Knights and destriers: representations and symbolism of the medieval warhorse in medieval art
The horse is a common figure in medieval art. This is especially the case within the context of military representations, among which one often finds the figure of the knight riding his noble steed. Indeed, the horse cannot be dissociated from knighthood, a new military form of nobility that arose in the eleventh century. Yet, at its beginning, chivalry represented above all a function: knights were elite horse-riding warriors who subsequently elaborated ethical rules for themselves that became the framework of their identity. Their warhorses played a crucial part in this.
Unlike today, husbandry in the Middle Ages largely ignored specific breeds of horses. Horses were designated with regards to their geographical origin or their function, the latter according to their natural qualities or their training. For example, the palfrey was a costly civilian horse capable of a marching amble, a more comfortable gait for travelling. But the most expensive horse in the medieval stable was the destrier, or great horse, the stallion trained for war and tournament. Physically, the perfect destrier was tall (the tallest of medieval horses, between 1.50 and 1.60 metres) with thin legs but a compact and muscular body.
The word destrier, meaning “right handed”, seems to appear in Old French texts at the beginning of the twelfth century, with the spread of the most well-known knightly form of combat: the charge with a couched lance. This technique, first observed among the Norman riders on the Bayeux tapestry, consists of holding a lance under the right armpit, and passing it over the horse’s neck, on its left side (protected by the great shield) in order to hit another fighter on the knight’s left; and all of this on the back of a galloping horse (Gillmor, ed. 1992, p. 15). It could deliver a powerful blow (even piercing chain mail armour), but the charge was also meant to disorganise the enemy’s ranks and to have a pronounced psychological impact upon them.
The use of the horse was essential to the use of the lance, for the power of its impact is determined by its speed and its strength; the rider’s job consisting in maintaining the correct position, controlling the horse and aiming at his opponent. This was very difficult and required extensive training from childhood and could only be practiced efficiently by those who had the time and money to afford such training. Warhorses likewise required special training. First, they needed to become acclimatized to the sounds and violence of combat. Secondly, for the couched lance technique, they had to accept running directly towards another rider (a rather unnatural thing for a horse), while also galloping on the right lead for the meeting. Indeed, the gallop is an asymmetrical gait, and by galloping on the right lead (the right front leg advancing and touching the ground in a forward direction to a greater extent than the left one, used by the animal to keep its balance in curves), it could compensate for an impact coming from its left. This special training may be an explanation for the name destrier (literally “right-handed horse”).
Because the momentum of the moving horse actually gave the blow its power, it also had to learn both to push, and to absorb the blow given to its rider. Warhorses were selected to be tall, fast, manoeuvrable and strong enough to both give and receive blows. That is why the lance, until the very end of the practice of chivalry, remained the most knightly of weapons; because only a knight with long practice on a costly trained horse could use it efficiently.
All of these technical explanations are important for understanding the relationship between these horses and the creation of the notion of chivalry, and why the warhorse was considered to be the knight’s true double in representations (both pictorial and literary).
Several examples of the symbolic treatment of warhorses may be seen in King René’s Book of Tournaments, illustrated by Barthélémy d’Eyck (Fig. 1). One such instance is the image depicting the participants’ official entry into town just before the tournament. Part of this official ceremony is the warhorses’ parade, which precedes the knights’ entry. A big black destrier, wearing Brittany’s colours, is ridden (as René says) by a “very small page”, certainly for the purpose of visually increasing the beast’s stature. It is followed by musicians and then the duke of Brittany and his knights. These figures are not riding warhorses but palfreys who were shorter in stature. Indeed, they never employed the warhorse for travelling to the tournament or the battlefield in order to preserve its strength for combat (and also because palfreys and civilian saddles were more comfortable for travelling). Parading these horses without their noble riders gave these animals particularly high distinction and allow the audience to appreciate their qualities. René was a well-known horse-lover explaining why this practice held his attention.
If the destriers’ parade has an important place in René’s treatise, it is also because they became, with the rise of chivalry, a strong element in the identity of this military social class. A warhorse was expensive both to buy and to keep, and if we add its exceptional size and its special training, it represented a luxury that a man was proud to display in public, both in reality and in artistic representations.
An illustration from the Westminster psalter, dated to about 1250 (Fig. 2), shows a knight kneeling in front of a king. He is depicted with all the attributes of his class: full military equipment of the latest fashion (chain mail covering the whole body, a sword, lance, helm, and spurs) and with his warhorse behind him. Thus, the latter is really considered to be part of the knight’s iconography (this image representing not a real knight but the perfect ideal of a knight). Moreover, the knight rises above other men on his warhorse, confirming in this way his social superiority. In his Book of the Order of Chivalry written in 1275, Ramon Llul, describing the symbolism of every piece of the knight’s equipment, says clearly about the warhorse: “The horse is given to the knight to signify the nobility of courage so that he may be mounted higher than other men” (Lulle, ed. 1990, p. 58). By extension, the knight on his horse was also a symbol of pride and vanity in medieval iconography. On Conques Abbey’s great tympanum (France), representing the Last Judgement, in Hell the knight guilty of pride is violently pulled down from his horse by a demon (Fig. 3).
For knights, war, and above all the tournament were avenues for showing off nobility and power. The beauty of the warhorse, often praised in song in romances and chansons de geste, was part of this display. Beside the horse’s own beauty, finery and rich equipment were used to increased its splendour, and through that, the rider’s own prestige. When their owners could afford it, these horses were adorned with a rich tack and precious fabric comprising the long caparisons covering the animal from head to feet, represented on many medieval images. Appearing in the middle of the thirteenth century, the primary use of these caparisons is still not known: perhaps either a protection against sun or bad weather or an imitation of Saracen trappings encountered during crusades or in Spain? In any case, even if the caparisons depicted in the Maciejowski Bible (Fig. 4) are still plain, in the second half of the century they became the favoured objects where heraldry could be displayed.
The coat of arms was a means of recognition for knights, both on the battlefield and during tournaments, and because the shield’s size decreased around 1200 due to advances in armour technology, displaying one’s coat of arms on one’s horse was an excellent way to be seen and identified from a long distance. Unfortunately, these gorgeous pieces of fabric are only known today through artistic representations, even if some fragments preserved in museums are thought to once have been parts of horse caparisons. Such is the fourteenth-century embroidery preserved in the Musée de Cluny in Paris (Fig. 5), probably made for Edward III, which shows the royal arms of England. It provides good example of the precious pieces of fabric warhorses were sometime adorned with.
During combat, however, the destrier was very exposed to injuries and from the twelfth century onwards numerous images showing different types of horse armour reveal a special attention to its protection. Indeed, the animal was so costly that fighters even tried to preserve their opponents’ mounts, hoping to catch them and keep them for themselves. During tournaments it was forbidden–and with harsh punishments for people who broke this rule–to hurt them on purpose. Over and above matters of expense, however, riding an injured horse or having it killed during battle was very dangerous for the knight. He could lose control of his animal or have to fight on foot, where his equipment was less advantageous and his life more at risk.
Between the twelfth and the end of the fourteenth century chain mail constituted the main type of armour for warhorses. It had the advantage of being supple, but the disadvantage of being heavy for the animal. The manufacture of this form of protection was time-consuming and costly, especially in the amounts needed to cover the body of a horse. Therefore, only the wealthiest knights could afford it, and like rich fabric it could also serve as a display of wealth and power amongst the knights themselves.
From the late thirteenth century onwards, horse armour saw the addition of rigid parts, made with leather and then metal, especially on the head and neck, the body parts most exposed to injuries struck by other riders. From the fifteenth century onwards, fully rigid horse armour was used to protect the entire body, even if armourers were never able to find a way to protect the legs, vulnerable against attack by footsoldiers, without restraining the movement of the horse.
Nevertheless, Lorenz Helmschmid, Emperor Maximilian I’s great armourer, seems to have created several fully articulated bards for horses around 1500 which included protective gear for the legs. These, however, were more masterpieces by the armourer rather than truly functional defences, and they remained prototypes. The silver presentation coins (Doppelguldiner) struck from 1508 onwards to celebrate Maximilian’s coronation as emperor, show him with a horse in such horse armour (Fig. 6). Useless in combat (a horse could barely walk with it), this incredible piece could have been displayed in parades or pageants, where such equipment would have gardered the amazement of the assembled crowds It was also a way for Maximilian to tell people that he had in his armoury a person capable of doing what nobody had done before, and to thereby demonstrate his power.
Representations of the medieval warhorse tell us about the technical and symbolic role of this animal in chivalric society. This animal was an absolute symbol of a class that, in the last centuries of the Middle Ages, justified its social domination through elitist practice and a real mise-en-scene of horse combat, in actual fact more often in tournaments than on the battlefield. During these feasts, fully armoured and on the back of destriers covered with gold and rich fabric, knights gave their peers and other people in the audience a transcendent image of themselves that then was easily reproduced in art. Without any doubt these amazing images are responsible for the place still held by the proud knight on his prancing warhorse in the popular mental image of knighthood in the Middle Ages.
- Lulle, R. (trans. by B. Hapel 1990), Le livre de l’ordre de chevalerie. Paris: Guy Trédaniel
- René d’Anjou, (ed. by F. Avril 2010), Le Livre des Tournois du Roi René de la Bibliothèque nationale. Paris: Herscher.
- Gillmor, C. 1992, “Practical Chivalry. The Training of Horses for Tournaments and Warfare,” Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, n.s. 13: 5-29.
- Pyhrr, S. 2005, The Armored Horse in Europe, 1480-1620. New York: The Metropolitan museum of Art/Yale University Press.
- Thompson, K. R. 2007, “Le voyage du Centaure: la monte à la lance en Espagne (XVIe-XXIe siècle),” in A cheval! Ecuyers, amazones et cavaliers du XIVe au XXIe siècle. Edited by Roche, D. and Reytier D., 195-209. Paris: Association pour l’académie de spectacle équestre de Versailles.
Marina Viallon is an art historian specializing in Medieval and Early Modern arms and armour. She obtained her first degree and a Master’s in Museum Studies at the École du Louvre and then a second Master’s degree in Medieval Studies at the University of Leeds. In 2013-2014, she worked as curatorial assistant at the Arms and Armour department of the Musée de l’Armée (Paris). Her main field of research concerns chivalric society and its representations and ceremonials. She is particularly interested by the use, the equipment and the place of the warhorse during medieval and Early Modern times.