If Wishes Were Horses — Part 4a: Early Middle Ages (750 – 1100)

They spur, they meet with a thunder shake;
The horses rear and the lances break.
Now front to front they shower blows
While the squadrons reel and the tumult grows.

Robert E. Howard, “The Ballad of King Geraint”

To continue these posts and give some (very sketchy, space not permitting more) info on horses in the Middle Ages, it seems useful to divide that period into stages. That can’t be done (by anybody, really) except in an arbitrary way. The Dark Ages and the Early Middle Ages overlapped to a considerable extent, but just as a chronological workbench I’ll reckon the Early Middle Ages as beginning around 750.

I’ve a few reasons for choosing this date. A Frank by the name of Carl was born only eight years earlier. He came to the Frankish throne as sole king in 768 and became known as Charlemagne. He founded an empire.

Besides, the Moslems of the Umayyad Caliphate had taken Persia, North Africa and Spain, and were threatening the Frankish Kingdom in a serious way, by 750 CE. Frankish cavalry led by Charles Martel had defeated Moslem invaders from Spain at a battle near Tours (the fashion now is to call it the first Battle of Poitiers) in 732. While other tribes of Germanic barbarians, like the Goths and Vandals, had become effective cavalry by the fifth century, the Franks had remained fighters on foot for generations. However, that had definitely changed by 750.

The Avars, horse warriors from the steppes, were a distinct force at the time, also. They had established an empire centered on the Hungarian plain. They had fought the Byzantines and almost taken Constantinople in 626. They had fought the Merovingian Franks and driven the Serbs and Croats southward. The Danube Bulgars, a similar breed, would displace the Avars later, and after them the Magyars. Attila’s Huns had preceded them all; others would follow. As REH wrote in “The Shadow of the Vulture,” “ … the Destroyer was riding out of the blue mysterious East as his brothers had ridden before him.”

Charlemagne was keenly aware of the importance of cavalry. He promoted the breeding of fine war-horses and ruled firmly in his Capitulare de Villis that the stewards of his royal estates had to take meticulous care of his stud stallions and vary their pasture. The best breeding mares had to be segregated and covered only by the chosen stallions. Charlemagne declared himself Emperor around 800 CE, and a quarter-century later, when we may take it that the results of this breeding program had become evident, a writer named Ernoul le Noir commented on the size and excellence of Frankish horses. He observed that they “carry their necks proudly, and on their backs one can hardly mount,” so they must have been a decent size, even allowing for exaggeration.

The Moslems from Arabia were a byword for their horse-fighting tactics. They were excellent breeders of horses, also. They had to be. North Africa had been noted for its fine horses in Roman times, and as the Arabs swept across it in conquest they would have found remounts there, but they also brought their own horses with them from their desert homeland. Precisely because Arabia is arid, with grass and water at a premium, the Arabs could keep only a limited number of horses there and had to select the best. As one stallion can impregnate many mares, the poorer ones were eliminated and only the finest sires kept.

Because of that the Arabian cavalry horse was nearly always a mare. In western Christian kingdoms, on the other hand, where there was more grass and water available, more stallions could be maintained. Since Christians and Moslems were on opposite sides and frequent wars ensued, the essentially practical nature of that difference was overlooked and prejudice was freely deployed. The Moslems maintained that mares were more sensitive, quicker, and more responsive, which the thick-headed Franks (their general term for any western Christian, the Franks being the first of that kind they had encountered) were too stupid to appreciate. The Franks responded with the contention that stallions were stronger and more aggressive, which effete over-civilized Moslems hadn’t the macho qualities to control. Moslems in those days were in fact more civilized than the barbaric western Christians. Baghdad was the greatest, most cultured city on earth.

From around 800 CE the Vikings became a major menace to Christendom. They so devastated the West Frankish coasts that Charles the Bald issued an edict in 864, ruling that any subject of his who gave weapons, armor or a horse to the Northmen, for any reason including to ransom a kinsman, should suffer death “as a traitor to his country, exposing Christianity to the heathen and perdition.” That pretty much makes clear how important horses were to fighting men. Horse breeding was a skill of huge importance, but we have very few records from the times giving details of the art. Most horse breeders would have been illiterate anyhow. Monks and clerks had other interests.

Thus we haven’t any precise descriptions of the Danube Bulgars’ horses, or their methods of breeding. It’s likely their horses were tough, half-wild Central Asian stock, hardly aristocrats of their species. Just the same, when the Magyars arrived in the Danube basin they soon turned to raiding on horseback as swift, widespread and savage as that of the Vikings on the water. A short-sighted and selfish German king gave them welcome and support to destroy his rival state, the Empire of great Moravia. They did – and then they turned on the Germans.

They were stopped by another German King, Otto the great, at the Battle of Lechfeld in August 955. A huge body of wild horse-archers surged across Otto’s lands. He determined to stop them — and prevent their escaping back to their own territory, as they had done after previous mass raiding. Otto had about 8,000 men available, including some seasoned Frankish knights, and the Magyars may have numbered 20,000. They were besieging Augsburg when Otto arrived. He came with allies, Boleslav of Bohemia and a legion of Swabians. The Magyars crossed the river to attack, but Otto led a charge against their line despite the arrow-sleet, and crashed into them leading his heavy knights. Caught against the river, the Magyars had no chance on this occasion to use their favorite shoot-and-run tactics.

REH was well aware of the effectiveness of that. In a letter to Lovecraft of September 1930, he wrote, “For the bow is connected and interwoven with Oriental history from the very dawn of history … the Roman legions reel before the cloud of Parthian arrows, the Crusaders fall before the Turkish bows, and the wild riders of Attila, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane wipe out whole armies without coming to sword-points.”

This time it didn’t work. Bulcsu, one of the Magyar chiefs, feigned a retreat, trying to lure the Germans into breaking their formation to pursue; another preferred Magyar trick. That didn’t work either. Instead of dispersing to chase the Magyars all over the map, Otto’s Germans maintained discipline and carried out a dogged, methodical pursuit. The Magyar horses tired, and the Germans were able to close with the raiders hand-to-hand for their revenge. When the fugitives took refuge in walled wooden villages they were burned to death inside the stockades. The survivors were sent back to their prince without ears or noses.

The Magyars never invaded westwards en masse after that, and in due course were converted. Lechfeld is viewed as one of the most significant early victories of knightly heavy cavalry over the light-riding steppe nomads. A story from REH’s typewriter based on those events could have been as memorable as “The Shadow of the Vulture.”

A major advance in the use of horses about this time had nothing to do with mounted war. It involved the horse-collar harness. This had been developed in China centuries before, but it wasn’t adopted in Western Europe until about 950 CE. The Scandinavians were among the first to employ it, and in that region it made perhaps a more crucial difference than anywhere else. The fitted horse collar threw the weight on the horse’s shoulders, not its neck, and made it possible for the animal to throw the full strength of its powerful hind-quarters into pulling a wagon or plow. Since a horse could now deliver about fifty per cent more power than an ox for such work, and had greater speed and endurance, more efficient advantage could now be taken of good weather for plowing, planting and gathering – and good weather was crucially important for farm work in Viking lands.

The effect was enormous in England and France also. Limited to the capacities of oxen, peasants had been forced to live in tiny villages close beside their fields. Now they could live in bigger villages and towns and, using the swifter horse, still get to their fields and put in a productive day’s work before coming home. Horses in collar-harness could throw far more traction into pulling wagon-loads of, for instance, wool along the roads, not to mention gold and silver tax money for the royal exchequer. It’s ironic that by the time the Normans conquered England, the invention that would eventually aid the rise of the merchant class and make the feudal system a back number, was already in use. But because that thought was anathema to a courtly Norman knight, and nobody then living had much historical sense anyhow, no-one realized it.

(REH never gave the attention to Hastings that he did to Clontarf, though for my money Harald Godwinson would make a great hero and William of Normandy a great villain. REH seems to have admired Harald too –- though he spells his name “Harold,” He uses the man as a character in “The Road of Azrael,” to be referred next post, assuming that he didn’t really die at Hastings.)

Even historians’ opinions differ greatly about that battle. Some think a major factor in William’s victory was his judicious combination of his horse, foot and archers. I’m not qualified to say. But Harold’s forces had fought a hard battle in the north against Hardrada, then made a forced march south without a rest because, among other reasons, William was slaughtering their folk. William’s knights were highly effective cavalry, though. Their saddles had their fronts and backs raised to form a high pommel and cantle, as the Bayeux Tapestry shows. They also made great use of their stirrups to keep a firm seat while striking heavy blows and their long kite-shaped shields were used, not to protect the knight’s lower leg, but his horse’s vulnerable back.

The famous tapestry also shows that the horses the Normans used at Hastings were stallions. Among western knights stallions were favored because of their greater aggression as well as their greater strength; they were expected to fight as fiercely as their riders, kicking, stamping and biting. That, among many other aspects of REH’s writing, is accurate. Of course it was good technique in macho pulp fiction to have the hero riding hell-for-leather on a fierce stallion. What? Cormac Fitzgeoffrey or Conan on a mare –- or, God forbid a gelding? Passages like the following are much more effective!

She retained a more vivid memory of him running fleetly into the shadows of the trees, carrying her like a child, and vaulting into the saddle of a fierce Bhalkhana stallion which reared and snorted. Then there was a sensation of flying, and the racing hoofs were striking sparks of fire from the flinty road as the stallion swept up the slopes.

 Robert E. Howard, “People of the Black Circle”

Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part 4b, Part 4c, Part 5a, Part 5b, Part 6