Thursday, April 20, 2006
A post where I get all medieval on someone's ass.
First, I love horses, history, and the history of horses.
Second, I am willing, most of the time, to set aside my admittedly arcane knowledge when watching practically anything on a screen where horses are shown. I've worked with trained horses in performance, and I *get it* that most people in the audience aren't going to notice that there's one horse for rearing, one horse for riding, one horse for standing, and one horse for whuffling gentle horsie kisses in the hero's ear. I see every individual horse change (especially if the script demands a pinto--what a disaster), but I go along with the construct because I understand totally and completely that this is the easiest way to get the story on film. (Sometimes it makes me giggle, but OK.)
Third, I understand that we are now stuck with modern day horses and tack whenever anyone tries to represent history. I see the glitter of stainless steel bits and stirrups on low budget films all the time, and, you know, it doesn't bother me anymore. Fred, the horse wrangler, needed his horses to go a certain way, and that's easier done with modern tack. No prob.
However, this all becomes much more difficult when a movie is presented as representing "true history." Like, ahem, King Arthur. (Which I kind of liked, except for the fact that they made a BIG DEAL about Arthur bringing us mounted knights from the Caucasus.)
Arthurian Mounted knights, a la Bruckheimer:
Except that the last picture is from the Bayeux Tapestry showing the battle of 1066, and the movie King Arthur is supposed to take place in 452 (plus fifteen years).
Em, boys, your horses are too big, and some look like Andalusians to me. The movie says that King Arthur's knights are Samartians, nomadic mounted tribes from Northern Central Europe (Black and Caspian Seas). And the Samartians, according to the movie, have these very horses before they left for Britain. Wrong! If we are going to focus on horses as a central theme in Arthur's power, then can we get the horses right? (Here's a tip for those of you not used to looking carefully at horses--check out where the rider's knee and toes are on these horses.)
Throughout most of mounted history great warriors are shown riding what we would call ponies. You can see them on the Bayeux Tapestry, you can see them on Roman coins, you can see them on the frieze at Persepolis. Surely all the artists before the Late Middle Ages aren't wrong. A Roman coin
So what were the Samartians riding in 452 AD? In the Near East, Arabia, Syria, Africa, and probably into Persia, you have "hot bloods." These are Arabians, possibly Akal-Tekes, and Barbs. (Barbs don't really exist anymore as a pure horse, but we can get a sense of what they looked like.) There were heavy draft horses on the British Isles and in some areas of Northern Europe. And everywhere there were horses, there were ponies. Chinese ponies, Persian ponies, French ponies, Spanish ponies, Irish ponies, etc.
So either the Samartians were using some sort of native pony or an ancestor to the Akal-Teke.
A Tarpan Pony
I know this may not be what you wanted to hear, but it's just the facts. Heavy horses aren't FROM the Caucasus. Heavy horses are from Northern Europe.
Heavy horses were mostly used as pack horses and sometimes were attached to carts, but they weren't that useful as "draft" animals until the Europeans discovered the horse collar in around 750 AD. Carts were pulled by oxen, light loads were pulled by dog or donkey. Mostly horses were used as pack animals (like camels). Or they were used in war for their speed--not necessarily their height. Once you get the horse into a horse collar, THEN you use them for pulling loads. Then it becomes important that they are tall and muscular. (Or close to the ground and muscular--depends on what you're pulling.)
A modern breed showing off his collar.
Horse collar leads to plowing, plowing eventually gets you to three crop rotations (although it takes another 200 years), crop rotation leads you to villages and fences, fences lead you to separation and selective breeding for specific agricultural purposes, selective breeding gets you to the extreme "heavy horse" or "light draft" warhorse we'd like to see our heros on. Now we're in about the 11th or 12th century. So the war nobility must be finally riding the big thundering horses, now that we've got the horse collar, room and time to develop breeds? Right? Eh. No. Sorry. Battle of 1066 still puts the most elite horsemen on ponies.
This is a renaissance model.
This is an 11th century model.
Turns out all that breeding for war takes another few centuries--and that gets you to the early Renaissance. Look at the horse Benozzo Gozzoli puts at the front of the Procession of the Magi:
A 1459 model. (Look familiar?)
So, finally, I understand that everytime I see a medieval knight, I will, of course see a Renaissance or modern horse. It doesn't bother me. I understand it as a movie convention. To my mind it still looks just as wrong as if Wyatt Earp were to ride into town on a Ford Mustang GT, but I willingly suspend disbelief to get on with the story. Modern breeds are what Fred the horse wrangler has available, and people expect to see heroic knights on mid-Renaissance horses. Got it.
What bothered me about this movie experience was the "idea" that this King Arthur was going to present the "true story" of 470 AD Britain, and the central characters are tooling around in the equivalent of Porche 911s.
Voice over: And here in this land of our fathers, the Samartians brought forth the V-8 engine, automatic transmission, dual-leaf suspension, and invented the mounted knight.
That, and Ioan didn't get enough lines.
International Museum of the Horse