Book Review: The Medieval Warhorse: Origin, Development and Redevelopment

Review submitted by: Curt Emanuel

Title: The Medieval Warhorse: Origin, Development and Redevelopment
Author: Davis, R.H.C.
Publisher: Thames and Hudson, Ltd
Publication Date: 1989
ISBN: 0-500-25102-9

I first looked for this book after reading Ann Hyland's The Medieval Warhorse: From Byzantium to the Crusades about a year ago. I was mainly looking for a second work to balance hers with, since I hate to read just one book on a topic. Inevitably, this review will compare the two works to some extent. The Davis book is no longer in print, however I found it through Bibliofind on the web.

Davis seeks to instruct us on how the Medieval Warhorse developed, first by examining the needs of the times and the changes in warfare that necessitated a mounted platform for knights, how breeding programs were re-developed, beginning with the Carolingians and later in England, and how the Renaissance effected the development of horses.

In his first chapter, on Medieval Cavalry Warfare, Davis discusses the development of the mounted knight and how the introduction of shock combat, couched lance warfare, and heavy armor resulted in the need for a larger, sturdier type of horse. He discusses some aspects of mounted warfare, including developments in armor and weaponry, the Anglo-Saxon use of mounted infantry rather than cavalry and, briefly, how young knights were trained.

His discussion of horsebreeding comprises the largest section of this work. He begins with a brief overview of horsebreeding through history, including the Romans. He believes that horsebreeding waxed and waned continuously throughout history, so that the Greeks had to redevelop horses to where the Assyrians had gotten, how the Romans had to do the same, and how Medieval horsebreeding fell to virtually nothing, in an organized sense, from the 5th-7th century.

His discussion of "The Revival of Horsebreeding in Western Europe" centers on 2 areas. The first is the development of cavalry in the 8th century by the Carolingians. The second is the Norman invasion of England by William. He discusses how Spanish horses (Arabian in origin) affected horses in Western Europe, and how heavy armor influenced the need for larger animals. He gives considerable attention to how actual breeding was done, and how the Medievals discussed the advantages and disadvantages of hand vs pasture breeding.

His final chapter involves the Renaissance and how it resulted in a tremendous increase in the knowledge of horses, particularly regarding veterinary medicine. The first true advance in horse knowledge came about in about 1250 when Frederick II's Knight-Farrier, Jordanus Ruffus of Clabria wrote De Medicina Equorum, the first original work since the later Roman Empire. Davis then goes on to describe further advances which took place from the 13th-16th centuries.

Davis' work has some value, but overall I was disappointed. Endnotes rather than footnotes are always less useful, however my main complaints are that he didn't go into enough detail about many aspects of this topic. There are places where he does go into some detail- the Carolingians, Normans circa 1050, King Edward I of England's reign, but by and large he was less than complete. He gives very little on Byzantine influence on Western Horse, and little on the infusion of Arab blood. He is rather sparse on his discussion of just how the cavalry and mounted shock combat were effective, and how different types of horses were used in different ways. He also states that horse reached 17-18 hands in the High Middle Ages before people realized they were too big, something which we know (or are pretty sure of) was not true.

One area where he did well, and which was the most useful part of the book for me, was in his last chapter, on the new works writen from 1250 on. There are several references here that I'd like to find. Jordanus is the most prominent(he included short chapters on "how horses are bred and born, how captured, tamed, kept and trained . . ." which I find very interesting.) However works by Borgogogni, Rusius, and Guillaume de Villiers also sound intriguing.

Overall, Davis book failed to address this topic in sufficient depth for me. However he did add some details of horsebreeding and veterinary medicine not addressed by Hyland. However, if I were to choose one work on Medieval Horses for my library, it would be Hyland and not Davis (which is nice since she's still in print.)

Reviewer Rating: 3-Fair

Original review submitted: Jan 15, 2001

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