We touched earlier on some of the costs involved in keeping a horse in the Middle Ages. In the fourteenth century, as now, farrier’s bills made up quite a bit of that cost.
Farriers did many things that were necessary for horses. Their activities included making horseshoes and nails (although blacksmiths could also do this); giving advice to customers about buying and caring for horses; looking after sick horses and shoeing horses. If they had a seal, it usually showed horseshoes, hammers or nails, or various combinations of these items.
The fourteenth-century farrier was known as a marshal. You might have come across the word in the context of the Earl Marshal, who was the king’s leading military man, or you might have heard of William (the) Marshal, the right-hand man to three successive kings of England. The Earl Marshal was originally the keeper of the king’s horses, but the position evolved over time.
Marshals knew how to care for sick horses. In London, at least, they were distinct from blacksmiths and had their own guild, although there was tension between the two trades, as blacksmiths were also able to make shoes and to shoe horses.
Farriers sometimes had their anvils in the street, in the hope of catching passing trade, which made them a bit of a nuisance. They often used a travis to restrain horses while they were being shoed or cared for when sick. This was an open wooden frame with bars to which the horse’s leg could be secured while the farrier was working on it. There’s a small picture of one in a manuscript illustration here. It’s on the bottom left.
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.
Last week we looked at the different types of horses that were used in the fourteenth century; this week we’re going to look at what they cost, both to buy and to keep. Before I started looking into it, I assumed that more or less everyone had a horse, but that seems not to have been the case. Owning a horse then, as now, was an expensive business and you only had a horse if you needed one. If you lived in a town and rarely left it, you probably didn’t own a horse. Even if you had land to plough, you might not have a horse, as oxen were used for agricultural work for most of the century.
As a way of understanding the cost of buying and keeping a horse, I’m going to relate it to the daily wage of a skilled labourer, which was about 4d (four pennies). When we do some sums later, we must remember that a labourer would not work every day. Sunday was a rest day and there were frequent religious festivals on which no one worked.
We’ll start at the bottom and work our way up. A sumpter was a pack horse and cost anywhere between 5 and 10 shillings to buy. There were 12 pennies in a shilling, so a basic pack horse would cost our labourer 15 days’ wages. A top of the range one would cost 30 days. So, if our skilled labourer’s trade meant that he needed to transport heavy tools or goods, he could probably afford to buy a horse to carry them for him. Whether or not he could afford to keep it once he had it is another matter and we’ll come on to that later.
An ordinary riding horse (a hackney or a rouncey) cost from £3 to £10. There were 20 shillings in a pound, so a £3 horse would cost 180 days’ wages, which would take more than six months to earn. Our skilled labourer was unlikely to be able afford a horse of this kind and would have had to make do with riding his sumpter. He would equally have been unable to afford a palfrey for his wife to ride, as they cost £4 or £5.
Coursers were used for hunting and they cost about £10. Only the wealthy and people who worked for them hunted on horseback, so this was well beyond the reach of the skilled labourer. For the sake of comparison, though, it would cost him 600 days’ wages.
Destriers, the highly-trained warhorses, cost around £40, but there are records of some being bought for £80 and more. In 1331 Edward III paid £120 for one. In 1377 his grandson, Richard II, rode a charger worth £200 to his coronation. We’re beyond the realm of our skilled labourer, here, but a horse of £40 would have cost him 2,400 days’ work. That’s six and a half years if he worked every day including holidays. Interestingly, £40 was a year’s income for many knights, so a horse was a big investment even for them. They needed more than one, though. When they went on campaign, it was normal to take four warhorses and a knight would also need an ordinary riding horse and pack horses. Buying a horse was just the start, though.
Horses were expensive to keep as well as to buy. They ate the unattractively-named horse bread, which was made just from beans and peas. It cost ½d a loaf. Hay for one day cost another 2d. Oats cost up to 5½d a bushel. At the beginning of the fourteenth century feeding and stabling a good horse would cost its owner between 6¼d and 7½d per day. Even allowing that our skilled labourer wouldn’t have had a good horse, feeding it would take up a fair amount of his income. His costs wouldn’t end there, though.
In order to ride a horse, you need a saddle. That would be about 5 shillings. A halter would be from 6d to 12d and spurs cost about 2 shillings.
On top of that, horses require a lot of care. A set of shoes cost from 6d to 8d. Their feet have to be looked after by removing the shoes and cutting the hooves. Then the shoes have to be put on again. All of this cost 2d. I don’t know how often it was done in the fourteenth century, but it’s done about once every six weeks these days.
Horses also got sick and needed specialist care and medicine. Given their cost, owners were going to go to a lot of effort and expense to keep them alive.
There was an alternative to owning a horse if you didn’t need one very often. They could be hired. If you wanted to hire a horse to go from London to Canterbury, if you were a pilgrim, for example, it would cost 2 shillings. If you wanted to go from London to Dover, probably with the intention of going on to Calais, it would cost 2 shillings and 6d. It’s 55 miles from Southwark, where they would have started from, to Canterbury and 70 to Dover. It’s still a week’s wages, more or less, for our skilled labourer, but it’s a lot cheaper than owning a horse.