Saturday, March 14, 2015

Review: The Medieval Horse and Its Equipment by John Clark



         John Clark is a curator (now Emeritusat the Museum of London, and as such his book The Medieval Horse and Its Equipment is primarily focused on objects on display at the museum, which are themselves primarily English in origin. What sets Clark’s book apart from similar catalogs is his in-depth analysis of each object. Rather than just the little “where and when” blurb found on each items placard, Clark gives a full account of how each item was found; how it was used; and what implications the usage, motifs, or material have. He also shows examples, where available, of each item in art contemporary to itself, and relates it all to current scholarship. John Clark applies in this way the research of not only Ann Hyland and R.H.C. Davis, the major authors on medieval equines, but also of dozens of scholars in art, archeology, agricultural and military history.          

Because many of the smaller items, such as bits and horse shoes, were found in archeological digs, Clark provides diagrams of the most important sites. With the long and complicated history of horses in England, these help illustrate which items are Roman in origin, which are Saxon, etc. In addition to the assorted bits, spurs, brushes, shoes, and other equine implements, Clark also presents equine skeletons found at theses digs. These corroborate his own and Ann Hyland’s theories regarding the size of the animal that would have worn the shoes, bits, and armor we have available for measurement. Because the size of the medieval “Great Horse” has been the subject of debate for much of the past century, Clark opens his book with this skeletal evidence, and a long historiography on the topic. Clark is very meticulous in all of his reports, and these skeletons are no different. He gives the location where they were found, not only geographically but also whether it was a burial, a trash heap, or a butchers yard. He provides the approximate date they were buried (or otherwise disposed of); and he notes the measurements and what marks the bones carried, such as injuries from weapons, marks of butchery, or “pathologies indicating stress on the joints and back.”[1] Those with weapons marks, of course, are used to support the idea of a much smaller “Great Horse” than that supposed by Davis and other early scholars. Clark also uses the skeletal evidence to touch on a second highly debated topic, hippophagia. By noting the complete absence of butchery marks on horses found in dump sites near London later in the period, Clark can suggest that by the 14th century butchers were not taking old horses for meat near London. Finds further from the city did have butcher marks, but Clark does not posit a theory for these. The third common controversy regarding medieval horses is the role of the stirrup in the rise of ‘feudalism,’ but Clark does not touch on this in his chapter on the stirrup.  This may simply be due to this argument being centered much earlier and in France.




[1] John Clark. The Medieval Horse and its Equipment. (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 2004) 22

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