Review by Jordan Claridge
Now more than thirty years old, John Langdon’s Horses, Oxen and Technological Innovation: The Use of Draught Animals in English Farming from 1066 to 1500, still stands as not only one of the most influential historical monographs about horses, but also as a broad window into the economy and society of medieval England.
Langdon’s foray into the world of medieval horses was not through any of the ‘usual’ channels, as he was neither an historian nor an equine enthusiast. Originally trained as a chemical engineer, Langdon abruptly changed careers in his late thirties, moved to England and tried his hand at writing novels. In the course of writing two books set in the Middle Ages, he developed a taste for research and enrolled in the history PhD program at the University of Birmingham. It was at this point that he discovered a significant gap in the historiography of the medieval English economy: scholars such as Lynn White Jr. had long argued for the theoretical advantages that working horses held over oxen, but this had yet to be tested on any scale with historical evidence. In addition, there was still a strong contingent of historians who claimed that the introduction of the horse to English agriculture was basically irrelevant. So, Langdon set out to basically count the numbers of horses and oxen in England from Domesday Book in 1086 to the dawn of the early modern period.
Langdon’s background as an engineer allowed him to tackle this question with a method relatively novel to the field of medieval history at the time. Most economic and social studies of the medieval period were focused relatively narrowly in time and/or space. Some studies would look at a single manor over a long period of time, others would focus on a broader region, or even the whole country, but at a single point, like the Norman invasion in 1066 or the Black Death in 1348. Langdon endeavoured to take a national data sample that covered as much of medieval England as possible and to do this for most of the Middle Ages. Looking back on this from 2018, the amount of work required to assemble his data sample is impressive. This was before the technological advents of digital photography or even Excel spreadsheets. Langdon travelled around the country painstakingly reading medieval Latin manuscripts and tabulating the numbers of horses and oxen by hand.
The results were impressive. Langdon looked closely at the numbers of oxen and horses employed on both demesnes (the lord’s own farm with the manor, as opposed to the lands allocated to his or her peasant tenants) and peasant farms in medieval England. He found that, between the Domesday survey of 1086 and the end of his study in 1500, horses had largely superseded oxen as the choice for animal power both on the roads (as cart animals) and in the fields (as plough beasts). The proportion of working horses increased from about 30 percent in 1086 to over sixty percent by 1500. So, before 1200, oxen were the dominant work animals, and source of kinetic energy, on both farms and roads in England. By the sixteenth century, however, horses had achieved almost total ubiquity in the world of work animals. This had critical implications for the economy of medieval England, as the speed advantage of horses over oxen allowed more work to be done in less time. Horses offered significant premiums over oxen in terms of both speed and power which, in turn, had critical implications for agricultural production, transport and market transactions. The introduction of working horses allowed goods to be transported with greater efficiency while also helping improve agricultural output through increasing the speed at which essential tasks such as ploughing and harrowing could be completed. Improvement across all of these areas, facilitated by the introduction of working horses, was a key ingredient of England’s economic development.
Langdon also found that the change from oxen to horses was not uniform. Especially in the case of plough animals, for example, Norfolk, the Chiltern Hills and eastern Kent embraced all-horse plough teams earlier than any other part of the country. Also, while horses were increasingly employed in tandem with oxen in the midlands and the home counties over the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, many demesnes, especially in the West and North, never made the change and stuck exclusively with oxen for plough work. His long durée approach allows readers to appreciate how the evolving dynamic between horses and oxen existed not in a vacuum, but as one consideration that depended greatly on regional topographies, managerial mentalities and a host of other variables.
As Joan Thirsk had done before him, Langdon likened the medieval horse trade to the more modern car trade; with horses available at almost any price point. With this wide range in prices, cheap draught animals were made available to peasants just as the lower-end used car market does for lower-income people today. This led to another key finding: in medieval England, horses were very much a peasants’ animal. While horses had been expensive and prestigious beasts in the Anglo Saxon world, the taboo of eating horse flesh in England meant that older horses, perhaps nearing the end of their productive working lives, had very little market value. As they could not be fattened and sold for meat, an older horse was basically only worth the few pennies that could be fetched for its hide. However, for less demanding work on a small peasant farm, an older horse could be bought for little money and used for a number of years. The wide adoption of horse power by peasants did much to increase the area in which goods could be both bought and sold, allowing individuals access to previously inaccessible markets and thereby increasing the integration of previously disparate locales.
Alongside water and wind power, working animals were one of three essential sources of energy in the medieval economy. By understanding how England was furnished with this power, Langdon helped unlock key insights into how the medieval economy was able to grow during the crucial period of England’s, and indeed Europe’s, demographic and economic development from ca. 1250 to ca. 1350.