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.

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

  • 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
Cited By
All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 1854 576 16
PDF Downloads 1387 482 20