Tuesday, April 14, 2015


Just a few links to follow up on the question of medieval Catholic horse consumption:
8th century - Catholic backlash against eating horses as Catholicism spreads (through Carolingian conquest and missionary activity) into northern Germanic areas, where horsemeat had important ritual and cultural functions.
Pope Gregory III's letter to Boniface (732):
"You say, among other things, that some eat wild horses and many eat tame horses. By no means allow this to happen in future, but suppress it in every possible way with the help of Christ and impose a suitable penance upon offenders. It is a filthy and abominable custom."
A sort of correlation can be found in Iceland, the last outpost of Germanic paganism. Here is an excerpt from Njalssaga (which is amazing and everyone should read anyway). It was written sometime in the late 13th century, though it is set in the early 11th century at the time of Iceland's conversion.
"Our first principle of law is that all Icelanders shall henceforth be Christian. We shall believe in one God -- Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. We shall renounce the worship of idols. We shall no longer expose unwanted children. We shall no longer eat horsemeat. Anyone who does these things openly shall be punished with outlawry, but no punishment will follow if they are done in private."
Within a few years these heathen practices were prohibited in private as well as in public.


 I didn't pull it up here, but there is similar evidence that pagan Ireland assigned a ritual function to horsemeat (and some other unsavories, like dogmeat) which further led to the eradication of these practices over the course of the conversion (5th-6th centuries). 

For some more general surveys, here we have a reasonably well-researched blog post about the formation of a horsemeat taboo in Anglo-Saxon England: http://www.medievalists.net/2013/02/20/why-did-the-english-people-stop-eating-horses-in-the-middle-ages/

...and this blog post on Western Europe's relationship with horsemeat, from pagan prevalence to Roman and Christian aversion to a 19th century revival: http://leslefts.blogspot.com/2013/12/killing-pegasus-history-of-horse-meat.html

Note that high medieval sources on the prohibition seem lacking - possibly the taboo was simply edified and beyond remarking at this point. The mentions of eating horse-meat as a last resort during sieges and famines in the 15th century suggest something similar - horses, like dogs or cats, had become beasts that Europeans proverbially did not eat under normal circumstances. 

Bon appetit,



  1. A little while ago I took a course in culinary anthropology, and one topic we touched upon were food taboos. While you might expect that class to be relevant to discussing the horse meat taboo, there’s no real consensus surrounding how these taboos come about. The modern anthropological treatment of these taboos is to shrug our shoulders at the cause and to just describe the taboo as it exists. Of course, the means of doing so are very diverse, and will often point to an answer regarding the source. Katie made a Levi-Straussian argument regarding the categorization of animals, although Levi-Strauss would have grounded those categories in mythical symbolism.

    We could also make a feminist argument regarding the categorization of the horse. Carol J. Adams attributes a sexual politic to meat, stating that meat is usually characterized as feminine. In the Book of Beasts, horses are linked to war and military triumph, very masculine roles. They’re also necessary for fulfilling masculine roles on the farm. In the middle ages, the preparation of food would have been a feminine activity, and butchering would have been done in the context of dominating a feminine construct. The idea of the masculine horse would have resisted the transformation into feminine food.

    More recently, the idea of culinary continua has been popular. Animals can be classified as more human or less human, foreign or domestic, or dirty and clean. We typically avoid eating dirty, foreign, or human-like animals. These classifications can be related. Animals that live in the home, such as dogs in Western civilization, can be considered both domestic and more human. Foreign animals are usually considered dirtier, e.g. crocodile for us. Bugs are at our extreme ends of all these axes. Lasman’s argument that horse consumption was seen as pagan would support this kind of argument. The horse is considered more human than other animals (the Book of Beast describes its historical and political significance) and eating its meat had a foreign stigma.

  2. In terms of diet being shaped by the church, there’s certainly evidence to substantiate the effects a church policy had. In terms of fish, the evidence is strong linking the rise of consumption of fish to the fasting policies the church began to push from the 10th century onward. Abstinence from meat, from carnality and its associated vices, was first enjoined by church councils in the fourth century, possibly reflecting on earlier pagan practices.
    I did not, however, find any record of punishments in my research when I looked further at fish. This sets apart horses and fish in this way. I find it interesting that Icelanders would punish those who ate horse meat, whether in public or in the open.
    I’m surprised how testable Pope Gregory thought eating horses was. “A filthy and abominable custom,” strong words from the Pope. I question if it was the eating of horses he disliked, or the fact that they were in some way related to the religious customs of pagans. Particularly if they were involved in Irish ritual, and if similar rituals were occurring in other land Catholics hoped to civilize, it stands to reason the symbolism, and not the act, was the bigger problem. By stamping out another barbaric custom, the Church could bring people further from their religions and thus closer to Christ.