As the first leaves to Horse are missing in the Aberdeen Bestiary, we’ll start with some general observations. Given the importance of horses in the Medieval Age, you won’t be surprised by the length of this entry.

Bodleian Library, MS. Ashmole 1511, Folio 32v.

Bodleian Library, MS. Ashmole 1511, Folio 32v.

Morgan Library, MS M.81, Folio 44r.

Morgan Library, MS M.81, Folio 44r.

Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 46r.

Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 46r.

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 8, 64-67): Several stories are told of horses that would let only their master ride them, who defended their rider in battle, or who grieved at the death of their master. Horses are very intelligent. They may live up to 50 years, but mares die sooner. The mare loves her young more than any other animal does. At birth, horses have on their foreheads a love-poison called horse-frenzy; this is the size of a dried fig and is black. If the mare fails to eat this immediately, she will not suckle her foal. Is someone takes it before the mare can eat it, the scent of it drives him into a sort of love-madness. Near the town of Lisbon, mares stand facing a west wind and conceive a foal from it; such colts are very swift but only live three years. (Book 10,83): To make a mare willing to mate with an ass, her mane must first be clipped; a mare with a long mane is too proud and high-spirited. After mating, mares run either north or south, depending on the sex of the foal they have conceived.

Augustine [5th century CE] (City of God, Book 21, chapter 5): In Cappadocia the mares are impregnated by the wind, and their foals live only three years.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 1:41-59): Horses exult in fields, can smell war, and are roused to battle by the sound of the trumpet; when provoked by a voice to race, the exult when they win but grieve when they lose. Some horses recognize enemies and attack them by biting. They recognize their own masters, and some will not allow anyone else to ride them. They weep for dead or dying masters, being the only animal to do so. [Isidore continues with tips on what makes a good horse and describes their various colors.] There are three kinds of horse: one is noble and good for war and work; the second is common and good only for carrying burdens, not for riding; and the third is a hybrid of the first two.

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 18): Horses be joyful in fields, and smell battles, and be comforted with noise of trumpets to battle and to fighting; and be excited to run with noise that they know, and be sorry when they be overcome, and glad when they have the mastery. And so feeleth and knoweth their enemies in battle so far forth that they a-rese on their enemies with biting and smiting, and also some know their own lords, and forget mildness, if their lords be overcome: and some horses suffer no man to ride on their backs, but only their own lords. And many horses weep when their lords be dead. And it is said that horses weep for sorrow, right as a man doth, and so the kind of horse and of man is medlied. Also oft men that shall fight take evidence and divine and guess what shall befall, by sorrow or by the joy that the horse maketh. Old men mean that in gentle horse, noble men take heed of four things, of shape, and of fairness, of wilfulness, and of colour. In his forehead when he is foaled is found Iconemor, a black skin of the quantity of a sedge, that hight also Amor’s Veneficium; and the mother licketh it off with her tongue, and taketh it away and hideth it or eateth it. For women that be witches use that skin in their sayings, when they will excite a man to love…. The colt is not littered with straw, nor curried with an horse comb, nor arrayed with trapping and gay harness, nor smitten with spurs, nor saddled with saddle, nor tamed with bridle, but he followeth his mother freely, and eateth grass, and his feet be not pierced with nails, but he is suffered to run hither and thither freely: but at the last he is set to work and to travail, and is held and tied and led with halters and reins, and taken from his mother, and may not suck his dam’s teats; but he is taught in many manner wise to go easily and soft. And he is set to carts, chariots, and cars, and to travel and bearing of horsemen in chivalry: and so the silly horse colt is foaled to divers hap of fortune. Isidore saith, that horses were sometime hallowed in divers usage of the gods.

You can find additional information about hippomanes (the love-poison) here, including how to preserve one, if you’re so inclined.

Text and Translation [from Aberdeen Bestiary]:

[Of the horse] [… Some horses recognise their own masters, and] if these change, forget their training. Others let no-one on their back except their master – we will give an example of this. The horse of Alexander the Great was called Bucefala, either from its savage appearance, or from its brand – it had a bull’s-head burnt into its shoulder – or because the points of little horns grew out of its forehead. Although it was ridden by its groom at times without resisting, once it carried the royal saddle, it would never deign to carry anyone but its master the king. There are many accounts of this horse in battles where, by its own efforts, it carried Alexander unharmed from the fiercest fights. The horse of Gaius Caesar allowed no-one on its back but Caesar. When the king of the Scythians was killed in single combat, his victorious opponent sought to plunder his corpse but was mauled by the king’s horse, which kicked and bit him. When King Nicomedes was killed, his horse starved itself to death. When Antiochus conquered the Galatians, he leapt on the horse of a general, Cintaretus by name, who had fallen in battle, in order to go on fighting. But the horse reacted against the bit to such an extent that it fell deliberately, injuring both itself and its rider in the fall. Among this kind of animal, the males live longer. Indeed, we read of horses living for seventy years. We note also that a stallion called Opuntes was at stud up to the age of forty. In mares, sexual desire is quenched when their mane is cropped; when they give birth, a love charm appears, which the foals display on their foreheads, tawny in colour, like a tuft of sedge, called hipponenses. If it is taken away immediately, the mother will on no account give her udders to the foal to suckle it. The deeper a horse dips its nostrils when drinking, the better its prospects. Horses weep for their slain or dying masters. It is said that the horse alone weeps for men and feels the emotion of grief on their account. Following on from this, the characteristics of horses and men are intermingled in the centaurs. Men riding into battle can infer from the low or high spirits of their mounts, what the outcome will be. The general view is that in horses of good pedigree, as the ancients said, you look for four things: form, beauty, temperament and colour.

As to form, the body should be sound and firm; its height consistent with strength; long and narrow in the flank; haunches, large and rounded; broad chest; the entire body knotted with the thickness of its muscles; dry hooves, supported by a curved frog. As to beauty: its head should be small and dry; the skin taut against its bones; the ears, short and neat; the eyes, large, the nostrils broad and the neck erect; the mane, and tail, thick; the hooves firmly curved. As to temperament: it should be bold of spirit, light-footed, with quivering limbs – a sign of courage; it should be easy to rouse when it is at rest, and once it has been put to the gallop, it should not be difficult to control. You can judge the pace of a horse by the pricking of its ears, its mettle from the quivering of its limbs.

The main colours to be found are: bay, golden, rosy, chestnut, tawny-red, pale yellow, blue-grey, dappled, light grey, brilliant white, ordinary white, piebald, black. After these come variegated colours based on black or bay; other mixtures or those which are the colour of ashes are the lowest sort According to the ancients, a bay, badius, was a powerful horse, because among other animals its pace was stronger. The same horse was called spadix or fenicatus, date-brown, from the palm-tree which the Syrians call spadix. The blue-grey, glaucus, is like the colour of eyes, painted and suffused with brightness. The pale yellow, gilvus, is better described by the colour ‘off-white’. A piebald horse, guttatus, is white, mottled with black. The brilliant and ordinary white, candidus and albus, differ one from the other. For the ordinary white has a sort of paleness, but the brilliant white is like snow, suffused with pure, shining light. Light grey, canus, is so called because it is composed of brilliant white and black. A dappled horse, scutulatus, gets its name from its circular, shield-like, patches of brilliant white and dark brown. A variegated horse, varius, is so called because it has stripes of different colours. Those which have white feet are called petili; ‘slenderfeet’; those with a white forehead callidi, ‘hotheads’. The tawny-red horse, cervinus, is commonly called gaurans. The horse called vosinus is so called because its colour is that of an ass, whose coat is also the colour of ashes.

These are found in the country, bred from the species we call equiferi, wild horses, and cannot therefore make the transition to domesticated status. The horse called mauron, a moor or arab, is black, because the Greek word for a black man is mauron. A cob, mannus, is a smaller kind of horse, commonly called brunius ‘a brown’. The ancients called post-horses veredi, because they drew carriages, vehere redas, that is, because they pulled them or because they went on public highways, via, along which carriages, reda, customarily go.

There are three kinds of horse. One is the noble war-horse, capable of carrying heavy weights; the second is the everyday kind, used for drawing loads but unsuitable for riding. The third is born from a combination of different species, and is also called bigener, hybrid, because it is born of mixed stock, like a mule. The word mulus, mule, comes from the Greek. It is called this in Greek because under the miller’s yoke it draws the lumbering millstones, mola, in a circle to grind the corn. The Jews say that Ana, the son of the great-grandchild of Esau, was the very first to have herds of mares covered by asses in the desert, so that as a result new animals were born of many sires – against nature. It is said that wild asses were also put to she-asses and the same kind of cross-breeding was obtained in order to produce from them asses which were very fleet of foot. Indeed human activity has brought together a variety of animals to mate. And from this adulterous interbreeding man has produced a new species, just as Jacob obtained animals of the same colour – also against nature. For his ewes conceived lambs of the same colour as the rams which mounted them, seeing them reflected in water. Finally it is said that the same thing happens with herds of mares, that men put noble stallions in view of those which are about to conceive, so that they can conceive and create offspring in the stallions’ image. Pigeon fanciers place images of the most beautiful pigeons in places where they flock, to catch the birds’ eye, so that they may produce babies which look like them. It is for this reason that people order pregnant women not to look at animals with very ugly countenances, such as dog-headed apes or apes, lest they should bear children who look like the things they have seen. For it is said to be the nature of women that they produce as offspring whatever they see or imagine at the height of their ardour as they conceive; animals, indeed, when they are mating, transmit inwardly the forms they see outwardly and, imbued with these images, take on their appearance as their own.

[So, women have to take as to what they see when at the height of their passion, and they can’t look at anything ‘ugly’ for a whole pregnancy, either. Gosh, nothing tough about that one.]

Among living things the name ‘hybrid’ is given to those born from the mating of two different species, such as the mule from a mare and an ass, the hinny from a stallion and a she-ass, the hybrid from the wild boar and the sow, the animal called tyrius from the sheep and the he-goat, and the moufflon rom the she-goat and the ram; the moufflon is the leader of the flock.

Folio 22r – the horse continued.


  1. Ice Swimmer says

    The mares near Lisbon, who get pregnant from west wind, I wonder how this came about. Various females getting pregnant from wind, waters, lingonberry or other such things do exist in various kinds of lore, I guess.

  2. says

    I can’t speak for how this got attached to Lisbon, but Cappadocia makes more sense, because of smaller desert horses, who were renowned for their fleetness. I don’t know where the 3 year life span comes from.

  3. kestrel says

    I recognize some of this as part of the bible, maybe this lore was written in to the bible? In Job in particular… about the horse in battle, “He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha: and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.” There is also part of a Shakespearean poem, Venus and Adonis, that I am thinking of, where they are talking about the horse and his appearance, that sounds similar to some of this lore: “Round-hoofed, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and long, Broad breast, full eye, small head, and nostril wide, High crest, short ears, straight legs and passing strong, Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide: Look what a horse should have he did not lack, Save a proud rider on so proud a back.” Except that Shakespeare started at the feet; as they say, no hoof, no horse.

  4. says

    Horses have been talked about and written about for most of our history. It would be hard to pin down true sources for all the things said about them; much of it pre-dated the bible. All those stories, myths, and legends, they got around!

  5. rq says

    Horses are the wind. Read it in a book once, and that’s that! :)

    (As for the advice for pregnant women, it’s still freakishly prevalent: surround yourself with beautiful things, think only beautiful thoughts, etc., etc., and you will have a happy, quiet baby.)

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