Saturday, November 28, 2020

Saturday Snippet: Riding a medieval knight's war horse from France to Jerusalem


We've met Tim Severin in these pages before.  He's a famous explorer and historian, with many expeditions and books to his credit.

In the late 1980's, Severin and a companion decided to retrace the route of the First Crusade (1095-1099) from France to Jerusalem, overland.  Severin particularly wanted to learn what it was like to take a knight's war horse (the ancestor of today's heavy draft horses) on such a journey.  They were unable to follow the exact route, due to civil war in Lebanon, but by diverting through Syria and and Jordan, they reached Jerusalem at last.  Severin wrote about the journey in his book "Crusader:  By Horse to Jerusalem".

Here's an excerpt describing why he wanted to make the journey, and how he chose the war horse with (and on) which to make it.

... what had led me to this damp meadow in the borderlands between France and Belgium? The answer lay fifty miles to the northwest where the river Semois wriggles through the folds of a tough granite plateau that emerges like a craggy island from the rich agricultural lowlands of Flanders and Brabant. In the depths of that plateau the Semois coils around a steep crag of rock, and on the summit of that rock stands Chateau Bouillon. Its grey walls dominate the little medieval town that fills the river's gorge. The castle is the pride of the region, key to the routes that criss-cross the rain-soaked forest of Ardennes with its dense cover of oak and beech. Nearly nine centuries ago the seigneur of the castle had ridden from this primeval and misty land to begin a fabled journey. He had mortgaged his chateau to pay the ruinous cost of raising and arming a small army that amounted to his private brigade, and in 1096 Godfrey, Duke of Bouillon, had set out on the First Crusade to the Holy Land, vowing to reach Jerusalem. The Duke was only one among a number of Europe's leading noblemen who had pledged to liberate the Holy Land, but by the time Jerusalem was firmly in their hands some three years later, his haughty and turbulent colleagues selected him to be their Prince of Jerusalem. Less than a year afterwards he died in the Holy City, his reputation still unsullied, and the same followers buried his corpse close to the very spot where Jesus' body was laid when it was taken down from the cross. It was the holiest burial ground in Christendom and they felt that Duke Godfrey deserved this last resting place. He was their 'perfect knight'.

Duke Godfrey's reputation endured far beyond his own times. Today, in the provinces where he raised his vanished army, school classrooms are still hung with engravings of his greatest triumphs, and in the nineteenth century a statue of the Duke, on a prancing and not at all ungainly horse, was installed in a central square in Brussels. When the pioneer English printer Caxton was commissioned to print a life of King Arthur, he suggested that the Duke of Bouillon's story would be more appropriate. Arthur's reputation, Caxton ventured to his patron, was largely legendary, but the heroism and merit of the Duke of Bouillon was proven fact. Minstrels and jongleurs had composed songs to commemorate Godfrey's exploits on that First Crusade. Illuminators took care to put him in their pictures when they coloured the medieval chronicles with scenes of noble battle and distant journey, and in folklore he was ranked with King Arthur and Sir Lancelot.

Two years earlier I had added Godfrey to my personal list of semi-mythical travellers whose journeys had provided the raw material of legend. Such figures fascinated me, and in the past I had investigated the stories of St Brendan, Sindbad the Sailor, Jason and the Argonauts and Ulysses, using replicas of ancient boats to explore whether there was any truth behind their tales of distant travel. (The Brendan Voyage, Hutchinson, 1978. The Sindbad Voyage, Hutchinson, 1982. The Jason Voyage, Hutchinson, 1985. The Ulysses Voyage, Hutchinson, 1987.) Duke Godfrey's reputation also arose out of a great journey, but he posed a rather different sort of conundrum. Here was a real historical figure, an ordinary man, one among many, who had gone on the First Crusade. The events of the journey had made him a superhero to his immediate successors. Only a generation later stories were being told about his prodigious physical strength, his piety, his selflessness, his extraordinary feats of arms. What had happened to create such renown? Was it justified? And why had Duke Godfrey, among all the leaders of the First Crusade, been chosen for this special fame? To find the answer I proposed to follow Duke Godfrey's path to Jerusalem just as he had travelled along it — on horseback. Along that road, from Chateau Bouillon to his burial place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I hoped to find some clues to the building of the legend of a man whose deeds made him one of the greatest heroes of chivalry. But I had a wider purpose, too. By actually riding a horse to Jerusalem I also wanted to come to grips with that extraordinary phenomenon, when tens of thousands of men and women, even some children too, had ventured to walk and ride across a continent, trying to reach Christ's tomb. Not just knights and soldiers had followed Duke Godfrey, but a straggling train of civilians had trudged in his wake. Untold numbers had fallen by the way; some faltered and turned back, discouraged by the hardships of the road; others died of malnutrition and disease. Every single survivor who finally laid eyes on Jerusalem had paid dearly with sweat and pain. So gruelling was the experience that, although many other Crusades would depart from Europe for the Holy Land over the next 300 years, not one of them succeeded in repeating exactly the same path. A few tried and failed, but most shunned the sections where those early Crusaders had suffered so cruelly.

Thus the First Crusade was a unique feat. Historians had dealt exhaustively with its documents and chronicles, written about its special geopolitics, causes and effects, ecclesiastical, social, diplomatic and administrative topics. But I was much more drawn to the practical details of the trip itself. It had been a stupendous journey, an achievement difficult to comprehend with our modern means of rapid travel and notions of time and distance. The Crusaders had been on the road for nearly three years, moving farther and farther away from their bases and sources of supply, parted from their homes by unimaginable distances. Warriors and civilians alike had journeyed through alien lands ruled by exotic enemies. How had they achieved it? And why? Scholarly opinion proposed variously that the First Crusade had been motivated by greed, by land hunger, by fanaticism, by ignorance, that it was the child of deliberate political manipulation between a Pope in Rome and an Emperor in Byzantium, that it was a mass migration, that it failed for Christianity but succeeded for Christendom. Only was there general agreement that the Crusade turned into the single most important phenomenon of the age. What, then, was it like to have travelled to Jerusalem in the manner of a medieval man? If I could taste that experience, even marginally, perhaps it would give an insight into the motives of those travellers and the reasons for their persistence. For me, one man brought everything into focus: Duke Godfrey of Bouillon was still the perfect symbol of the Crusade.

If I wanted to follow him, then there was a simple logic to choosing the correct type of horse I should use. Duke Godfrey recruited a major part of his army from his personal domain around Chateau Bouillon. His knights would have rallied to his banner with all manner, shapes and sizes of horses but, as the Duke's chateau lay in the heart of the Ardennes Forest, they must have brought with them at least some of the native breed — the Ardennes Heavy Horse. The breed books enthusiastically described the race as 'sober and robust ... renowned for its toughness, its ability to withstand all types of climate, its eagerness to work and its frugal feeding.' But to Duke Godfrey and his knights, an animal weighing as much as a ton and capable of galloping at 20 miles an hour for short distances had one overwhelming advantage: in ridden combat such a monstrous charger was their day's equivalent to a main battle tank. Anyone knocked down and trodden on by such a crushing weight would have no further interest in the fight. The 'Belgian Horse', as the Ardennes and other Low Country breeds came to be known, was the most devastating mobile weapon of war known at that time. Possession of a warhorse of such dimensions was so dangerous that, a century later, it was controlled by royal edict. Kings were aware that in the hands of a rebellious vassal a squadron of Heavy Horses could mean the loss of a throne. In the winter of 1095, when the war leaders were planning their march on Jerusalem, they knew they would have to fight their way through a cordon of Muslim states before reaching the walls of the Holy City. It would have been inconceivable to them not to start out with their warhorses.

Just how few of the great animals would survive the journey, they could not have imagined.

. . .

Cecile knew exactly what would suit me. She led us behind the farm, down past a spinney to a distant, soggy field containing just one forlorn horse, who looked very lonely. He was a roan, muddy and fat, and comic-looking with his Roman nose.

Charlie later told me that it was a puzzle to him why this horse had been kept on. Nothing about him was quite right for a fine Ardennes stallion. The head was wrong, the walk odd, the stance slightly askew, the 'conformation', as the horse-judging world called it, was indifferent. But there was no doubt that this particular horse had a strong character of his own — you could see it in the way he held his head and looked at us - and a horse's character, Charlie had told me a long time before, was the most important quality of all. If I was to coax a Heavy Horse into walking across a continent, the animal would need a strong character to withstand the rigours of the journey.

Quite what sort of a character the horse possessed, there was no way of knowing. And if I had guessed what lay in store, perhaps I would have thought longer before before offering to Cecile to buy this, her sole, suitable horse whose grandiloquent name, it turned out, was Quarté de Bourbeau and whose lineage was fully inscribed in the Ardennes stud book as a four-year-old pure bred. Carty, as his name was instantly abbreviated, was to turn out to be stubborn, cunning, brave, greedy, affectionate, destructive, innocent, gentle, full of guile, timid, majestic, squalid, docile, fractious. He would dominate my life for the next twelve months. Like his relatives, he had been born in the foaling bay in the great barn of Bourbeau, with the help of a splendid contraption of which Dédé was very proud. Above the foaling stall was a large metal box bolted to a rafter, and from it extruded a hook. A stout rope was attached to the hook, and at the other end of the rope a broad canvas belt was wrapped around the huge girth of the pregnant Ardennes mare about to produce her foal in the stall below. On the most likely night for the birth, either Dédé or Cecile would sleep on a mattress in the stable ready to assist the mare in labour. When the mare was ready, she would lie down on the straw. This pulled on the canvas belt which tugged on the rope which pulled on the hook which in turn activated a Second World War klaxon that began hooting and roused the sleeper. Thus, Carty had been born in the middle of the night to the raucous howls of a machine normally associated with war and destruction. Nothing, I was to find out, could have been more appropriate. The world had been alerted to the fact that Carty, rascal extraordinary, had arrived.

. . .

Sometimes Carty was obstinate about entering the trailer, sometimes he would be reasonable. What we did learn was that if he didn't want to walk up the ramp, there was no force on this side of a bulldozer that would oblige him to do so.

So at noon on 26 April we parked the trailer in the village street. It was a Sunday, a beautiful day, and all the villagers had turned out to see us off. People were wishing us luck, admiring the horses, handing in goodwill messages. Then the crowd waited expectantly to see us load up and leave. It was the ideal opportunity for Carty to show off. He knew something strange was happening, and he became pig-headed. While Mystery watched with increasing nervousness, Carty refused to walk up the ramp. We tried to bribe him. A trail of food was dribbed out, leading up the ramp. He snuffled his way up it until he came to the top and then turned around and walked back. We repeated the technique until he had consumed a complete feed. We tried to wheedle him in with promises and sweet talk. He refused. We tried to cajole him. It was useless. We brought a huge rope from the harbour jetty and with four men each side tried to sweep him in. He simply swerved at the last moment and walked off down the village street with eight sturdy men being dangled along behind him like dolls. We were bombarded with advice. There were men in the crowd who were horse dealers. They tried their tricks — whistling, soft talk, blindfolding Carty who promptly tripped on the ramp with a crash that nearly ripped it off its hinges. There were men who regularly loaded and drove cattle lorries. They too tried their methods, waving brooms, flicking water on his rump, shifting the trailer so it stood on a downhill slope next to a wall. I forbade the use of electric cattle prods.

Every single ruse was a complete failure. Carty refused to walk into the horse box, and loved every minute of the attention he was getting. He was, as Sarah observed, a horse who adored human company, and putting on a circus show in front of the intrigued crowd was his idea of bliss. Finally when the crowd had got bored and begun to drift away, he looked round, noted that he had overstayed his time, and on his own, without any coaxing, calmly walked up into the box and stood there. I could have sworn he had a smug look on his face. We closed up the tail gate at the double and I looked once again at the time. It had taken six hours to load one warhorse. At that rate it would take us a decade to get to Jerusalem.

That's how Severin's adventure began - and it was quite an adventure.  He learned the hard way why knights rode palfreys and other, smaller horses while on their journeys, and reserved their war horses for battle.  (Answer:  the war horses were so huge that a knight couldn't wrap his legs around them, the way a rider usually does.  Their barrel chests were simply too big.  Instead, he had to perch on top of them, almost literally - a very uncomfortable way to ride for hours at a time.)



jen said...

Peter, they travelled on palfreys because unless you're riding a Suffolk Punch, which was the only draft breed bred exclusively for farming, the gaits of most draft horses are crushingly bone-jarring. And slow. And, as you pointed out, they're three feet across: saddle horses are much more comfortable for a long ride.

Chip Anderson said...

I am tempted to buy the book were I not swamped.

Cedar said...

I'm giggling at the description of trying to get the horse trailered. I've seen antics just like that!

Dov Sar said...

We have Shires, including 9 stallions. You get used to riding their width, and by the way they are not slow; my farm hand has an offspring of a famous thoroughbred race horse and she can't keep up with me. Some do have a choppy trot, though. We have did some mounted combat against targets back in the day; the studs really get into it, so much so that they want to smash the target instead of letting you hit it with your sword or spear. We had to quit because when we rode off the farm our lead stud, weighing 1800 lbs just under 6 ft. at the shoulder, wanted to smash joggers because everything was a target to him after that. It also hurts to come off of them, as they say, coming off your high horse. Ouch!

Unknown said...

I'm a little surprised at the choice of an Ardennes, they are on the extreme end of the modern draft, thanks to the influence of the breeding for meat production and no longer truly resemble the Ardennes of the medieval period.
I will attest to the fact that a draft horse is actually an astonishingly nimble animal. And well aware that it can push through things, including barns, fences, trees.... I currently have a Shire who I use for logging, and like Dov Sar's, he is something else again. Still a tank compared to the Thoroughbreds I grew up on....but a very athletic tank!

Rob said...

$3 for the kindle copy, I bought it.
It will be a little while before I start it, as I downloaded a free copy of "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol 1" by Gibbons the other day (free at Project Gutenberg). I want to see if it's at all readable... Seems it may be appropriate to the times...

tiredWeasel said...

Yeah, the modern breed he used is not comparable with a medieval breed. Even warhorses used by knights were pretty small compared with modern horses. More like ponies.

The reason knights of the late medieval era "stood" in the saddle came from the use of the couched lance and their fighting style, NOT because the horses were that stout.
In the early medieval age, or start of the high medieval age, of the first crusade, the saddles were different and the specialized war saddles of the later centuries did not yet exist.

Old NFO said...

Interesting, and not surprised the horse acted out... Horses... sigh

Beans said...

You ride a walker for walking. You ride a charger for charging.

Same thing today, for those who do equestrian things, a racer for racing, a walker for walking, a cow-horse for coyboying, pack horses for packing etc...

It's all about the gait and the frame.

Which, of course, is why the Euros smashed the living carp out of the Middle-Easterners. We favored stallions as our chargers, full of strength and powerful in the charge (duh.) They favored mares and in a horse we'd use as a lady's mount (palfrey.) Untold damage caused by our male horses seeing a herd of females after a long ground or sea voyage. Much hilarity and breeding ensued.

Ad to the equation that the Europeans were just better heavy fighters, while the mulsims tended to favor slashing raiding tactics.