Horsing Around

I read an article this morning that said medieval horses were “not much bigger than modern day ponies.”

I can’t believe that this had to be researched by zooarcheologists. All anyone had to do was look at Icelandic horses, the direct, unadulterated horses brought to Iceland by Vikings in the 10th century throughout the medieval era. They are little horses. They’re great, but they’re little. And anyone who’s looked at an armory in a museum can see how small people were — not just in medieval times, but even at the turn of the 20th century. Whenever I’ve looked at medieval or early modern armor I’ve thought, “Those were fierce little guys.” I’m 5’1″. Much of that old armor is for men smaller than I am, and certainly smaller around though I’m not especially heavy. It was a different scale of human. How would a 4’8″ human in full armor get on and off a Friesian the way he would have to in battle? That and for those people horses were transportation; they had to be convenient, intelligent, responsive. Not one trick ponies, but companions.


We have such fragmented views of the past. I thought about this listening to a friend tell me about his boss. My friend was sure the guy had been in Viet Nam because he had photos of airplanes on his walls, looks to be in his 60s, etc. Turned out, no. The guy’s hobby is photography AND he’s too young for “Nam.” “I just made all that up!” said my friend. It wasn’t an illogical story, but minus some readily available facts.

Back in undergraduate school I took astronomy which I loved. For our final project, we were assigned a star. My star was E-Ori or the middle star in Orion’s belt. It’s a very interesting star actually more than one star. I had to do spectroscopy on the star and various other things and write a ten page paper about my star. Well, I couldn’t find ten pages worth of material about E-Ori (I should have tried harder, I admit it) so I wrote a fable purportedly from an ancient culture that believed the stars were the souls of the dead.

When I got my final project back, I got an A on the lab report and a mixed grade on the fable. My professor gave me an A; the lab teacher an F. “This isn’t science,” the lab teacher wrote. “Good story,” wrote the professor. And other things that boiled down to his belief that literature and history had something to tell science. His point was that IF the fable had truly been from an ancient culture, we could have learned where Orion was in the sky and where the people had lived, among other things, including that these people were very aware of the position of constellations. Those are pretty cool bits of information — were they navigators? Did they live by water? Did they live in the desert? Had the star positions changed in the intervening millennia? All kind of questions could emerge from a story like that, questions that could help scientists thought, admittedly, they wouldn’t say much about the chemical nature of the star. He tried to persuade the lab teacher to soften her position on the grade but to no avail. The question is there any such thing as “pure” science, “pure” art, “pure” history? I don’t think so.

My professor’s words really struck me. Maybe science and history are not exclusively this or that. Supposedly I’m an artist, but the more I’ve learned about the chemical composition of my paints, the more interested I am in being an artist. In the process of writing Martin of Gfenn I learned a lot about how paints were made in medieval times and THAT interested me in the whole chemistry of fresco painting. The world — human life — itself is not so neatly compartmentalized. Anyway, just my wandering thoughts this morning.

12 thoughts on “Horsing Around

  1. Couldn’t agree more! I quite often laugh at the idea that we, now here, in this time, are the smartest humans ever. Somehow I doubt that. I think little credit is given to those that come before, since we, know in this time, can’t figure out how they achieved some of the feats they did… just my opinion.

  2. Those Icelandic horses are fascinating, and yes, looking at them and medieval museum pieces should have been a clear clue for those recently reporting on medieval horse size. Scientists used to be multidisciplinary, then specialization and hyper-specialization made many have over-focused visions of one wider reality. Your professor sounds like a true Renaissance man.

  3. Working in science has informed and influenced what I make as art with clay… art and science go hand in hand! I know history and literature and chemistry and art are all kissing cousins!

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