|late 13th century apocalypse British Library|
About a fortnight ago, I got talking on a Facebook friend's page with him and other interested people about the word 'destrier' as a term for a medieval warhorse. A debate began about when the word first came into use. 1400 was mentioned as a date for the word to enter the vernacular, and that the Normans would not have used such a term for their own warhorses.
My area of expertise is from circa 1066 up to around 1230, and I had always used the word 'destrier' in my novels as a term for a knight's warhorse, so I was surprised to read that the name came in so late. It was pointed out to me that the 13th century History of William Marshal, which has a great deal of engagement with warhorses, doesn't once mention the word destrier. Warhorses are always just known as 'chival' and indeed, that's where the word 'chivalry' comes from. It's made clear that a knight's riding horse was a 'palfrey' his pack horse a 'sumpter' and his warhorse was a 'chival.' Ordinary riding horses are called 'roncins'.
|Sumpter horses - Hortus Delicarum|
Made curious, and not convinced, I went digging.
I headed first to the Anglo Norman Dictionary. It's a wonderful online resource of primary source evidence for Anglo Norman words.
website here for the Anglo Norman Dictionary Looking up 'Destrier' I immediately got the word back to 1230 together with references to palfreys (high ranking riding horses) and coursers (fast horses for hunting). So clearly 1400 as an assumption was wrong. Looking up the word again in the same source for this blog, I glanced at the entry below 'destrier' - 'destries' (various spelt, sometimes without the 's' which means 'behind' but discovered when checking the source for an example citation that 'destrier' by chance, happened to be part of the sentence. 'il est destries lui sur le destrier asis.' The source is given as The Romance of Horn and dates to circa 1170. Now I had the source back to the latter part of the 12th century and a full 230 years before 1400.
I then turned to the Pipe Rolls to check if the word was being used in Latin in the twelfth century. The Pipe Rolls are basically the King's annual accounts for England. Sadly not all of these account rolls have survived the vagaries of time and the early part of the 12th century and the reign of Henry I is barely covered. However, enough remain to reveal that 'destriers' glossed in Latin as 'dextrarii' single 'dextrarius' are constantly mentioned. In 1197, Joscelin de Amundeville gave a destrier and a hawk in homage to his overlord. One Nicholas de Chavencurt gave 10 marks and a destrier he had promised to Count John (future King John).
The same thing happened throughout the pipe rolls of Henry II, as high status gifts and pledges, sometimes given with a hawk, which is strongly indicative of a gift denoting that the giver renders service and allegiance to his overlord. In other words it's always in a high status context. When the Count of Toulouse was making an agreement with King Henry II in 1173, one of the terms was a payment of 100 silver marks or alternatively ten 'dextarii' worth ten marks each. Around this time, a common soldier's riding horse - aforementioned roncin or rouncy - would fetch around one and a half marks. A surviving pipe roll from the last years of Henry I , three times references the term 'dextarii' in the context of high status payments.
Checking further primary sources I had on my shelves, there was again a reference to 'dextarii' in William FitzStephen's Description of London, dating to around 1174, where he describes the horse sales held every Friday at Smithfield in London where earls, barons and knights, as well as ordinary citizens came to view the beasts on offer. The destriers (dextarii) are described as 'beautiful in shape, noble in stature, with ears and necks erect and plump buttocks.'
I was also alerted to the fact that the Song of Roland, written down some time around 1100 to latest 1130, contains the term 'destrer' for Count Ganelon's warhorse named Tachebrun. So now we're potentially 300 years adrift from 1400 and clearly the evidence points to the term referring to a high status war horse. Destrier in Old French. Dextarius in Latin.
As another note, there is a Welsh word meaning 'well fed horse' that is very similar to 'destrier' - 'edystir' and this will bear further investigation. It occurs in the laws of Welsh Prince Hywel Dda which are 10th century in origin, but surviving manuscripts in Welsh and Latin date to the mid 13th century.
The hunt continues, as does the question as to why the horses were actually known as 'destriers'. There are two theories for which I am currently searching for primary proof. I also acknowledge that the theories may blend and both may be right - or neither. Without primary source evidence, it can only remain best guess. I can find several secondary sources, but as yet none from the horse's mouth (pun intended!).
|Tournament Guiron le Courtois Naples 1352 British Library|
One notion goes that the horses were always led on the right hand side by the squires and grooms who tended to these expensive, magnificent beasts and would have to lead them in their lord's pack train. Destriers were not used as ordinary riding horses, but generally led to the place of tourney or battle and then mounted at need. For example in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, Patrick of Salisbury, William's uncle was killed while trying to get from his palfrey to his warhorse when his party was ambushed on the road. Earlier in the Histoire, William's father John ambushed Patrick when Patrick was unarmed and riding casually, but heading to make war. (clearly Patrick didn't learn from experience!).
The other notion is that destriers were so called because destriers were trained to lead on the right leg when commencing a gallop to the joust. But this doesn't fully explain the early 12th century use of the term with regards to jousting. One on one jousts did exist as we hit the 1130's, but there were no barriers and they were always a preliminary to the main event which was a free for all with everyone piling in to fight over a wide area. Having said that, warhorses were highly trained animals and the lead on the right leg could have been part of general fighting tactics.
It will be interesting to find out if the word 'destrier' occurrs around the same time as the joust and organised combat sport meetings begin to take off in the early 12th century, or whether it goes back earlier. I am still digging away at sources and pondering ideas and theories. I have not carved anything in stone beyond the fact that the word had entered parlance long, long before 1400.
As always, my curiosity and my research continue, being refined as I go. I started that particular day a fortnight ago, never knowing that such a fascinating research tunnel was waiting to open up in front of me! If anyone has any primary source reference to the world going back before circa 1100, then do leave a comment - I'd love to know!
My thanks to Brendan Cronin, Nigel Amos, Joseph Pickett and Jean Gill for imformation and conversations.
References - in very short.
The Anglo Norman Dictionary Online (linked in the text of the blog near the sumpter horse picture).
The Annals of Roger of Hovedon volume 1
William FitzStephen - Description of London
The Song of Roland
Various Pipe Rolls of the reigns of Henry I, Henry II, Richard I, and King John
The Laws of Hywel Dda.
Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal
Elizabeth Chadwick is a best selling author of more than 20 novels set in the Medieval period. Her latest novel, Templar Silks, covering what William Marshal might have done during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land will be published in the UK in hardcover on March 1st.