Galloping through the Middle Ages: Horse in Medieval Life and Middle English Literature
Keywords:Medieval horse, Middle English Literature, Gender Roles, status, horse in literature
The horse was an undisputed part and parcel of medieval life. It was an indispensable component of feudal chivalry and warfare, equally important as a means of transportation both for people and goods, for travel, agriculture and entertainment in forms such as hunting and tournaments as the only vehicle for mobility. All classes and genders made extensive use of it. Chivalry which was the most important institution of the Middle Ages, and the political and administrative system of feudalism was possible only with the mounted knight. Knighthood, the vestiges of which extend to the present day was one of the defining force of the Middle Ages. The knight and the horse hence become one. Just as the knight was protected by his armour, the horse was also protected by various forms of armour. Similarly, the coat of arms that the knight’s outfit displayed for identification and decoration would also be used on the covers for the horse. The literal and idealistic depiction of the knight and his horse found its depiction in the literature of the Middle Ages. The horses acquired individualising names and symbolic significances in addition to fighting and other skills. In romances such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the horses were depicted so as to shed light and bestow extra significance to the qualities of their noble riders. The horse was the extension of the knight. In other works such as Chaucer’s General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, following the symbolism established in Phaedrus employing the body and reason dicothomy, the horse and rider figure gained significance in addition to reflecting the social, economic qualities and aspirations of its rider. The Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales depicts 23 of the pilgrims providing more information about the horse and rider relationship extending the desctiptions in the written text. Furthermore, the horse was accepted to symbolise woman, and hence it pointed to the necessity of males bridling and controlling the weaker sex. The reversal of this power relation found its expression in the woman becoming the rider controlling /riding the male as implied in the portrait of the Wife of Bath in the Canterbury Tales.
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