Sunday, June 29, 2014

Horses and Horseshoes for Medieval Knights

In the popular imagination, medieval knights rode enormous horses, like modern draft horses (such as Clydesdales or Percherons).  But this is not the case.  As the term "draft horse" should suggest, these are bred to "draw" heavy loads, plows, wagons, harvesters and the like.  They have very wide backs and would thus be very awkward to ride, as your legs would stick out sideways.

Instead medieval knights rode horses closer in size to the modern Morgan horse, a full-sized horse, certainly, but not an enormous one.  A horse with a little Arabian blood was considered excellent; Arabian horses came from Muslim-controlled territories in Spain.

The picture above is a statue of a Morgan horse from the national Morgan center in Vermont.

A well equipped knight would actually have several horses, including pack animals, one to ride just to get someplace, and a warhorse for battles or tournaments.  Horses intended for ladies to ride were supposed to be docile and slightly smaller than horses for men.  Both men and women rode mules, crosses between horses and donkeys, though mules did not make good warhorses.  Women generally, though not exclusively, rode side-saddle.  Horse training was a specialized activity, and knights would develop close relationships with their horses, with which they worked every day.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, when plate armor had become very heavy and cavalry had become fairly useless in actual battles against cannons, somewhat larger horses were bred for tournaments, to carry a knight whose armor weighed so much that he might have to be winched up onto his horse, rather than being able to mount.  But the horses were still not the size of Percherons; Percherons do not gallop well, and the rider's legs have to reach down to the stirrups.

As I noted in a previous post, knights were only possible once horseshoes developed and became widespread in the tenth century, to replace the bronze horse sandals that the Romans had used.  Horse sandals had little wires that one could twist to keep the sandals on, but not surprisingly they tended to fall off a lot.  Horseshoes, made of iron, were nailed to the horse's hooves as they still are today, providing protection so that the hooves did not wear down, fatally crippling the horse.

Iron was scarce and expensive when horseshoes first developed, so that a horse with four shod hooves was worth double the price of an unshod horse, the origin of the idea that horseshoes are lucky.

Click here and here for more information on knights.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Fall of the Roman Empire?

Everyone wants to know when and why the Roman Empire fell.  This would be a surprise to medieval people, who assumed it was still in existence.

Historians, who like to break events up into periods, generally take "antiquity," which included the Roman Empire, as lasting until about 500 AD, and the Middle Ages as lasting roughly 500 to 1500.  But of course no one woke up in 501 (anymore than they did in 1501) and discovered to their shock that everything had changed.

The year 500 is chosen because shortly before then (470s or 480s) there stopped being separate Roman emperors in Rome.  Now in fact the Roman emperors had moved their capital to Constantinople, in what is now Turkey, 150 years or so before, in the early fourth century.  (Sometimes after that there were two emperors, one in Rome and one in Constantinople, but usually just the one.)  Even though there were no longer separate emperors in Rome, the Constantinople one sometimes stopped by Italy.

The real date for the "end of the Roman Empire" is 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Turks, which is why the region is now Turkey and the city Istanbul.  Until then, there had been perfectly good Roman emperors.

But to get back to late antiquity, the other big change shortly before the year 500 was the establishment of new kingdoms within the Empire, made up of Germanic peoples, especially the Goths and the Franks.  One sometimes hears about "hordes of Germans" destroying the Empire, but this is not true.  These Germanic peoples wanted to be Roman.  Clovis, king of the Franks (d. 511), now considered the "first king of France," wore a toga, wrote away to Constantinople to get a special medal of recognition, converted to Christianity (a Roman religion), and had the traditional laws of his people written down in Latin, in imitation of Latin law codes.  France speaks French now, a language derived from Latin, because the Franks immediately jettisoned their native tongue for the language of the Empire.

The Empire had been having problems of its own for several centuries, primarily because its economy was based on constantly capturing new slaves in war and working them to death, and they had stopped winning their wars.  The Franks (as well as the Goths, doing basically the same things in Spain) provided a jolt of energy.  Pictured above is a reproduction of a Frankish belt buckle, depicting a rider (I wear it as a pendant).

The Empire received a nasty setback in the middle of the seventh century, with the rise of Islam, which took over much of the Middle East, all of north Africa, and Spain.  Most of Continental Europe, however, sought to maintain its Roman traditions.

Eventually a Frankish king, Charlemagne, was crowned Roman Emperor in 800, meaning there were two emperors once again, but that's a story for another post.

By the way, probably the reason one hears about Germans overpowering the Roman Empire like tides roaring into the Bay of Fundy is because something almost like that did happen in Britain, where Angles and Saxons overwhelmed the Romanized Celtic population.  But Britain and the Continent were and are different (ask any Brit).

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Stories Told Out Loud

Medieval entertainment consisted largely of stories told out loud.  Before radio, before TV, before the internet, one mostly had to rely on other people for entertainment.  There were books, but before printing developed (late fifteenth century), books had to be copied by hand and were rare and expensive.

The great mass of the population could not read or write, so they would have to rely on someone remembering or making up a story.  Among the aristocracy, most people could read at least to some extent, although writing was a more unusual skill.  Aristocrats could and did own books, at least a few. So an evening's entertainment could be everyone sitting around while someone with good reading skills read a story out loud.

Even in today's culture, we like the sound of a human voice.  Listening to someone reading a book out loud is different from reading it to oneself.  Hence the popularity of audiobooks.

Above is the cover of the audio version of my first novel, A Bad Spell in Yurt.  It's read by Eric Vincent, who does a very good job with the voice of my wizard hero.  When I first heard the audio files it was a little startling, because of course in my own head he sounds like me.  But a good narrator can bring out aspects of a story that a rapid reader might miss.  I've been so pleased that I'm having all the Yurt books done as audiobooks.

They're available on iTunes, Amazon, and

For more on my books and audiobooks, go to

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Medieval Chivalry

As soon as you put the term "code of chivalry" from your mind, everything becomes much easier.

The modern word "chivalry" comes from Old French chevalerie, meaning the behavior of knights.  It first appears in the twelfth century as an ideal to which knights might aspire.  But from the beginning it was highly contested and contradictory, which is why it is impossible to speak of a single "code."

We know about twelfth-century chivalry primarily from the epics and romances that knights enjoyed.  Every author portrayed chivalry somewhat differently, suggesting that there was no agreement as to what chivalry might entail.  In addition, the authors of the epics put their heroes into situations where even the best and most chivalrous could not follow all of chivalry's conflicting demands.

In the "Song of Roland," for example, one of the first epics, the hero Roland is reckless and brave, unwilling to ask for backup when in a desperate battle, and ends up dead, having allowed half his king's army to be destroyed.

"Chivalry" originally was used to mean battlefield virtues, courage and strength, but it quickly became merged with "courtesy" (courtoisie in Old French), meaning knowing how to behave well at court, being polite, tidy, and restrained.  By the time Christian virtue and deference to ladies were added in, the mix was hopeless.

After all, how can someone, at the same time, be a ferocious fighter, a meek Christian who turns the other cheek, someone who is lively and entertaining while delicately stealing a kiss (or something more), and a refined, learned man who is always careful about his clothes and appearance?

By the fourteenth century, actual "manuals" of chivalry were being written which just complicated the situation even more with enormous long lists of things to do and not do.  But knights clung to the ideal of chivalry, because by this time, the fourteenth century, their centrality in warfare was being superseded by cannons and footmen with pikes.

For more on knights, click here and here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A medieval cathedral

A cathedral is more than a big church.  It is the church of a bishop, the head of the church in his region. When the Roman Empire became Christianized, starting in the third century and especially in the fourth, each administrative unit of the Empire got its own bishop, elected by the local Christians.  The cathedral, the bishop's church, was the first church of a region.  The earliest churches date from the fourth century, when Christianity became tolerated in the Empire, so people dared worship publicly rather than in secret.

Soon other churches grew up in the cities around the cathedral, including churches attached to monasteries.  Every century or so the cathedral priests would decide their church was hopelessly old-fashioned and rebuild.  There are essentially no remnants of cathedrals built before the eighth or ninth centuries, because they have been rebuilt so many times.  Occasionally, however, a cathedral may still have its sixth-century crypt, where important people were buried.

The twelfth century was a period of rapid growth, in population, in the economy, and in religious enthusiasm.  Many eighth- and ninth-century cathedrals were rebuilt then, and the monasteries were also rebuilding their churches.  In the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when the new Gothic style was coming in, marked by greater height and more windows, those cathedrals that had not already been rebuilt undertook new building programs.

(One assumes that the monastic churches, which had looked very new and modern in the early twelfth century, looked very dark and old-fashioned compared to Gothic, but the monasteries had already spent their money and couldn't undertake new renovations.)

Cathedrals were now so big that they might take generations to build.  Auxerre cathedral, seen above, was begun in the thirteenth century and finished (more or less) in the fourteenth.  It was intended to have two towers on the front but only has one, because the money ran out.

They were designed and built by professional architects and stone masons.  There is now a popular though mistaken belief that ordinary people built cathedrals.  But without knowing what you are doing, it is extremely hard to work stone and make it come out right.  Most of Europe's cathedrals today are primarily products of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  They were big, they were extremely expensive, and they were highly decorated, to the glory of God.  There might be major changes to the interior decoration, but the exterior has stayed the same since the Middle Ages.

Click here for more on medieval Christianity and here for more on the medieval church.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Taking a Break

I'll be taking a break from this blog for a little bit--family wedding coming up!

If you haven't looked at what I've posted so far, there's a lot there, and I've added links to make it easier to move between related topics.

Check back in a couple weeks when I start posting again.  The Middle Ages rock!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Knighthood Training

As I noted in an earlier post, when knights first appeared in the eleventh century, they were essentially henchmen on horseback.  But during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, knighthood and nobility gradually fused, as each group wanted to be more like the other.

We know relatively little about how service knights were trained, but we do know quite a bit about the training of noble knights.

Little boys would be taught simple reading and arithmetic by their mothers, along with their sisters, but around the age of six or eight, they would be sent away for knighthood training.  Generally boys were trained in groups, perhaps at the castle of their father's lord (say, a count), or perhaps with an uncle.  Maternal uncles were preferred to paternal uncles, because a paternal uncle was at least a potential rival to one's father, whereas a maternal uncle was not.

Starting with ponies and wooden weapons, they would be trained to ride and to fight.  They would learn to ride at an opponent while carrying a long lance, hoping to knock him off a horse; here they started by aiming a lance at a ring.  They would grow accustomed to wearing armor, such as in the image above.  This scene, from the abbey church of V├ęzelay, depicts the story of David and Goliath.  David is cutting off the giant's head, and the giant, in long chain mail tunic and helmet with nose-piece, is wearing twelfth-century armor.

At the same time as they were learning to fight, boys would be educated, in reading, some writing, and some theology.  They might practice writing love poems to the wife of the castle's lord.  She probably enjoyed the attention of such adolescents, as long as they kept their proper distance.

(Click here for more on chivalry.)

By their late teens, the boys had finished their training.  They would be formally "knighted" in an elaborate ceremony that involved a tournament and a party that might go on for days.  Religious elements were introduced into the knighting ceremony, in a desperate and not altogether successful effort to suggest that being a knight was fundamentally about something other than killing people.

Young men were often knighted as a group, with comrades who would be their best friends for life.  They were tough and superb fighters; even their enemies were agreed on that.  In the twelfth century, when you really were not supposed to ride around killing people, a lot of new knights headed off on Crusade, or else followed the tournament circuit, while waiting for their fathers to die so they could inherit.

Click here for more on knights' horses.