Polish Netflix has recently produced widely acclaimed comedy series entitled “1670”, satirically presenting contemporary Polish society in historical costume of the seventeenth century (trailer in English is available HERE). Opening, however, is a compilation of artworks that do not date back to the 17th century, but have been taken from various medieval manuscripts. About some of them you can read in the earlier posts on my blog (check out “The Forbidden Fruit Tastes the Sweetest” and “Trumpet at Rear End”). Today I want to focus on the ones depicting horses.
The title of this post may seem weird to you – it is a translation of a very famous Polish sentence “Koń, jaki jest, każdy widzi” (“What a horse is like, anyone can see”). It comes from an old Polish encyclopedia, compiled in the 18th century by father Benedykt Chmielowski, entitled „Nowe Ateny. Albo Akademia wszelkiey scyencyi pełna, na różne tytuły iak na classes podzielona, mądrym dla memoryału, idiotom dla nauki, politykom dla praktyki, melancholikom dla rozrywki erygowana” („The New Athens. Or the Academy Full of Any Knowledge, Divided Into Various Titles as if Into Classes, for the Clever to Remember, for the Idiots to Learn, for the Politicians to Practice and for the Melancholics to Enjoy”). The book was pretty much a compilation of various ancient and medieval sources, and truth be told, it was neither particularly original, nor up-to date with scientific knowledge. In the era of Enlightment it seems really outdated, providing chapters on “devilish business”, on the possessed, on witchcraft and magic, on ghosts… but let’s focus on a horse today.
The sentence “What a horse is like, anyone can see” opens a longer entry on this animal, placed between a unicorn and a sea-horse. We will learn from the entry, for example, that horses hate camels; also, that three days before he was murdered, Julius Caesar found his horse weeping. There is also information on miraculous horse, amazingly trained, who could tell time from the clock, stumping with his leg as many times as many hours the clock showed. That horse apparently also bowed, lay down, knelt and drank wine from a glass.
Of course, a horse was also described in medieval bestiaries, that is the books on animals. The main source for medieval bestiaries was so called “Physiologus”, describing almost 50 (mostly Mediterranean) species, written probably in Egypt at the end of the 3rd century AD. Bestiaries contained descriptions of both real and fantastic animals – on this subject I recommend you my previous posts: “Marvellous Bestiaries”, “How to Catch a Unicorn”, “Elephant and Mandrake” and “Medieval Beasts You Want To Avoid.”
On the horse, medieval bestiary reads that this animal is lively and high-spirited. Horses enjoy racing and battles – they rejoice over victory, but they also get upset over failure. Some horses will not let anyone ride them except for their masters, they are also very emotional and they grieve when their master dies. There are noble horses good for riding, and others, better for pulling and carrying burdens. Some horses get so involved into battle, that they fight themselves, biting the horses of the enemy.
The latter statement has been illustrated in a unique miniature of so called Rochester Bestiary (ca. 1230, British Library, Royal MS 12 F XIII, fol. 42v) – what at first glance looks like two horses hugging, depict in fact such a horse fight, right by the duel of their masters. By the way, this miniature is in fact often shared in social media on March 31st, which is an International Hug a Medievalist Day. It also appeared in the opening of the “1670 series”:
Another famous miniature with a horse that appears in this opening is “an egg-horse”, used in various memes, mocking artistic skills of the painter.
It is not easy to paint a horse from the front! This particular miniature comes from a French manuscript „L’estoire del Saint Graal” of 1316 (British Library, Additional 10292). It belongs to so called Lancelot-Grail Cycle (Cycle du Lancelot-Graal), sometimes called the Vulgate Cycle (though it has nothing to do with the Bible, it refers to the fact that it was common) or the Prose Lancelot, which was created in the first terce of the 13th century, and collected various legends of King Arthur, mixing celtic folklore with Christian motifs. This cycle told the main story about king Arthur and Merlin, about the Grail Quest, about the romance of Lancelot and Queen Guinevre, and it ended with the death of Arthur. The manuscript from the British Library is richly decorated and includes many depictions of knights and horses. In fact, “an egg-horse” appears there more than once!
Finally it must be noted that in terms of horses there is a very interesting aspect of the Bayeux Tapestry (about which I wrote HERE). Professor George Garnett (St Hugh’s College, Oxford) some time ago published an aricle at History Extra service, analysing penises depicted in Bayeux Tapestry: he counted that there are 93 of them, and 88 are equestrian. It seems that manhoods of horses were supposed to reflect manhood of their masters: the most impressive penis is the one of the horse belonging to victorious William the Conqueror himself.
On the subject of horses’ penises and sexuality – there are also depictions of horses and donkeys mating, to produce either mule or a hinny, depending on gender configuration of the parents:
Meanwhile, a donkey was an animal traditionally regarded as a symbol of lust, most likely due to significant size of its penis and long-lasting erections. Probably because of that, donkey became an attribute of ancient god Priapus, who was depicted as having enormously large penis. Later myth, recorded by Ovid, stated that Priapus once wanted to rape goddess Vesta (Hestia) while she was sleeping, but the donkey woke her up with bray. It also scared Priapus so much that the god lost his erection. But that is a very different story, unrelated to the horse.
Which, what is like, anyone can see.