The annual Michigan Renaissance Festival attracts over 250,000 visitors every year. By far the most popular event is the knights jousting on their mighty steeds. BUT did you knw that the horses of that era were actually not as large as the ones used at most Renaissance Festivals?
Depiction on the Bayeux Tapestry of the death of Harold in the Battle of Hastings
FEUDALISM AND CHIVALRY
Until the Norman conquest at The Battle of Hastings in 1066, the people in England lived on their own farms. They owned the land they lived on. William the Conqueror said that he conquered the land and it ALL belonged to him. He divided the land up and gave it to the knights who had helped him conquer the land. These knights became known as lords. The lords gave some of their land to
other knights who would fight for them. They also gave land to peasants and serfs who had to give part of everything that they raised on the land to their lord. Everyone in England served someone else; this system is called feudalism.
BECOMING A KNIGHT
Training to be a knight started when boys were very young. The son of a knight did not usually go to school. Until a boy was seven, he might be taught a little by his mother at home or by a priest. Then he would be sent to live in the castle of another knight as a page. A page had to learn how a castle was run. He also learned how to ride well and to handle weapons. When he was fourteen, if his master was pleased with him, the page might become a squire. The word ‘squire’ comes from the French word ‘escuyer’ meaning ‘shield-carrier’. The young squire learned about how to be a knight by going with his master to war and tournaments, carrying his shield, helping him put on his armor before the battle and looking after his horses. The squire had to keep his master’s equipment ready and bring it to him when it was needed, even in the midst of a battle. By the time he was twenty-one, the squire might be made a knight, and hope to be given some land
by his lord.
TRAINING THE KNIGHT
Knights were always “in training.” They needed to be prepared for a possible battle or war at all times. That was their job! The daily life of knights started at dawn when they would go to Mass. Knights took time to pray several times a day. Throughout the day the knights would discuss battle tactics and strategies among themselves. In the morning knights would engage in weapons practice at the quintain and the pell. The pell was a post in the ground that the knights used to practice striking with their swords. They practiced with wooden swords that were four times heavier than their real swords so that they could develop upper body strength. They also used the pell to practice throwing spears, battle axes, hammers and other weapons. A quintain was used to help train a knight in the use of the lance. It consisted of a shield and dummy which suspended from a swinging pole. When the shield was hit by a charging knight the whole apparatus would rotate. The knight’s task was to avoid the rotating arms and not get knocked from the saddle. In the afternoon a knight worked on increasing his skills in horsemanship or he would go hunting or inspect the estate with the lord he served.
THE KNIGHT'S HORSE FOR TOURNAMENTS & BATTLE
During the Middle Ages horses were classified by their use, not by breed like we do today. The most valuable horse in the medieval stable was the horse of the knight, the “destrier.” The word destrier, meaning “right-handed” comes from the fact that the knight held a lance under his right armpit, passing it over the horse’s neck on its left side in order to hit his opponent. The horse needed very special training too. The horse needed to run directly towards another rider. That is a very unnatural thing for a horse. The horse also had to learn to gallop on the right lead. That means that the right front leg advances and touches the ground to a greater extent than the left one. This was
necessary so that the horse could be ready for an impact coming from its left. The momentum of the moving horse actually gave the blow its power so it was important that the horse was fast as well as strong so that he could accept the blows as well as help his rider deliver the blows.
The Destrier was a very valuable horse so the knights even had rules to protect their horses. In tournaments, there were penalties if a horse was purposely hurt by an opponent. The horses of the knights were so valuable that they wore armor too in order to protect them from injuries. The armor for a horse was called barding. The horse helmet was called a chamfron and was designed to protect the face. The segmented plates covering the neck were called the criniere. The breastplate or peytal covered the shoulders and chest and the croupiere covered the hindquarters.
For tournaments, the armor was covered with colorful embroidered cloths that identified the knight by his heraldic emblems. These coverings were known as caparisons. There is a general misconception that these horses must have been massive but they weren’t. If you go to a museum and see some actual armor from the Middle Ages, you will be surprised that the horses were no bigger than most riding horses today; the destriers were about fifteen to sixteen hands. That
may seem small but that is still larger than most of the other horses of the Middle Ages. Most horses in the Middle Ages were the size of large ponies.
OTHER HORSES USED BY KNIGHTS
Horses were not yet classified as breeds, but referred to as types and each type had a different use.
Knights only used the Destrier for battle and tournaments. Most knights also had other horses.
Coursers were light, fast horses. They were the most common medieval warhorses. They were
more expensive and better quality than Rounceys, but not as expensive as Destriers. Coursers were sometimes preferred over Destriers in battle. The Courser was better for hard battle and fast pursuit because of their speed and stamina. Coursers were also used for hunting. Hunting was reserved for the noble class.
Often times animals were hunted with dogs that were scent or sight hounds, depending on the animal they were hunting. The most popular hunted animals were deer, boar, wolves and hares. Hawking was also a popular form of hunting. Hawking or Falconry was the sport of hunting small wild game or birds with trained birds of prey like hawks, falcons and eagles.
Coursers were used as messenger horses too. Messengers were a vital link to court and government communication. They accompanied envoys to court, and they apprehended criminals so they would need a good fast horse for all of that.
The Rouncey was the most affordable horse and usually the animal of choice for a poorer knight or squire. Rounceys were rather plain, general purpose horses who were also used for riding and as pack horses but never for pulling carts. They could also be trained for war. Rich knights supplied their attendants with Rounceys. They varied greatly in characteristics; virtually any sound and reasonably fast horse was called a Rouncey.
EQUINE HERITAGE INSTITUTE
Join us as we explore the history of the horse. We share our love of horses with you!
Driving Horses - Variety is the Spice of Life!
Human History without the Horse...Inconceivable!
Horses and Carriages in the Cities
The Older Horse
Buying a Horse
14 Cool Things You May Not Know About Chariots
The Horses of Outlander
The Invention of the Harness - More Important Than the Automobile?!
The Golden Carriage
The Knight's Horse