#ShelfieSunday: Practical Horsemanship in Medieval Arthurian Romance


Ropa, Anastasija. Practical Horsemanship in Medieval Arthurian Romance. Rewriting Equestrian History Series, vol. 1, Trivent Publishing, 2019. ISSN 2676-8097

Review by Karen Campbell

     Recently, a growing interest in animal studies, posthumanism, and particularly horses and horsemanship has emerged in academia and in medieval academia particularly. Anastasija Ropa, who obtained her Ph.D. from Bangor University, serves as an important cog in the this machine of equestrian studies through her own research on horsemanship and by organizing multiple equine centered conference sessions at the International Medieval Congress held in Leeds, England, since 2016. She has also acted as an editor for various article collections and now offers us a personally authored, concise, and intriguing journey in her book, Practical Horsemanship in Arthurian Romance, which she, appropriately, dedicates to her equine partner Fizz.

     Readers will be pleasantly surprised at how compact yet detailed her description and analyses are throughout the text. The introduction provides a quick review of relevant literature, including recognition of posthuman strains of medieval equestrian theory from noted authors like Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Susan Crane and Arthurian centered equine studies from authors like Sioned Davies. This discussion segues into a description of the need for further study of practical care of horses in medieval romance and particularly the Arthurian tradition and a summary of each of her chapters which range in topic from an interest in the relationship between the horse and a knight’s identity in the texts of Chretien de Troyes (especially the Perceval), the symbolic currency of horse feeding and fasting in the Queste del Sainte Graal, and an exploration of the connection between horses and gender also in the Queste del Saint Graal.

     Chapter 1 delves into the complex relationship between horses and social identity through a brief historical look into the development of the concept of knight, a summary of Chretien’s Perceval, the variety of horses available in Europe to influence identity, and how Perceval’s own exchange of horse, from courser to destrier, symbolizes a new status but also an incomplete shift to knight as he makes a number of chivalric errors still. Posthuman scholars may find discussion of the saddle, armor, and a shift from whip to spurs to control the different kind of horses in terms of the role of technologic influence on identity particularly helpful. The scene where a lady and her horse both are punished for having been kissed by Perceval concludes the chapter.

     Chapter 2 explores the Christian symbolism behind feasting and fasting during the Grail Quest. With a thoughtful condensation of archeological evidence of horse’s dietary practices in the Middle Ages, which should interest experts and lay readers, and the descriptions of physical feeding in romances, Ropa shows how knights and their horses connect even more closely. When the knights feast, the horses do so too; when the knights fast, so do the horses. Some consideration of Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur is also included.

     Chapter 3 may be the most stimulating analysis with its consideration of the function of dirt and dirty horses and the meaning this has for gender roles in the Queste. The female Canterbury Tales characters also play a part in the discussion with the easily recognized Ellesmere portraits included for further illustration. Ropa even elucidates the horses’ frame and body language in these images before exploring the various types of female riders in the Queste and the importance of a sweaty horse to build tension in the plot and symbolize the rush its female rider is in. Ropa’s conclusion then moves readers towards the end of the medieval period and the formalization of horsemanship more as spectacle than as battlefield necessity.

     This text should delight animal studies readers, equine history and literature specialists, and equine enthusiasts with its engaging and original analysis. However, graduate and undergraduate course instructors may find this text helpful to students as an example of thorough and focused literary analysis. Further benefit is provided by the affordable price (€13), the equivalent and easily assigned lengths of chapters averaging only 25 pages, and the multitude of manuscript illuminations included in each chapter (roughly 7 per chapter) further enriching the detailed textual analysis with visual evidence. Overall, this text takes readers on a focused journey into how medieval authors considered the practical aspects of horsemanship and gave them meaning in Arthurian literature and certainly merits the time one might spend enjoying it. 

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