This is the first of a short series about horses, the engines of the fourteenth century. They were the car, the lorry and the van, but they weren’t necessarily the tractor. On the farm, the heavy work was usually done by oxen.
We’ll start with a look at the types of horses that were in use. There were quite a few of them, not just the trained warhorse and the farm horse.
At the top was the incredibly expensive destrier. It was also known as a charger or warhorse and the best ones came from Lombardy. Large enough to carry a fully-armed and armoured knight, they also wore their own armour at times. A knight would take up to four of them on campaign with him. Imagine a garage with four top of the range sports cars and you’re still not thinking about the right order of expense.
The courser was the fast horse used, by those that could afford them, for hunting.
A rouncey was an ordinary saddle horse. They were ridden by soldiers, but could also be used as pack horses.
Palfreys were small horses most often used by women.
Hackney was a place beyond London’s walls, about a mile from its centre, where horses were pastured. Eventually the word was used to describe the horses kept there for hire. Much later it was used to describe the two-wheeled cabs they pulled and today a hackney carriage is the black London taxi. Hackneys were used by the king’s messengers, but they could also be used as pack horses. They were of fairly low value.
An ambler was, as its name implies, a slow horse. They were trained to move both right legs together, then both left legs, which apparently made for a more comfortable ride. They were good for inexperienced riders. The wife of Bath rode one in The Canterbury Tales.
The sumpter (or caballus) was a pack horse. They could carry loads of up to 200 pounds. The were used in baggage trains.
The somier was also a pack horse.
A stot, or affer, was a basic farm horse. Its tasks were pulling the harrow or carrying sacks of grain to and from the mill. It was the kind of horse ridden by the reeve in The Canterbury Tales, although he could have afforded something much better. Even cheaper horses were expensive, though, as we’ll see next week.
The Medieval Horse and its Equipment by John Clark
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe by Peter Spufford