Friday, March 6, 2015

Review: The Medieval Warhorse: Origin, Development and Redevelopment by R.H.C. Davis

     

       R.H.C. Davis gives a remarkably in depth view of medieval horse breeding and management practices, alongside the more commonly found military applications. He uses an impressive array of sources, including breeding records, letters, law codes, and art. Unfortunately, he often fails to make clear when he transitions from paraphrasing a source to giving his own suppositions on it. Furthermore, he also jumbles time periods with very little organization or warning to the reader. Finally, his work contains several terminological mistakes that make the reader question its validity.  This book remains one of the most complete and respected on medieval horses, and his mistakes are still widely propagated despite newer scholarship.
       The horses of King Henry VIII of England are among the more thoroughly documented pre-modern animals. Davis describes a horse acquired by Henry as “a fine horse of the breed of Isabella”.[1] “Isabella”, in the modern sense, is a term for horses of a pale golden color.  There are many color breeds, and it is reasonable to suppose that proto-breeds[2] were bred along color lines; the ‘black horse of Flanders’ is certainly noteworthy. However, “Isabella” is a color that has changed meanings rapidly over the last two decades due to the advent of genetic testing. It has in the past been used for a number of very different colors, many of which would not “breed true,” i.e. may not reproduce themselves. The mistake of calling palomino[3] (a color still sometimes called Isabella) a breed is still made by novice horseman. It may be that the mistake was in Davis’s source. There is also some conjecture that the Royal Hanoverian Creams, which pulled the English Royal carriages until the 1920’s, where descended from Spanish “Isabella” horses. A few American Champagne breeders claim their unique color comes from the Hanoverian Creams, but the small amount of evidence available seems to contradict this.[4] These horses may have been an unknown mutation, or most likely they were double “pearl” dilutes. This color has only recently been genetically identified, but could breed true. The “isabella” color in Spanish bred and American frontier horses was, after the discovery of the pearl gene, found to often be a case of one pearl gene, and one cream gene. [5] After the discovery of the pearl gene, the term “isabella” has been slowly changing from meaning any “cafĂ© au lait” colored horse (including double pearl, cream pearl, pale palomino, and champagne) to meaning one that is homozygous for the cream dilution. This is a color that would breed true, but up until recently it was considered very undesirable, as it was thought that they were albinos. This meaning for the word ‘isabella’ also was not yet being used when Davis was writing. This color also does not match with any prior description of “isabella” horses, including the Royal Hanoverian Creams, which very specifically did not produce palominos as a double cream would. Davis, who elsewhere gives detailed etymologies and explanations of unusual words in his sources, does not address any of these factors, leaving the reader to wonder what “Isabella” and even “breed” mean in this case.
       Unfortunately, there are other cases where the mistake is not one of possible omission. Most striking among them are grouping trotters with pacers as all being amblers. He writes that some “were pacing horses which…moved both left feet forward, then both right feet…various terms for these horses [include] pacing horses (gradarii), amblers (ambulatorii), or trotters (trottarii).”[6] His use of the original words is exemplary and shows attention to clarity;[7] however, a trotter by definition is not a pacer.[8] There is also some mis-defining of military maneuvers that are still in use today.  In describing the downfall of the “17 or 18 hand”[9] Great Horse, he illustrates the need for horses capable of performing what are now known as the “airs above ground.” He describes the croupade as “jumping off the ground and kicking in mid-air”[10] which is actually a capriole. The capriole he describes as “rising up on the back legs”[11] which could refer to levade (a rear with a low angle) or pesade (more upright). The croupade itself is much like the capriole, however requires that the horse tuck his hind legs in, for greater clearance and protection of his belly, rather than kick out to strike enemies as with the capriole. While there have been some regional and temporal variations – such as whether the front legs should strike in levade (seen in Majorcan dressage), or if this is a different maneuver (as in continental)– the lack of clarity forces us to question the details of Davis’ work. However, it remains a thorough work, and contains an invaluable collection of sources, with great attention to how things can become lost in translation. Davis also provided us with an unprecedented glimpse at the domestic life of the medieval warhorse.




[1] R.H.C. Davis, The Medieval Warhorse: Origin, Development, and Redevelopment (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1989) Page 108
[2] Breed as we define it today is a concept that will not develop until at least a century after Henry VIII.
[3] One copy of the co-dominant cream dilution on chestnut, causing a yellow body with white mane and tail. In the past (and currently in some countries) one of the less desirable “Isabella” phenotypes.
[4] The paintings and few photos available of the RHC horse prior to its dispersal in the 1920’s show clearly dark legs and tails, a trait that does not occur in champagnes, and lack the champagne’s mottled skin. Champagne also appears to be a ‘New World’ mutation.
[5] http://www.horsetesting.com/Equine/Coat_Color/Pearl.asp
[6] Davis, 67
[7] Clarity that most scholars miss: a pacer may be an ambler, but not all amblers need be pacers! Ambler is accepted to mean any non-trotting horse. Davis himself seems to lump them all as pacers (two beat lateral way of moving) despite his attention to different words for their gait.
[8] A trot is a two beat diagonal gait (opposite fore and hind leg move together). A pace is a two beat lateral.
[9] Davis, 69
[10] Davis, 112
[11] Davis, 112

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