Imperial Star Destriers

With the best will in the world, no movie director, not even Peter Jackson, can show us what a medieval “destrier” or warhorse really looked like and how he behaved. They are extinct. No living person has seen one, any more than he has seen a tyrannosaurus. Not because of any process of natural selection, but because they were carefully bred and trained, and are so no longer. Doubtless present breeds of horse have some destrier in them, but not enough for us to see what they once were; and horses are no longer taught to kill. Even the cavalry horse of the Napoleonic era was not the same thing. For the destrier was a lot more than merely a mount, even a bold and fiery one that actually enjoyed the din of battle. Not only would he charge at a body of armed men, and charge home to contact, which modern horses are most reluctant to do; having gotten to grips with the enemy he would assist his rider by rearing to kick them with his front hooves, bite them, and stomp on anyone lying down. Many a man-at-arms must have successfully defended himself against the lance and sword of a rider, only to have his brains bashed in by the enemy’s horse. I do not know how the destrier identified friend or foe, that is, whether his master designated enemies for him to kick and bite and stomp and when and how to do so, or whether he simply assumed that anyone approaching from the front was fair game. Perhaps no one knows, for, as far as I know, this was not something that any medieval has explained in any document that has come down to us.

The cost of such a remarkable beast needs to be factored into the economics of knighthood. It seems reasonable that he would be very much more expensive than other kinds of horse. Of which, incidentally, the knight had several. Whereas Hollywood must needs be forgiven for not showing us the true destrier, it deserves some censure – which it can most certainly share with neo-Gothic and even contemporary romances and paintings – for showing us knights riding from A to B on their warhorse while wearing full armour. The medieval knight rode a palfrey when not actually fighting, so as to save wear and tear on the destrier; and he would not don his armour any earlier than absolutely necessary, especially in the rain. That is how Robin Hood-type ambushes could work.

Posted on November 11, 2009 at 10:13 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

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