The horses, a major factor in medieval life, its way into medieval art in its various manifestations: in manuscript illuminations and sculptures, in tapestries and frescoes, in metalwork and household objects, horses, real and imaginary, ridden and free, are ubiquitous. Moreover, art was also an integral part of equestrian culture – although horse harness and equipment were usually plain and functional, some of the surviving objects are lavishly decorated. Finally, at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Early Modern period, riding itself became an art, performed and orchestrated, so that it evolved into a spectacle known today as dressage.
Can we ignore this wealth of evidence when approaching horse history? Can we ignore the presence of horses when studying medieval art?
The question is whether art can reveal aspects of medieval horsemanship that would have otherwise remained hidden from sight. And, looking from another vantage point, can awareness of equestrian history enhance our understanding and appreciation of horse-related works of art in ways that would not have been accessible otherwise?
Certainly, people in the Middle Ages had better practical knowledge of horses than most people do today. Even those who have experience of riding or handling horses today cannot boast of the same insight into the daily maintenance, care and employment of horses as did medieval knights or horse-owning farmers, for instance. In this sense, we can never view medieval art through the ‘eyes’ of a medieval observer. Yet, by being aware of the importance of horses in medieval society and aspects of handling horses in the Middle Ages and today, we can see horse images and decorated horse equipment from novel, unprecedented standpoints.
Another question remains: can art reveal us something about horses that we would not have discovered by other means? This question may be of less interest to an art historian, but it is here that an art historian’s critical eye is indispensable. Guesses and assumptions have all too often been made – and continue to be made – about medieval life, based on artistic evidence taken in isolation or when a theory is ‘read into’ artistic evidence.
We forget that medieval artists may have had other objectives than depicting realities, including details of equestrian culture, with painstaking precision. Even when they did, we cannot presume that artists were experts on horsemanship, at least not on all of its aspects. A notorious example of artistic misrepresentation is the depiction of working horses in the Luttrell Psalter, where working horses are drawn in bridles with curb bits. Curb bits, complicated pieces of engineering with action more severe than snaffle bits, are far less common than the latter in medieval archaeological finds. Moreover, curb bits are unlikely to have been used for agricultural works – a detail with which the Luttrell Psalter artist seems blithely unconcerned.
At the same time, art is the only possibility to see medieval life – and medieval horses – as they were seen by contemporaries, at least the artists who depicted them. So is the underlying assumption when historian use artistic evidence to illustrate their discussion. Unfortunately, we forget that, just as reading medieval manuscripts requires a background in paleography, so ‘reading’ artistic ‘texts’ requires a certain set of skills, too. We cannot ‘read’ medieval images as of they had been self-contained, self-evident works. Still, art is indispensable for reconstructing the practicalities of medieval equestrianism.
I would like to conclude with this paradox, inviting closer collaboration between horse historians and art historians. While horse historians need to remember to use art sources with due caution, art historians would benefit from paying more attention to the appearance of horses in their source materials.
Horse history, a still small but growing field, requires multidisciplinary collaboration: this was the idea behind organizing thematic sessions on the horse and medieval equestrianism at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds. A considerable number of the papers to be presented at the four sessions and round table that will take place in 2018 (see Horse sessions IMC 2018 – poster) will involve working with artistic sources or analyzing decorated horse equipment.