Medieval Horses Part Three

Now that we know what horses cost to buy and keep in the fourteenth century, it’s worth thinking about how useful they were. How far could you go on horseback and how far could a horse pull a laden cart?

The distance a horse could travel in a day didn’t just depend on the weather and the state of the roads, although these were important. Roads quickly turned into mud in the rain, slowing both horses and carts. This meant that journeys made in the winter were generally slower than those made in the summer. Other elements that influenced speed were the length of the journey and the condition in which the horse would be at the end of the journey. The fourteenth century was a time of technological advances which also had an impact on how fast carts and horses could move.

Generally speaking, a man riding alone could cover 20-25 miles a day if he was on a long journey and wanted to look after the horse. If he didn’t care about the horse, he could double the distance. Rich men and officials would change horses each day and cover 30-40 miles.  In exceptional cases, presumably involving changing horses more frequently, messengers could travel 100 miles in a day.

Groups of people travelling together would generally go more slowly in order to accommodate the slowest moving person or animal. They would probably be taking luggage, as well, which would slow them down. A packhorse could carry up to two hundredweight and they were capable of covering 30 miles a day in good weather and on the right kind of roads.

Carts went more slowly, covering about 12 miles a day, and only 5 to 8 miles in winter. There were developments during the fourteenth century, however, that made them faster, until they were capable of travelling up to 20 miles on a good day at the end of the century. Most carts had only two wheels. Improvements, including replacing the single shaft between two horses with two shafts between which the horses walked, meant that the cart was easier to pull and could be reversed. It also meant that the horses could be used as a brake when going downhill. The development of the spoked wheel meant that wheels were stronger and less likely to get stuck in mud.

Technological advances were also made with harness and shoes, which made horses more useful in agriculture, where they started to replace oxen.

Talking about oxen, which people were happy to eat, brings us to the eating of horseflesh. As it was associated with pagan rituals, it was banned by the pope in 732. The ban was widely ignored, but not in England. Even though most people don’t know why, it’s still something that’s regarded with distaste by the English.

The Medieval Horse and its Equipment by John Clark
Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe by Peter Spufford
A Social History of England ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life, Medieval Travel

33 responses to “Medieval Horses Part Three

  1. On the English aversion to eating horseflesh, I read (somewhere or other) that people don’t eat what they hold sacred, and that earlier inhabitants of Britain were horse worshippers.
    But if so, when? And why only in England do people find the idea of eating horseflesh distasteful, when the papal ban indicates it may once have been widespread for ritual purposes? Has someone got carried away by a one-off archaeological find, or the Uffington White Horse? All very mysterious.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Fab post April, never thought of ‘technological advances’ to make carts faster but of course that’s where inventing cars came from in the end.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Very interesting explanation about the eating of horseflesh, and how ironic that we continued to observe it after the split with Rome. I’d always assumed it was our national sentimemtality!

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  4. This helps me understand how hard it was to travel any kind of distance with or without a horse. Didn’t know that about eating horseflesh but boy, that conditioning runs deep!

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  5. It’s been my observation, here in America, that anything that gains a foothold in reverence, usefulness and/or becomes an emotional companion due to constant close interactions, becomes a ‘NOT for EATING!” item – horses played such a huge part in the history of this nation from when they were first introduced to the continent by early explorers/conquerers – on many fronts. Dogs, long ago wolves, who either early on domesticated us, or we domesticated them, (I’ve read pieces that confess, many who have spent a lifetime studying and researching still aren’t certain just who ‘domesticated’ whom, in the beginning of the relationship) are not eaten either, for the most part, even today when so many dogs are in place for pure companion/entertainment needs and not work duties. I read once, a write-up from a master chef in Canada describing why prime cuts of certain parts of a horse were ‘the ultimate in fine dining” that Americans didn’t ‘get” and I realized, in reading his description and arguments for such a cut, that the same cuts with same high quality of taste and tenderness was available if one stuck to open rangeland, mainly pasture raised fed beef cattle, and avoided crowded and fully grain/slop/ fed operations for beef cattle…. I haven’t yet, been able to embrace raw fish, eating bugs or grubs, etc., Not because of reverence, but because I’ve never been hungry enough for long enough, to overcome my gag reflexes well honed over a lifetime of ‘eww! yuck! don’t put that in your mouth’ training – 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, we don’t eat cats, either. It does make sense, though, not to eat animals that are more useful alive. I’ve also never had the least desire to eat raw anything or insects.

      Liked by 1 person

    • As a Hoosier, totally get everything you stated.
      Also agree with April. And if we build a relationship with an animal, we are appalled to even think of making cutlets of them! My husband and parents (farm kids) were dissuaded from making pets of meat animals. Being a town girl, I did not face that dilemma.

      America was so agriculturally rich that Americans began to narrow the list of edible domestic meat animals to select favorites. This reduction of diversity gave us more meat per dollar, and satisfied hungry customers who became dependant upon three main domestic animals.

      For generations U.S. farmers provided plenty of chicken, beef and pork. A huge percentage of citizens never masticated anything else, saving holiday turkey. Lamb, duck or goose made rare appearances, depending upon customs or other circumstances, though generally unfamiliar to mainstream tastes.

      I’ve never had much opportunity to develop a taste for much beyond the typical trifecta. We tried cooking goose and venison; our inexperience resulted in dreadful disasters. The expense of these, and a horrible, disgusting tortoise faux pas, made us resolve to stick with cheaper, familiar meats.

      Americans also depended on horses to grab land from First People. We built a cowboy culture that persisted into movies and TV, making generations of kids think of horses as buddies. No one turns on, much less EATS, a buddy!

      Few thought to turn the beastly trifecta into pals until the mid 20th Century. Slowly, with the influence of people such as E.B. White, the Mahatma Ghandi, and our own, beloved April, many are becoming vegans, vegetarians, or more diverse omnivores.

      A very good thing. So glad to join this discussion! 💖

      Liked by 2 people

      • Eggsactly Shaunnmunn! :). I haven’t ever had the opportunity to eat much lamb – although my neighbors have shared canned, ready to dump into soup or stew mix their preserved lamb from their property and homestead operations. I live and have lived in areas where there are hunters in my circle who hunt to fill the freezer for the next year, and not for a ‘trophy to hang on the wall’ once they go on America’s version of big game hunting safari (um…yeah…I have stories about that…). I have been gifted shares of kills from elk, antelope and deer over the years – I love the ground portions or beef jerky made from such stuff, I never did get quite acclimated to the texture of the ‘steaks’ although cut up and used for stew meat, chile or stroganoff, they worked just fine, but then, too, I received those portions from hunters who knew what they were doing, dropped a grazing animal with one shot while it was grazing and not from those who chase things around, get the animals adrenaline going and then don’t drop it with one shot and cause it further hurt and stress from pain and suffering before finally killing it. It’s my understanding that a clean, quick, humane kill is the only way to truly not have ‘bad tastes/gamey tastes’ of the animals we eat to survive.

        That all said, we do get accustomed to what we like – what our palettes are used too. Dad never let us name our calves or cows – (ranching/beef herd) but we were allowed to name our milking goats, cuz we provided a home and grazing land etc., and they provided us milk so many months out of the year – I have never eaten goat meat either. I have eaten wild rabbit meat in season, because my dad used to have time to do such things. IN fact, it was the first animal I ever watched getting skinned and dressed – we didn’t name our chickens – we did laying hens, and then trucked over to my aunt and uncles to help with the meat bird flock butchering day and plucking feathers, cuz you’re small and that’s the only job you can be trusted with just now, is a smelly, hard job and I wasn’t a huge fan of chicken for some months after the first time I saw & did what all had to happen to get it from the yard to my plate – and yet, from all of that was born a reverence, regard and appreciation for the things that die that I might live. I also, along the way, have become convinced of plant intelligence, care of their young, ability to communicate and partner up/collaborate with other plants/insects/species to mount a common defense, thus, I also give thanks when I harvest vegetables – so many of the ‘vegetarian/vegan’ arguments don’t really convince me as much at they believe those arguments might – :). Ahh the circle of life we know, the portion we haven’t yet learned/experienced and the ways we go about not facing the simple fact, “Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it is only recycled’ – thingee – for me to live, other things die – hopefully, I can do my best to not take more than my fair share, give thanks and reverence and do my best to be kind about my little steps in the circle – and every year, I learn one more way or multiple ways, here and there, that allow me to grow, expand and make better choices – – :). I believe one of the Plains Tribes of Indians had a word for horse that literally translated into English, meant “god-dog” – – I’ll have to look at my “A Woman of the People” by Benjamin Capps to refresh my memory – but yes, there are partnerships we form and things we do to survive and things we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for, instead of doing, because we know, just now, we might be able to live with ourselves later… 🙂

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        • I bought Capps’ book about Tehanita (little girl Texan). Still have it 40-ish years later. Capps’ was very knowledgeable about First People, especially Comanticia & Kiowa cultures!

          When I lived in Wyoming, early 1960’s, our neighbor was an avid hunter and fisherman. Often gave us elk and brook trout grilled cowboy style. Some I liked, others odd to my kiddy palate. Mom wasn’t given fresh meat; told them she’d likely ruin it.

          Pat & Jim Gray. He was USAF security officer. Kids Scott, Sherry & Regina. Good people. If anyone knows them, tell them “Hi!” from Shaunn Lybarger.

          Happy memories. Thanks for the memory boost!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Nice!!! My dad had a small paperback copy of a Woman of the People, which is what he first suggested I read in 4th or 5th grade. I’m so glad he suggested that one first before I dived into Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, etc. I was raised from the get go to know the horrors and bad decisions on many, many fronts, new the not then popular, real story about Sand Creek Massacre, etc., but I really am glad that a Woman of the People was my first reading foray into understanding more fully, and getting a glimpse, without full trauma, of how sad & ugly it all was over so many centuries of colonization etc., from European entities. I doubt my tender hearted, sensitive, sheltered soul would have survived the first deep dive into the full history of such things…. That said, once I moved back to an area with a really great local library and took time to search and order in a bigger variety of older works from other rural libraries in Colorado, I was delighted to read even more of Mr. Capps Works – his non-fiction work on the Warren Wagon Train raid, the background, the motivations, information and history/background of all the main characters and perspectives was highly informative, to me – on both good and bad sides of the whole sorry mess. Woman Chief was good, too, but my overall fave, is still a Woman of the People. I just shared a passage from it with my youngest son (22) this past Sunday. Because it seemed appropo. If you enjoy such types of works, I can also highly recommend “When the Legends Die” by Hal Borland as an interesting and intriguing read about what things looked like in a turn of the century, more modern setting, for those long disenfrachised over and over.

            Thanks for posting your reach out for the Grays – I do not recall ever meeting them, though I live close enough to the area and worked over the years in industries where I may have come into contact with an USAF security officer – 🙂


      • We are, or were, a bit more diverse in what we eat in this country. As a child, as well as lamb/mutton, pork and, more rarely, chicken and beef, we used to eat rabbit and pigeon. We also used to eat bits of animals that were already long out of fashion when I stopped eating meat 25 years ago, like sheep’s heart, liver and tripe.

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  6. Just catching up here!I often think about distances when I am driving or even travelling by plane and how different the world wouldve been in the past when the journey was a whole production in itself. I think we would be more attached to our physical world if we had to power our own way (or a horses way!) through it. Its why I like running I think!Shanks mare.

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