses and other animals would escape from their pens, and roam into other people’s fields. This tended to cause damage, particularly if a cow or horse or pig made their way into a vegetable garden or something like that. To retaliate against the owner and scare the animal, the person with the vegetable garden would tie sticks and bones to the horse’s tail. If the horse then panicked and was injured or killed, then the person who tied the sticks into the tail was liable. There are other laws that cover the damage that is done when an animal wanders into someone else’s fields. I hope this helps – I will also revise the post to try and make it more understandable.

  2. Thanks so much for your reply! That makes sense. I was just having these strange visions of horses running about with strange things hanging off their tales. 🙂

    I’m an author who has a work-in-progress that takes place during the 8th century so I was over the moon to find your site. I’m sure you’ll be seeing more of me around here.

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