#Shelfie Sunday: Horses, Oxen and Technological Innovation: The Use of Draught Animals in English Farming from 1066 to 1500

Horses, Oxen and Technological InnovationJohn Langdon, Horses, Oxen and Technological Innovation: The Use of Draught Animals in English Farming from 1066 to 1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

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.

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#ShelfieSunday: ‘A plaine and easie waie to remedie a horse’: Equine Medicine in Early Modern England

Louise Hill Curth, ‘A plaine and easie waie to remedie a horse’: Equine Medicine in Early Modern England (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

'A plaine and easie waie to remedie a horse'Review by Janice Gunther Martin

Louise Hill Curth’s ‘A plaine and easie waie to remedie a horse’: Equine Medicine in Early Modern England is the first modern study in English of early modern equine medicine. It follows from Curth’s earlier scholarship examining early modern veterinary medicine in general.She applies current methodologies in the history of medicine to her subject; in particular, instead of dismissing past medical ideas and practices as barbaric and ignorant, she seeks to understand them on their own terms. Though the ideas and practices in this book might be unfamiliar to those outside the fields of the history of science and medicine, the clarity of writing makes the material accessible and interesting to non-specialists.

The book begins with an overview of ancient and medieval equine medicine before turning to the structure of equine medical practice in early modern England. Medical historians sometimes apply the term “medical marketplace” to describe the multiplicity of healing options available to people in this period. Curth extended the concept to animal healing in a 2002 article in which she coined the term “veterinary marketplace,” which she continues to use here.2 She accordingly explores the different people charged with equine upkeep and healing, including members of the London Company of Farriers, horse-leeches, and servants. The book’s main chronological scope ends with the institutionalization of veterinary education in England with the founding of the Royal Veterinary College in 1791.

Her exploration of early modern medicine on its own terms is evident in the book’s middle chapters on medical beliefs and practices. Like other recent scholars, she attends to the connections between astrology and medicine in this period and the logic thereof. Due to the importance of the “non-naturals” for preventing ailments in early modern medical theory, she explains how these factors applied to advice about horses. These included issues like air (by extension, the general environment), diet, and exercise. The book also provides an overview of the diagnosis and treatment of ailments, including pharmaceutical remedies and surgery. It concludes with two chapters on the dissemination of equine medical information through oral, manuscript, and printed means.

Curth writes that her purpose is to “open up a new area of academic interest and study” in the “virtually unexplored area” of the history of early modern veterinary medicine (p. 6). Indeed, the book contains many fascinating details about past equine medical care, such as advice about stable construction, the commercialization of equine medications, and the connections between bloodletting and astrology. It accordingly prompts many questions for further research, facilitated by Curth’s clarity regarding her source base. For instance, the seventh chapter “Oral and Manuscript Culture” includes summaries of household manuscript collections containing horse remedies digitized by the Wellcome Library. She offers some comparisons between these household books and printed remedies; additional research using such manuscript evidence will hopefully provide more clues about the most common equine ailments, the cures used in practice, and their relationship to treatments in printed sources.

In addition, the book invites further investigation about the similarities and differences between human and equine ailments and treatments in this period, especially since Curth relates her work to the “One Medicine” movement (more recently coined “One Health”). This initiative seeks to promote collaboration between researchers across medical and ecological disciplines, in part to better understand the relationship between human and animal health and the environment. Historians like Curth have shown that past medical cultures (like that of early modern England) did not exhibit as sharp a divide between human and animal medicine as exists today, and operated with a more holistic concept of medicine.

Curth’s book is a helpful and engaging overview of early modern English equine care for specialists and non-specialists alike, and provides an important framework and foundation for further research.

1 See especially Louise Hill Curth, The Care of Brute Beasts: A Social and Cultural Study of Veterinary Medicine in Early Modern England (Leiden: Brill, 2010).

Curth, “The Care of the Brute Beast: Animals and the Seventeenth-Century Medical Market-place,” Social History of Medicine 15, no. 3 (December 2002): 375-392. https://doi.org/10.1093/shm/15.3.375.

#SourceSaturday: Veterinary Medicine Historical Collection, Michigan State University

By Janice Gunther Martin

The Veterinary Medicine Historical Collection at Michigan State University contains bountiful resources for anyone interested in the history of equine medicine, along with veterinary medicine in general. The collection includes over 1,400 manuscripts and books, dating as far back as the fifteenth century, making it one of the largest collections of its kind in the United States.

Equine-related works are especially well-represented in the Collection. It mainly focuses on books published or written before 1800, with particular strength in eighteenth-century British texts. Highlights include:

  • A fifteenth-century manuscript of Giordano Ruffo’s Libro marischalcie equorum;
  • The only known first edition of Francisco de la Reyna’s Libro de albeyteria (1547);
  • The first illustrated edition of Marcus Fugger’s Von der Gestüterey (1584), on horse breeding.

You can see more examples from the collection in their online exhibit “The History of Equine Anatomy in Veterinary Medicine.”

The Veterinary Medicine Historical Collection is housed in MSU’s Special Collections, recently renovated and in the main library on campus. A partial catalogue of the Collection is available online, also available in PDF form; for all holdings, see the MSU Library Catalogue. It is possible to register and request works to examine before your visit. They are open nearly every day of the week during the academic year.

For more information:

Michigan State Special Collections, East Lansing, MI

Staff Directory

Hours

Francisco de la Reyna, Libro de albeyteria, 1547

Carlo Ruini, Dell’ anotomia et dell’ infirmita del cavallo, 1598


Georg Simon Winter, Trattato nuovo … del far la razza di cavalli, 1672

 

The Compleat Horse Doctor, 17__?

Horses & Courts Recap

By Kathryn Renton

     “Horses and Courts,” an international symposium, focused scholarly attention on the striking use of the horse at monarchical courts for public display and private power brokering, primarily from the fifteenth to nineteenth century. Conference organizers Donna Landry (University of Kent’s Centre for Studies in the Long Eighteenth Century) and Philip Mansel (Society for Court Studies) brought together an intersection of presenters and attendees from the EU, UK, and US, hosted by The Wallace Collection, for a series of more than 30 complementary presentations over the three-day congress.  

 800px-Reiter_(Jacopo_Bellini)    Tobias Capwell, (Curator of Arms and Amor, The Wallace Collection) set the stage in his presentation by emphasizing the essential crossover between artistry and practicality in courtly equine pursuits. The rarity of extant saddles, for example, owes to their use and re-use.  While armor transformed the man and horse, even into fantastical creatures for theatrical mounting the horse exposed the rider to risk rather than merely the pretense of it.  Several presentations demonstrated the practical use of horses in negotiations over exile, inheritance, and diplomatic encounters.  These power plays had multi-faceted extensions in the rich display of carousels, venery or hunting, pas d’armes, royal entrances, and racing. The eminent visibility of participating in these events also found its historical counterweight in a panel on the female rider or ‘Amazon.’  Despite the long-term shift in values from “haut école” to English horsemanship noted by several presentations, the arranged tours of the Royal Mews and Household Cavalry demonstrated the continued relevance of horses and court politics. A strong representation of English, French and Spanish courts did not preclude the presentation of equal emphasis on horses in the courts of Denmark, Sweden, and the Habsburg territories further east, and the shared riding masters and stud horses demonstrated the interconnectedness of the same courts. Presentations also included Algeria, South Africa, and India, and this global reach raises the possibility of “Horse and Empire” as a fruitful theme for a subsequent symposium. Plans are underway for equine congresses in Vienna and Chantilly, as well as the EHC Conference in California at the end of this year.

Review livetweets by @NicoleMennell, and the #HorsePower2018 on twitter.
     Nicole Mennell is a CHASE-funded doctoral candidate within the Centre for Early Modern and Medieval Studies at the University of Sussex. Her thesis, ‘Shakespeare’s Sovereign Beasts: Political Discourse and Human-Animal Relations in Early Modern Drama’, explores the connections made between figures of sovereignty and animals in early modern drama. Nicole’s chapter, ‘“The Dignity of Mankind”: Edward Tyson’s Anatomie of a Pygmy and the Ape-Man Boundary’ was recently published in the edited collection Seeing Animals After Derrida (2018). She also has a forthcoming chapter on Shakespeare’s lions in The Routledge Handbook of Shakespeare and Animals.

Image: Bellini’s drawing of a monstrous chaffron. Louvre, Cabinet des Dessins