Thursday, May 7, 2015

Bonds with Beasts: How close were people to their animals in the Middle Ages?

During class, we as a unit seemed to struggle with defining the relationship that was developed between man and animal when it came to the warhorse. To varying degrees, we attempted to explain the relationship as it compared to the readings we’ve done on falconry and on pets. In reflection of the topic, I wanted to go back to the readings we’ve done thus far and see how the interpretation of the human-animal relationship has compared to the relationship between man and his warhorse.

First, what did we learn about the relationship between nobles and their horses?
Bennett provided some idea of how this relationship was developed. We learned that the horses needed to be trained extensively, ensuring they were able to take commands and would be useful tools in battle. Bennett explained that Stallions have some fighting qualities that may seem useful in combat, but those behaviors had to be trained out. Biting and kicking, he said, were not a useful tactic. Rather, the horses had to be obedient, and discipline was what was required.[1]

This is not to say the horses were simply instruments of war. Bennett explains that there is an undoubted bond of affection formed between rider and mount.

Hyland, in talking about the Templars in particular, gives further clues to how important the horse was to the rider. The rules of the Temple, Hyland writes, contained over 100 rules relating to the horse, ranging from equipment, maintenance, breeding, and acquisition. This, Hyland writes, was just as present as the ‘praying factor’.[2] This alone does not tell us emotionally invested the Templars were in their horses, perhaps only going so far as to explain they were valuable and required the most extensive care. Hyland also explains how valuable the horses were, and how military units did what they could to ensure that warhorses were not lost to the enemy.[3] This great care could simply be a measure of the horses’ value.

The measure of how great this connection was between master and horse could perhaps be a function of how invested the rider is in his animal. Hyland explains the Templars had to provide their horses, but they were supplied by the Temple once the horses were registered. In the event of a horse’s death, the rider would be compensated by the Temple.[4]  I make the inference here that perhaps the connection would be greater if the rider was the one who was tasked with being the sole person to feed, supply, and maintain his mount. Sure, the rider may have brought the horses to battle, but the point at which they can be compensated for its loss, and the point at which they no longer feed it, would seem to me as a point where the horse becomes less of a partner and more of a military instrument which can be reimbursed.

Hyland says the horses used in battle were either very stupid, or a courageous partner to its rider. But Hyland also characterizes the actions of horses in combat as the product of “the mastery of the man, instilled through years of training and association.”[5]

So what can be made of the relationship between horse and rider? Certainly, there existed some sort of bond, as had to naturally come from the extensive training that occurred. At the same time, though, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly to what extent this relationship existed. The sources seem to indicate the horses could just as easily been perceived principally as instruments of war, and the connection through training was only useful in that it made the horse perform better in combat. Templars in particular did have to provide their horses, but all sources indicate that they traveled with several horses, not one who they formed an incredibly strong bond with. The fact that the Temple had such extensive rules for the horses could be a sign, and the fact that the Temple was willing to pay the value of the horse in the event of death, seems to indicate a military interest rather than an intrinsic one. The rules ensured that horses would be properly prepared for battle, and the financial commitment ensured Templars would be willing to bring their horses to combat, lest they be out a significant financial investment.

How does our understanding of warhorses compare to other house animals or falcons?

Smith gives us the only piece which directly compares horses with a more conventional house-animal. In terms of dogs, most of what is discussed relates to “function.” Smith talks at length about the functionality of dogs, with hints of the relationship between animal and man. Primarily the focus is on what dogs could do, with mentions relating to the use of dogs in herding and home security. Smith does however mention a small hint of the relationship between dog and owner, mentioning the probability that dogs were kept unmuzzled (although this could again just be tied to the practicality of a muzzled dog).[6]

As to their status as pets, Smith states that the evidence of that treatment is sparse and “pets” were in the minority. Rather, animals were exploited for their furs, hides, meat, and labor.[7]
So it’s hard to say horses are pets, because the evidence isn’t really there that pets were a widespread phenomenon. This makes sense, because most people likely lacked the wealth to sustain another non-human mouth to feed.

But what about the elite, and their connection to animals? How does the relationship compare to falcons and falconry?

Again, the language is focused on teaching and training. A falconer must “teach his falcon” to hunt only the prey desired by the hunter, thus creating a behavior “counter to [the falcon’s] natural inclination.”[8]

This is similar to what Smith said about the training of warhorses, that they too needed to be broken of some of their natural behaviors. Frederick does talk about the care that has to be taken to acclimate the bird to the trainer, writing that the chief aim of the falconer should be to “train his hunting bird to make use of all her faculties in his presence without any sense of terror.”[9] The falconry text goes to great lengths to talk about the relationship that must form between bird and man, and its length is a testament to how much care is given to the training of falcons. The process of prepping the bird, the restoring of sight to the bird, soothing the bird, keeping it fed and trained, all of this is important in making a proper falcon for hunting, but must be done with the utmost care.

Ultimately, the conclusion we can come to here is that there certainly had to be a connection between man and animal, as there always has been. The degree to which that connection is evident is based on the evidence and sources we have. Perhaps that is the biggest shortcoming we have here. Perhaps the conflicting view of the connection between falcon and horse and dog is a product of the lack of primary sources. If there were more primary sources on horses and sheep dogs like the one Frederick penned on falconry, we may have a better idea of how close knights were to their horses. Without them, we’re left looking at horses the same way that dogs and cats were apparently viewed, primarily as animals with utility. Certainly, the evidence suggests that war horses were likely viewed more in the way that falcons were, but without primary sources, we are left mostly with the impression that war horses were certainly companions to some extent, but the focus seems to be on the utility the animals had in war.

- Jeramee Tiger Gwozdz
(It's a clever pun if you know my middle name is '"Tyler")
[1] Bennett 37
[2] Hyland 149
[3] Hyland 148
[4] Hyland 154
[5] Hyland 164
[6] Smith 874
[7] Smith 881
[8] Frederick 106
[9] Frederick 171


  1. What makes it so difficult to gauge a medieval nobleman’s relationship with his animals is that in reality he wasn’t coming into regular, close contact with them. As we saw from the hunting manuals huntsmen and lesser household staff conducted the bulk of the work. During a par force hunt, the nobleman’s huntsmen were responsible for the kennels, the training, and the wellbeing of the dogs so they would be prepared for the nobleman’s use. Falconry was a demanding business that required round the clock care, and a nobleman would not be expected to sleep with his birds. This was for his common falconer who was responsible for habituating the falcons to their new environment. I bring all of this up to point out that the nobleman himself was required to train and be with his warhorse in ways unlike his other animals. The horse was the nobleman’s full responsibility, financially and personally. A squire would feed and assist the upkeep of the horse, but the nobleman had direct interaction with the animal as a tool, as an investment, and as a companion. I think the key to understanding medieval nobleman’s relationship with his warhorse was to consider the demands of direct and personal interaction training required. While dogs and falcons could be passed on to the servants, I doubt a nobleman would ride a strange horse, trained by another man, into battle.

    K. Beach

  2. It can be interesting to postulate at the different types of relationships nobles have with their animals. Absent primary sources, at Jeramee points out, we are left at a loss. In this situation, our situation, it seems much more useful to look at how this connection changed or what the different types of animals were used for. Primary sources alone, diaries probably, would give us insight into the internal dynamics of the animal/human connection. These connections are intensely individual, and cannot truly be spun out in a fruitful academic sense, given few to no primary sources. It seems to me that the bond between human and animal is indicative of an expanding network of wealth. Animals can be prestige, a show of sport. The fact that many of these animals—dogs, horses, falcons—were depended upon economically but also used as a showing of wealth. How and when did this shift occur? It seems like animals as symbols—of skill, prowess or ability—were gaining more influence. How do we see this shift from animals as symbols in literature to animals as symbols in day-to-day life? How is this shift changed by our talk about animals in art and the constructed nature of “natural”—could those same questions be applied to the relationship between humans and animals in the day to day? How much of the “natural” relationship was constructed? Was there a shift in thinking—in terms of symbolic animals—that accompanied animals changing uses? I have just asked many questions but what I’m trying to get at is—what can be gleaned from thinking about the relationship between humans and animals? Is there a change or process that can be marked and studied?

    --B. Alderete Baca

  3. Part of the problem with understanding the relationship between medieval noblemen and their animals is that we are rarely comparing like with like: we have different kinds of sources for each animal (horse, dog, falcon), and each animal (as you point out) was used in different ways. Likewise, there were differences within species, as it were, in the way in which animals were used. Walker-Miekle excludes hunting dogs from her description of pets, while noblewomen and clerics were more likely to keep lapdogs. The Templars were arguably unusual precisely because they were not allowed to develop the kinds of personal bonds with their mounts that noblemen tended to; as members of a religious order, the Templars renounced ownership of the very things that a nobleman would likely hold most dear, including his horses. That Frederick wrote a whole book on his interest in falcons suggests a much greater engagement with the birds than just holding one on his hand while out on a hunt. Do modern dog owners who have others walk them during the day not have close relationships with their animals? These are complicated relationships, too! RLFB

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  5. Pushing back a little on the idea that the view of horses was primarily utilitarian, and the idea that animals dominantly existed, even among the elite, as resources.
    A suggestion that the nobles did care deeply about the well-being of the horses in a way that doesn't make sense as only a utilitarian relationship can be found in Bennett. One of the sources he quotes cites crusaders as saying "we cared only for the horses" as a reason to avoid infantry. While this can be read as only financial concerns, as you pointed out, it was in the Temple laws that compensation was paid for killed horses. If they knew that, why were they so afraid? Admittedly also, they most likely did fear for themselves, but the relation with the horse has to be part of it.

    It seems to me that the relationship with the warhorse is in some ways similar to the lapdog. For both, the owner (the nun/noblewoman for the dog, the warrior for the horse) had to be the primary caretaker, otherwise the animal would not be obedient and trusting of the owner. For both, the animal served as a symbol of status. This similarity seems to reject the idea that the animals were viewed by nobles as resources. There certainly had to be a large amount of love for the creature beyond a simple calculation.
    Even when compared to the falcon, it is clear from Frederick's writing that he loved and respected falcons. While the falcon is not 'broken' like a stallion, there is a large degree of admiration and skill present in the writings. It seems significant, and perhaps a hint that Frederick was attempting to do more than show his status with his falcons, but was hoping to learn from and build trust with them, much like the heavy symbolism of the animals suggest must have been at least sometimes the case with the warhorse.

  6. I think you’re correct in saying that most animals in the middle ages were primarily kept for their utility, and were thus not “pets” in the modern sense of the word. Pets, animals without a function, would have been a luxury available only to very few. Nonetheless, while animals my not have been kept purely for the purpose of companionship, I think it’s inevitable that humans would have developed a close relationship with their working animals. You’re right that we don’t have enough sources to make conclusive claims about these relationships, and that the necessary sources may not have ever existed.
    It would be extremely helpful if all our sources weren’t focused on the lives of clergy and nobility. While we do see that they did have regular contact with animals, and did form relationships with them, as in the cases of falcons and warhorses, I’d imagine that the common people of the towns and countryside, and even the keepers employed by the nobles to care for their animals, would have necessarily handled animals more frequently. Nobles and commoners alike owned animals for their function, but nobles interacted with them primarily in the context of their function (as a riding horse, or a hunting bird or dog), and had other people to feed and care for them (Frederick II seems to have been an exception, who took a great interest in the everyday care of his falcons). On the other hand, we don’t know much about the relationships between the peasant farmer and his horse, who was his most valuable possession and with whom he lived in much closer proximity. I would imagine that their relationship would be quite different from that of a knight to his warhorse.