Amanda Rosenstock Luyster

title.none: Clark, ed., The Medieval Horse (Amanda Rosenstock Luyster)

identifier.other: baj9928.0511.005 05.11.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Amanda Rosenstock Luyster, Minnesota State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Clark, John, ed. The Medieval Horse and Its Equipment c.1150-c.1450, 2nd ed. Series: Medieval Finds From Excavations in London vol. 5. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004. Pp. xv, 185. 50.00 1-84383-097-3. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.11.05

Clark, John, ed. The Medieval Horse and Its Equipment c.1150-c.1450, 2nd ed. Series: Medieval Finds From Excavations in London vol. 5. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004. Pp. xv, 185. 50.00 1-84383-097-3. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Amanda Rosenstock Luyster
Minnesota State University

This book provides a basic work of reference for archaeologists and others interested in medieval history, economics, and material culture. The major part of the volume presents a catalogue of more than 400 objects associated with horses: harness fittings, horseshoes, spurs, and curry combs. Accompanying essays also discuss the technology of "horse-power" and the fashions and functions of horse equipment in the lively medieval city of London. The authors assume little previous knowledge, and although the presentation is at times quite technical, it is always approachable.

The volume belongs to a Museum of London series, currently being re-issued by the Boydell Press, presenting medieval finds from London excavations. [[1]] The series focuses on the period c. 1150-1450, limits imposed by London's waterfront development, which began at most of the archaeological sites in the mid-twelfth century and was halted by the construction of stone riverside walls in the fifteenth century. Some objects of earlier date are included.

The introductory first section of The Medieval Horse is not, however, essentially object-based. It is an account of horses and horsemen in medieval London. The work of the medieval horse is discussed generally, previous scholarship is addressed, and anecdotes of drunken behavior, disputes at the horse fair at Smithfield, and horse-thieving enliven the text. Horses were a common sight in medieval London, from the cavalcades of the nobility whose entire household might be moved by horses to the humble horse-drawn cart. Such carts were a major factor in London's economy, from local deliveries of pottery, cheese and nuts to long-distance haulage. There are specific entries on the London Bridge wardens and their horses as well as the profession of marshal or farrier. This introductory section concludes with observations on the size of the medieval horse. The Great Horse, imported into England and highly valued, has been envisaged by some as of giant stature, but Clark finds evidence for this to be lacking, suggesting instead that the Great Horse was of similar size (no more than 15 hands) to other quality riding horses, although it may have shown its nobility in greater strength (25).

This introduction is followed by a brief presentation of the sites of excavation. The remainder of the volume then addresses harness fittings, horseshoes, spurs and spur fittings, and curry combs, in that order. Each of these object classes is carefully delineated, its terms defined and a chronology of development outlined. The authors propose revisions of earlier hypotheses and new conclusions. Numerous drawings accompany the text and catalogue entries, and other sources of visual evidence, such as manuscript illustrations and comparable objects outside their own collections, are introduced when relevant. Such carefully established outlines of development provide a solid contribution to scholarship and may be of use to those in many fields. The volume concludes with an appendix on skeletal evidence of medieval horses from London sites and with summaries in English, French, and German. A substantial bibliography is included.

As my space here is too limited to review the proposed types and evolution of each category of object, I will mention only a few discussions, which caught my interest. For instance, No. 197 is a miniature horseshoe, less than half normal size, never used. Clark suggests it might have been a trial-piece for a blacksmith or, more evocatively, a lucky charm for its owner. Apparently, belief in the luck-bringing power of the horseshoe has been documented as early as the late fourteenth century (91). Alternately, the 1345 "Articles of the Spurriers" (spur-makers; see p. 125) paint a vivid picture, no doubt limned by someone outside the trade, of spurriers who "wander about" all day, becoming "drunk and frantic," who then take to their work only as night falls, blowing up their fires so vigorously that sparks fly and their neighbors take fright. Among the actual spurs mentioned were not only very small sets for children (124) but also a very fine spur (No. 323) decorated with roses and a tiny swan (probably heraldic), which was found with its complete leathers (128, 132-34).

Mention should also be made of a group of unusual pendent badges. Made of pewter and probably fifteenth-century, they are formed in the shape of a miniature curry comb (see 159-60). On at least two examples the inner side of the comb blade, presumably hidden from view, bears the inscription "fauel," referring to the phrase "to curry favor" or "to curry favel." This leads to a discussion of the evolution of the phrase in use today, "to curry favor," which seems to have been adapted in the sixteenth century from the earlier "to curry favel." The word "favel" meant a fallow-colored horse, and therefore the phrase's original meaning was probably simply that of currying the master's horse, that is, executing dirty or menial work in the hope of winning the lord's good opinion. However, in the fourteenth century, the phrase "to curry favel" came to signify "the use of insincere flattery in hope of a reward from a superior" (159), which references the Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "curry"). The act of "currying favel" was depicted in designs for tapestries in the fifteenth century. These badges, then, would have branded their wearers as medieval boot-lickers! Malcolm Jones has suggested that they might have been the badges of an English company of fools (160). Although such companies are not well-documented in England, festivals in France in the first half of the sixteenth century include a "prince of the curry comb."

Rather than the catalogue of an exhibition of "high art," focusing on the commissions of those at the pinnacle of religious or secular society, this series presents the wide variety of finds from the urban center of London in the later Middle Ages. The books are, then, less showy than an exhibition catalogue, but more democratic, and many of their objects evoke the texture of everyday life. The comprehensive nature of this series encourages re-examination of prejudices regarding what is and is not considered worthy of study.

As the example of the curry-comb badge illustrates, this volume provides many paths into the intricate history of the medieval world. Such a book, focused on the object, reminds us of the evocative power of certain otherwise-humble finds. The painstaking labor of those who studied and presented these objects has created a worthy reference book, one which in its presentation of both commonplace and unusual objects increases our knowledge of the physical reality in which the medieval individual lived--from the lucky horseshoe, to the spurs of the child learning to ride or the heraldic spurs of the fashionable knight, to the fool who curries "favel."


[[1]] These excavations were carried out in the 1970s and early 1980s. Other books in the Museum of London series included Knives and Scabbards, Shoes and Pattens, Dress Accessories, Textiles and Clothing, The Medieval Household: Daily Living, and Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges. The Boydell Press is re-issuing the entire series, and the current 2004 edition is therefore a reprint (with additions) of the original 1995 publication.