Combat Training for Horse and Rider in the Early Middle Ages

Open access


The cavalry horse, tactics and training in Western Europe – the Euro-pean provinces of the Roman Empire of the West and the Frankish Empire – du-ring the Early Middle Ages (c. 500-1000) are still subject to many myths in both popular media and academic literature. Source material is admittedly thin, yet it is specific enough to allow us to correct many of these misconceptions and outright errors.

The article initially summarises the current state of knowledge on the war horse of the period, by reference to the archaeological record. It then reviews the cavalry’s battlefield tactics, derives the skill level required to execute the manoeuvres described in the sources, and analyses where and how this training could have been provided.

The information gleaned provides an insight into the skills and expertise neces-sary to achieve the requisite sophisticated level of horsemanship. We shall argue that these imply a considerable investment in organisational infrastructure, per-sonnel and institutional memory, which has so far not received much academic attention, and has wider implications for our view of the era.

Note: MGH = Monumenta Germaniae Historica; standard MGH abbreviations used

Annales Bertiniani [9th C], G. Waitz (Ed.), MGH – SS rer. Germ., Vol. 5 (Hanover: Hahn, 1883)

Annales Fuldenses [9th – early 10th C], G.H. Pertz / F. Kurze (Eds.), MGH – SS rer. Germ., Vol. 7 (Hanover: Hahn, 1891)

Annales Gandenses [early 14th C], J. M. Lappenberg (Ed.), in: Annales Aevi Suevici, G. H. Pertz (Ed.), MGH – SS, Vol. 16 (Hanover: Hahn, 1859), 555-597

Arrianus, Lucius Flavius, Ars Tactica / Αρριανος, Τακτικη Τεχνη [2nd C] (Osnabrück: Biblio, 1967 = facsimile reprint of Uppsala: Henricus Curio, 1664)

de Bueil, Jean, Le Jouvencel, [15th C] Léon Lecestre (Ed.), Vol. 1 (Paris: Renouard, 1887)

Capit. I Alfred Boretius (Ed.), MGH – Capit., Vol. 1 (Hanover: Hahn, 1883)

Capit. II A. Boretius, V. Krause (Eds.), MGH – Capit., Vol. 2 (Hanover: Hahn, 1897)

Carmen de bello Saxonico [probably winter 1075/76], O. Holder-Egger (Ed.), MGH - SS Vol. 15.2 (Hanover: Hahn, 1888), 1214-1235

Duarte I of Portugal, The Book of Horsemanship, [15th C] Ed. and translation by Jeffrey Forgeng (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2016)

Einhard, Vita Karoli Magni [between 817-833], G. H. Pertz (Ed.), MGH – SS, Vol. 2 (Hanover: Hahn, 1829), 426-463

Einhard, Annales regni Francorum qui dicuntur Einhardi [1st half 9th C], G. H. Pertz / F. Kurze (Eds.), MGH – SS rer. Germ., Vol. 6 (Hanover: Hahn, 1895)

Ekkehard IV, Casus Sancti Galli – Continuatio [early 10th C], G. H. Pertz / Ildephons von Arx (Eds.), MGH – SS, Vol. 2 (Hanover: Hahn, 1829), 74-147

Ermoldus Nigellus [active 824-830], In honorem Hlodowici christianissimi caesaris augusti, G. H. Pertz (Ed.), MGH – SS, Vol. 2 (Hanover: Hahn, 1829), 464-523

Gregory of Tours, Historiae Francorum libri decem [late 6th C] (Basel: Peter Perna, 1568)

Gunther Poeta, Ligurinus [late 12th C], E. Assmann (Ed.), MGH – SS rer. Germ., Vol. 63 (Hanover: Hahn, 1987)

Hrabanus Maurus, de procinctu Romanae miliciae [first half 9th C], E. Dümmler (Ed.), Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum, Vol. 15 (1872), 443-452

Indiculus Loricatorum Ottonis II in Italiam mittendorum [981], Ludwig Weiland (Ed.), MGH – Const., Vol. 1 (Hanover: Hahn, 1893), 632-633

IWER International Working Equitation Regulations 2017 < > (queried 14th November 2017)

Kipling, Rudyard, The Maltese Cat (London: Macmillan, 1936)

v. Krane, Friedrich, Anleitung zur Ausbildung der Cavallerie-Remonten (Berlin: Mittler, 1870)

Liudprand of Cremona [~920-970], Antapodosis, Joseph Becker (Ed.), MGH – SS rer. Germ., Vol. 41 (Hanover and Leipzig: Hahn, 1915)

Melzo, Ludovico, Regole militari sopra il governo e servitio particolare della cavelleria (Antwerpen: Ioachimus Trognaesius, 1611)

Nithard, Historiarum Libri IIII [842-843], G. H. Pertz / E. Müller (Eds.), MGH – SS rer. Germ., Vol. 44 (Hanover: Hahn, 1907)

Regino of Prüm [?-915], Chronicon, Friedrich Kurze (Ed.), MGH - SS rer. Germ., Vol. 50 (Hanover: Hahn, 1890)

Richer of Saint-Rémi [~940-998], Historiarum Libri IIII, Hartmut Hoffmann (Ed.), MGH – SS, Vol. 38 (Hanover: Hahn, 2000)

Solomon II, Bishop of Constance, letter to Bishop Antonius of Brixen [early summer 878], in: Karl Zeumer (Ed.), MGH – Leges, Formulae Merowingici et Karolini aevi (Hanover: Hahn, 1886), 421-422

Vita Hludowici Imperatoris [mid 9th C], in: Ernst Tremp (Ed.), MGH – SS rer. Germ. 64 (Hanover: Hahn, 1995), 53-153

Abels, Richard, Stephen Morillo, ‘A Lying Legacy? A Preliminary Discussion of Images of Antiquity and Altered Reality in Medieval Military History’, in: Journal of Medieval Military History, Vol. 3 (2005), 1-13

Arloth, Jana, ‘Pferde im Karolingerreich: Das Reiterkönigtum Karls des Großen’, in: Frank Jacob (Ed.), Pferde in der Geschichte: Begleiter in der Schlacht, Nutztier, literarische Inspiration (Darmstadt: Büchner, 2016), 39-74

Audoin-Rouzeau, Frédérique, ‘Compter et mesurer les os animaux. Pour une histoire de l’élevage et de l’alimentation en Europe de l’Antiquité aux Temps Modernes’, in: Histoire & Mesure, Vol. 10, 3-4 (1995), < DOI: 10.3406/hism.1995.1558 >, 277-312

v. Babo, Verena Freiin, Pferdebestattungen auf dem frühmittelalterlichen Gräberfeld Drantumer Mühle (Gemeinde Emstek, Kreis Cloppenburg, Niedersachsen), Diss. Hannover 2004

Bachrach, Bernard S., ‘caballus et caballarius in medieval warfare’, in: Warfare and Military Organization in Pre-Crusade Europe (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), II (= The Study of Chivalry: Resources and Approaches, eds. H. Chickering and T. H. Seiler, Kalamazoo, 1988, 173-211)

Bachrach, Bernard S., ‘The imperial roots of Merovingian military organization’, in: Anne Nørgård Jørgensen, Birthe L. Clausen (Eds.), Military Aspects of Scandinavian Society in a European Perspective, AD 1-1300: Papers from an International Research Seminar at the Danish National Museum, Copenhagen, 2-4 May 1996 (Copenhagen: National Museum, 1997), 25-31

Bachrach, Bernard S., Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire (Philadelphia PA: Penn, 2001)

Bachrach, Bernard S. and David S. Bachrach, Warfare in Medieval Europe: c. 400-c. 1453 (London & New York NY: Routledge, 2017)

Baillif-Ducros, Christèle, M.-C. Truc, C. Paresys, S. Villotte, ‘Approche méthodologique pour distinguer un ensemble lésionnel fiable de la pratique cavalière. Exemple du squelette de la tombe 11 du site de « La Tuilerie » à Saint-Dizier (Haute-Marne), VIe siècle, in: Bull. Mém. Soc. Anthropol. Paris, Vol. 24 (2012), 25-36

Baillif-Ducros, Christèle, Jean-Hervé Yvinec, ‘Le cheval de monte aux VIe -VIIe siècles en Gaule du nord’, in: Archeopages, 41 (2014-2015), 14-19

Becker, Ilona, ‘Die Pferde aus dem sächsischen Gräberfeld Rullstorf (Ldkr. Lüneburg): eine anatomisch-paläopathologische Untersuchung und ein Vergleich mit rezenten Pferdepopulationen’, in: Leipziger online-Beiträge zur Ur- und Frühgeschichtlichen Archäologie Vol. 27 (2007), 1-55

Bertin, Laëtitia, Palmira Saladié, Yves Lignereux, Anne-Marie Moigne, Nicolas Boulbes, ‘The exploitation of equids in the middle ages on the Clos d’Ugnac archaeological site (Pennautier, Aude, France)’, in: Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Vol. 15 (2017), 179–193

Bouet, Pierre, ‘Les chevaux de la tapisserie de Bayeux’, in: In Situ: Revue des patrimoines, Vol. 27 (2015), < DOI: 10.4000/insitu.11967 >, 1-24

Bourgain, Pascale, ‘Pratique de l’équitation au Moyen Âge d’après les textes littéraires’, in: In Situ: Revue des patrimoines, Vol. 18 (2012), < DOI: 10.4000/insitu.9721 >, 1-13

Branderup, Bent, Academic Art of Riding (Richmond-upon-Thames: Cadmos, 2014)

Buhrs, Elfi, Old Companions, Noble Steeds: Why Dogs and Horses were Buried at an Early Medieval Settlement Along the Old Rhine, MSc thesis Archaeology, Leiden 2013

Claridge, Jordan, Horses for Work and Horses for War: The Divergent Horse Market in Late Medieval England, Master Thesis University Edmonton AB, 2011

Cooke, Siobhan, ‘Trading Identities: Alternative Interpretations of Viking Horse Remains in Scotland. A Pierowall Perspective’, in: Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, Vol. 25(2)/Art. 16 (2016) < DOI:>, 1–15

Coupland, Simon, ‘The Carolingian Army and the Struggle Against the Vikings’, in: Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 35 (2004), 49-70

Cross, Pamela J., ‘Horse Burial in First Millennium AD Britain: Issues of Interpretation’, in: European Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 14 / Nos. 1–2 (2011), 190–209

Dashper, Katherine, ‘Listening to Horses: Developing Attentive Interspecies Relation-ships through Sports and Leisure’, in: Society & Animals, Vol. 25 (2017), 207-224

Dawson, Paul L., French Cavalry Remounts and Replacements December 1806 to December 1807, online < > (Queried 17 November 2017)

Dibon-Smith, Richard, ‘The Stirrup as a Revolutionary Device’, in: Lynn Hunt (Ed.), New Ideas About the Past: Seven Essays in Cultural History (Berkeley and Los Angeles CA: University of California Press, 1989), 103-110

Domínguez Sánchez, Santiago / José Manuel Martínez Pérez, ‘Los caballos hispanos en el siglo XIII y su presencia en las Cruzadas’, in: Proceedings of the 37th International Congress of the World Association for the History of Veterinary Medicine & 12th Spanish National Congress on the Veterinary History, 22-24 Sept. 2006, Faculty of Veterinary, León, Spain, 477-492

Ekdahl, Sven, ‘Horses and Crossbows: Two important warfare advantages of the Teutonic Order in Prussia’, in: Helen Nicholson (Ed.), The Military Orders, Vol. 2: Welfare and Warfare (London: Routledge, 1998), 119-152

Elsner, Julia, Sabine Deschler-Erb, Barbara Stopp, Michael Hofreiter, Jörg Schibler, Angela Schlumbaum, ‘Mitochondrial d-loop variation, coat colour and sex identification of Late Iron Age horses in Switzerland’, in: Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Vol. 6 (2016), 386–396

Erwin, Bonnie J., ‘Beyond Mastery: Interspecies Apprenticeship in Middle English Romance’, in: Exemplaria, Vol. 29/1 (2017), 41-57

Fern, Chris, ‘The archaeological evidence for equestrianism in early Anglo-Saxon England, c.450-700’, in: Aleksander Pluskowski (Ed.), Just Skin and Bones? New Perspectives on Human-Animal Relations in the Historical Past, (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 2005), 43-71

France, John, Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades: 1000-1300 (London: UCL, 1999)

Gassmann, Jack, ‘Thoughts on the Role of Cavalry in Medieval Warfare’, in: Acta Periodica Duellatorum, Vol. 2 (2014), 149-177

Gassmann, Jürg, ‘East meets West: Mounted Encounters in Early and High Mediaeval Europe’, in: Acta Periodica Duellatorum, Vol. 5.1 (May 2017), 75-108

Gassmann, Jürg, ‘The Bolognese Societates Armatae of the Late 13th Century’, in: Acta Periodica Duellatorum, Vol. 2 (2014), 195-231

Gillmor, Carroll, ‘The 791 Equine Epidemic and its Impact on Charlemagne’s Army’, in: Journal of Medieval Military History, Vol. 3 (2005), 23-45

Gillmor, Carroll, ‘Practical Chivalry: The Training of Horses for Tournaments and Warfare’, in: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, 13 (1992), 7-29

Halsall, Guy, Warfare and society in the barbarian west: 450-900 (London: Routledge, 2003)

Halsall, Guy, ‘Two Worlds Become One: A ‘Counter-Intuitive’ View of the Roman Empire and ‘Germanic’ Migration’, in: German History, 32/4 (2014), 515-532

Hedwig, Andreas, ‘Die Eigenkirche in den urbarialen Quellen zur fränkischen Grund-herrschaft zwischen Loire und Rhein’, in: Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte, Kanonistische Abteilung, Vol. 78 (1992), 1-64

Henning, Joachim, ‘Early European Towns: The development of the economy in the Frankish realm between dynamism and deceleration AD 500-1100’, in: Joachim Henning (Ed.), Millennium Studies: Post-Roman Towns, Trade and Settlement in Europe and Byzan-tium, Vol. 1: The Heirs of the Roman West (Berlin/New York NY: de Gruyter, 2007), 3-40

Junkelmann, Marcus, Die Reiter Roms (Mainz: von Zabern) - Teil I: Reise, Jagd, Triumph und Circusrennen (1990); Teil II: Der militärische Einsatz (1991); Teil III: Zubehör, Reitweise, Bewaffnung (1992)

Kehnel, Annette, ‘Le sacrifice du cheval: Une brève histoire de sa découverte d’Hérodote à Dumézil’, in: Bernard Andenmatten, Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, Eva Pibiri (Eds.), Le cheval dans la culture médiévale (Florence: Sismel, 2015), 5-32

Kontny, Bartosz / Jerzy Okulicz-Kozaryn / Miroslaw Petrzak, ‘Horse graves in the Elblag group: The case of the cemetery at the Nowinka, Tolkmicko commune’, in: Archaeologia Baltica, Vol. 11 (2009), 164-184

Lepetz, Sébastien and Pauline Hanot, ‘Archéozoologie et patrimoine ostéologique du cheval. Les os des chevaux provenant des fouilles archéologiques : sujets de recherche et archives du sol’, in: In Situ: Revue des patrimoines, Vol. 18 (2012), < DOI: 10.4000/insitu.10512 >, 1-22

Lesne, Émile, ‘Les ordonnances monastiques de Louis le Pieux et la Notitia de servitio monasteriorum’, in: Revue d’histoire de l’Église de France, Part 1: Vol. 6/31 (1920), 161-175; Part 2: Vol. 6/32 (1920), 321-338; Part 3: Vol. 6/33 (1920), 449-493

Lignereux, Yves, J. Peters, N. Périn, Ph. Gruat, ‘Un cheval gallo-romain inhumé dans le cimetière du site de Notre-Dame du Bon Accueil (IIe-IIIe s. après J.-C., Rodez, Aveyron)’, in: Revue de médecine vétérinaire, Vol. 149/5 (May 1998), 379-386

Lignereux, Yves, Cécile Bouet, ‘Spinal hyperostosis and ankylosis in a Gallo-Roman horse from Iwuy ‘Val-de-Calvigny’ (Nord, France): ‘Ankylosing spondylarthritis’ (spondylarthritis ankylopoetica), ‘deforming spondylarthrosis’ (spondylarthrosis deformans) or ‘DISH’ (hyperostosis vertebralis ankylopoetica)? An archeozoological and comparative nosological review’, in: International Journal of Paleopathology, Vol. 9 (2015), 38–51

Mallia, Matthew, ‘Galloping at Everything’: Wellington and the British Heavy Cavalry Charge at Waterloo, The Society for Army Historical Research 2016 Undergraduate Competition winner, < > (queried 7th May 2017)

v. Mangoldt-Gaudlitz, Hans, Die Reiterei in den germanischen und fränkischen Heeren bis zum Ausgang der deutschen Karolinger (Paderborn: Deutscher Geschichtsverlag, 2011 = facsimile reprint of: Berlin: Weidmann, 1922)

Morillo, Stephen, ‘The “Age Of Cavalry” Revisited’, in: Donald J. Kagay, L. J. Andrew Villalon, The circle of war in the Middle Ages: essays on medieval military and naval history (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1999), 45–58

Renard, Étienne, ‘La politique militaire de Charlemagne et la paysannerie franque’, in: Francia 36 (2009), 1-34

Rosengren, Erika, ‘The Iron Age Horse’, in: Charlotte Fabech / Ulf Näsman (Eds.), The Sösdala Horsemen and the equestrian elite of fifth century Europe (Højbjerg: Jutland Archaeological Society, 2017), 195-204

Sarti, Laury, ‘Die spätantike Militärpräsenz und die Entstehung einer militarisierten ›Grenzgesellschaft‹ in der nordwesteuropäischen limes-Region’, in: Christoph Rass (Ed.), Militärische Migration vom Altertum bis zur Gegenwart: Studien zur Historischen Migrationsforschung 30 (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2016), 43-56

Sarti, Laury, ‘Die Identität des Kämpfenden nach dem Zusammenbruch des römischen Militärwesens in Gallien’, in: Archiv für Kulturgeschichte, Vol. 95 (2013), 309-332

Settia, Aldo, Rapine, assedi, battaglie: La guerra nel Medioevo (Rome: Laterza, 2002)

Steckel, Richard H., ‘New Light on the “Dark Ages”: The Remarkably Tall Stature of Northern European Men during the Medieval Era’, in: Social Science History, Vol. 28/2 (Summer, 2004), 211-229

Thomas, Heather S., The Horse Conformation Handbook (North Adams MA: Storey, 2005)

Thompson, E. A., ‘Early Germanic Warfare’, in: Past & Present, 14 (Nov 1958), 2-29

Verbruggen, J. F., ‘The Role of the Cavalry in Medieval Warfare’, translated by Kelly DeVries, in: Journal of Medieval Military History, Vol. 3 (2005), 46-71

Werner, Karl F., ‘Heeresorganisation und Kriegführung im deutschen Königreich des 10. und 11. Jahrhunderts’, in: Structures politiques du monde franc (VIe-XIIe siècles): études sur les origines de la France et de l’Allemagne, (London: Variorum Reprints, 1979), No. III

Wijnendaele, Jeroen W.P., ‘“Warlordism” and the Disintegration of the Western European Army’, in: Jeremy Armstrong (Ed.), Circum Mare: Themes in Ancient Warfare, (Leiden/Boston MA: Brill, 2016), 185-203/283-316

Worthen, Shana, ‘The Influence of Lynn White, jr.’s Medieval Technology and Social Change’, in: History Compass, Vol. 7/4 (2009), 1201-1217

Journal Information


All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 880 880 258
PDF Downloads 578 578 286