Horses Ex Machina

A few weeks ago, I walked into my Arthurian Legends class prepared to talk about Arthur’s interactions with petitioners at court–male and female. My students had just read Thomas Malory’s “The Tale of Sir Gareth” (in Le Morte Darthur) which offers plenty of material to analyze on this topic. My students, however, wanted to talk about two other things: dwarfs and horses.

For those unfamiliar with Malory’s story, let me give a brief summary: a “Fair Unknown” comes to Arthur’s court, takes on a dangerous quest (after spending a year working in the kitchens and being mocked by Sir Kay), and proves himself by his deeds rather than his name (he is later revealed to be the youngest brother of Sir Gawain). Along the way, he is accompanied by a dwarf who serves as his squire. At one point, the dwarf is kidnapped by those seeking to learn of Gareth’s true identity.

The discussion that followed in our classroom was great–lots of thoughtful commentary on human/animal relationships, object/possessor relationships, and of course, plenty of references to George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (Tyrion Lannister was a favorite point of reference). Several students were quite dismayed at the high fatality rates for horses in Morte Darthur, and the seemingly-endless supply thereof; one student quipped, quite aptly, I think, “Horses ex machina!

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Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 46r

I’ve been exploring for quite some time now human/non-human relationships in medieval literature, thanks in part to Karl Steel’s How to Make a Human (2011), Joyce Salisbury’s The Beast Within (1994/2010), and most recently, Susan Crane’s Animal Encounters (2012). These works, among others, have helped me greatly in thinking about relationships in the medieval Robin Hood ballads as well as within Malory’s “Tale of Sir Gareth.”

Within the context of my Arthurian Legends course, though, students were concerned about how  a questing knight would often ride a horse to death and casually leap onto another. Arthur does this early in his reign while hunting:

As soone as he was in the forest / the kynge sawe a grete hert afore hym / this herte wille I chace said kynge Arthur / And so he spored the hors / and rode after longe / And so by fyne force ofte he was lyke to haue smyten the herte / where as the kynge had chaced the herte soo long that his hors had loste hys brethe and fylle doune dede / Thenne a yoman fette the kynge another hors / So the kyng sawe the herte enbusshed and his hors dede / he sette hym doune by a fontayne and there he fell in grete thoughtes . . . (Book 1, Capitulum xix–Sommers’ edition of Caxton)

Horses are also frequently killed (or severely maimed) during battles, tournaments, and single combat. In that day’s assigned reading, for example, Sir Launcelot encounters Sir Tarquine:

And thēne they put theyr speres in the restys / & cam to gyders with her horses as fast as they myght renne / And eyther smote other in myddes of theyre sheldes that bothe theyre horse backes braste vnder them . . . (Book 6, Capitulum viij–Sommers’ edition of Caxton)

I didn’t have the heart at that point to tell them about what will happen to Sir Launcelot’s poor horse during the later Mellyagraunce episode (think porcupine, but with arrows).

Several students were frustrated with the knights’ attitudes towards horses–that the knights seemed to see their mounts as objects rather than companions that existed merely for their own benefit, that the knight/horse relationship was in no way reciprocal.

I wish I had come across the “Got Medieval” blog’s entry  “On Horses, Getting Back On Them” prior to the discussion in my Arthurian Legends course. Apparently, there exists several marginal images depicting horses reluctant to allow their armed knights to mount them. Horses are pretty intelligent creatures, after all.

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Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 96v

My response to my students was to draw upon Jeffrey Jerome Cohen‘s discussion of horses in his “Chevalerie” chapter in Medieval Identity Machines (2003), specifically his use of Deleuze and Guattari’s assemblage to make the claim that the knight cannot exist without the horse–that the two are fused together in order to create the identity of the knight as a knight. I also told them about an incident during Malory’s “Book of Sir Tristram” (which we had to omit due to lack of time) where Palomides, in a fit of jealousy, deliberately kills Launcelot’s horse. Launcelot, in response, is ready to kill Palomides. Gawain, too, shows great loyalty to his horse Gringolet.

But now, looking back, I wish we had prolonged the discussion. How often will a knight, in the heat of battle, pause to rehorse another knight–sometimes even one whose identity is unknown but whose deeds mark him as worthy? What does this action mean? Does it reinforce the idea that a horse is a piece of property, or is it an acknowledgement of the horse’s importance to the identity of a knight? Is the knight doing the rehorsing thinking of the times he too has lost a horse, a companion, a friend, a comrade-in-arms?

In Book Ten of Morte (still in the adventures of Tristam), King Mark orders Sir Tristram to challenge Sir Lamorak de Galys during a tournament. I find Tristram’s response very interesting:

Syre said sir Tristram ye byd me doo a thynge that is ageynst knyghthode / And wel I can deme that I shal gyue hym a falle / For hit is no maystry / for my hors and I ben fresshe bothe / and so is not his hors and he . . . (Book 10, Capitulum xxxiij–Sommers’ edition of Caxton)

Tristram does not want to fight Sir Lamorak because unlike the latter, he has spent most of the day on the sidelines as an observer. What really interests me, though, is his inclusion of the horses–both his and that of Lamorak–in his consideration. Of course, a weak or injured horse can be a liability, but so too can a weak or injured knight in that he can make errors in judgement that can lead to the horse’s injury or death. But might this be an acknowledgement that horses are more than vehicles for knightly prowess?

Although I’ve loved horses my entire life, I’ve had few up-close encounters with them–as a teenager, my neighbors would allow me to stroke their horses’ noses, and during a semester abroad in college, I took an Equestrian Studies course in England. I’ve always seen intelligence and compassion in the eyes of every horse I’ve met, but I do not know horses as well as I would like.

Cats and dogs, on the other hand . . . I can’t remember a time when I did not have either as a companion, and the majority of my life, I’ve had both. When I first moved to Colorado, our cats remained in Kansas with my spouse for the first month or so, and let me tell you, never has a house felt less like a home.

More recently, following my spinal surgery, my cats were a near constant presence. They snuggled with me to comfort me during the endless pain-filled nights preceding the surgery, and they kept me company afterwards.

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In this picture, the boys are getting ready to duke it out for the heating pad that I had just vacated.

Just now, as I write this, another one of my cats just settled down next to me. Although she’s a little grumpy that my lap is currently occupied by my computer, her body is positioned alongside my thigh and she is purring. I’m sitting on a couch, and there is plenty of room–but right now, she finds comfort in being this close to me. And I have to say that the feeling is mutual.

My cats are a vital part of my family. They are not possessions. Each has such a unique personality and we relate to one another in very different ways.

Growing up, my family always had German Shepherds. One in particular still holds a special place in my heart–Ivory. She was a pure-bred white shepherd, and she accompanied my father and me the first summer that we spent hiking the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina and Tennessee. She was . . . not stupid . . . but sometimes I wondered what was going on in her head. She was the sort to chase anything. A huge black snake, a stag with an impressive rack, a fully-grown black bear. Thank goodness none of these creatures ever bothered to look behind them.

One of my most vivid memories of Ivory took place just north of Damascus, a small city just inside the border of Virginia. The shelter we stayed in that night was in the middle of a forest, and yet, just behind the shelter was a beautiful, small meadow. If you’ve ever seen a fox leaping up into the air and diving down into the snow as it hunts, or if you’ve seen a deer bounding away across a field, then you can imagine how my Ivory pounced. I loved watching her, and she and I spent a good part of that evening chasing each other through that meadow, now lit by the setting sun.

Another memory of Ivory remains. As I noted in an earlier blog post, I liked to . . . well, I liked to take my time while hiking. I liked to look for salamanders under logs. I liked to pause when the forest yielded a panoramic vista of the valleys below. I liked to look at the trees and the plants and the birds, and well, you get the idea. My father, on the other hand, was all business when it came to hiking. Get up and get going. Resting was for after you set up camp at the end of the day. So Ivory got into the habit of traveling between us. Somewhere in Tennessee, the trail crossed a gravel road. For once, I wasn’t very far behind my father, so when I came to the road, I saw my father just beyond, with Ivory in the middle of the road, waiting for me to catch up.

Just then, a pickup truck filled with young men came roaring down the road.

To my horror, Ivory just stood there, unsure of which one of us to run to.

When the driver of the truck saw Ivory in the middle of the road, he sped up.

Thankfully, Ivory ran to me just in time. My dad, furious, screamed at the departing truck, throwing rocks at them. The people in the truck kept going, and we, terribly shaken, left the road for the safety of the forest. Although I did not let any physical distance build up between us, my dad spoke very little to me the rest of the day.

Losing Ivory would have been the same as losing a friend, a sibling, a parent.

Medieval theologians for the most part did not question whether or not non-human animals had souls; for many, the possession of a soul was unique to humans. There were a few who did not accept this; Thomas Aquinas, for example, argued that an animal’s soul dissolved upon the moment of death while Adelard of Bath noted that because animals “have sensation and the judgement to desire or avoid things” (Kathleen Walker-Meikle, Medieval Pets 2), they must possess souls.

I know where I stand on the question. There’s no doubt in my mind that they do.

Of course, we must be careful lest we impose our modern perceptions on the medieval period, but this is where Susan Crane’s excellent book Animal Encounters has helped my thinking–specifically her first chapter which discusses the Irish poem “Pangur Bán” in order to break down the distinction between human and non-human. In fact, here’s the image from the cover of her book:

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From the Rochester Bestiary, England, c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 42v

I love this image. When I first saw it, I thought the horses were hugging (and thankfully, I’m not the only person to have thought this–in fact, the Medieval manuscripts blog at the British Library has composed an entry to clarify the issue here). The horses are, like the two knights alongside them, engaged in combat. If horses were indeed dumb beasts, mere vehicles to their knights, wouldn’t they, when their riders alight, stand passively by (or, overwhelmed by the noise of battle, run away)? Horses have a long history of being trained for battle–of learning to strike out at enemies with their hooves–but it’s my understanding that they do so only as a result of specific instructions given to them by their riders.

Why, then, do these two horses fight? Might it be, as the Medieval manuscripts blog suggests, drawing upon entries in medieval bestiaries, out of a sense of loyalty to their knights? The parallelism in the positions of the horses relative to the knights is striking; the feet of the knight/horse on the left is just slightly raised in comparison to the knight/horse on the right, and the arm/head and front leg of the knight/horse on the left falls between the viewer and the body of the knight/horse on the right. If the horse fights, out of loyalty (as opposed to a result of its training), this suggests to me more of a partnership.

But I’ve rambled on for long enough. Let me close with this final image, from one of the Reynard the Fox manuscripts; here Tybalt the “Prince of Cats” taunts Reynard as he rides off on a horse.

Go give your furry friend some love, will ya?

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Roman de Renart; Paris, BnF, Fr. MS 12584, fol. 63r

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