- Domestic animals served a variety of purposes in the early Middle Ages, including farmwork and fieldwork, and were also an important source of food. Among the more important and useful animals was the horse, which was used not only as a draft animal but also for transportation and in war. The other animals used in early medieval society were cattle, sheep, dogs, pigs, geese, and chickens. They provided material for food and clothing, but they were generally smaller than their modern counterparts.The horse played an important role in daily life in the early Middle Ages and was known to both the ancient Romans and the barbarians who migrated into the empire. There were various breeds of horse bred either by the Romans or the barbarians, and the importance of the horse is revealed in early medieval legislation. The famous Carolingian Capitulary de Villis, which regulated management of the royal estates, contains precise regulations for maintenance of horses, including instructions for overseeing stud horses, mares, and foals. It also rules that foals be brought to the king's palace each year on St. Martin's Day (November 11). Moreover, after the conversion of the barbarians to Christianity, prohibitions against eating horseflesh were enacted by various bishops and popes, including Theodore of Tarsus, archbishop of Canterbury. And in 732, Pope Gregory III ordered Boniface, the missionary and papal legate in Germany, to prohibit consumption of horseflesh.One of the primary purposes of horses, in peace or war, was transportation. The horse, unlike other large domesticated animals, had a much faster pace than humans and thus provided a fast and reliable source of transportation. The use of horses as riding animals, however, was generally limited to kings and nobles, who could afford them. (Estimates place the cost of a horse as equal to that of four to ten oxen or forty to one hundred sheep.) Horses were used more generally as draft animals because of their strength and speed and were often used to pull carriages of passengers and heavy loads of produce or other material on wagons. Although they may have been used in Anglo-Saxon England to plow the fields, horses were seldom used for agricultural work in the early Middle Ages. As the result of technological change around the year 1000, however, horses came into more widespread use in agricultural work as plow animals.The other major use for the horse was in war, and many barbarian peoples used the horse to good effect in war. The Huns were most famous for their use of the horse in war, and the horse was also used in the preparation of food for the Huns and was used in the ceremonies to bury great leaders like Attila. The Lombards and Visigoths were also known for their use of the horse. Among the Franks, both the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties employed the horse and cavalry in their armies. It must be noted that these horses were not the great warhorses of the later Middle Ages, which could carry a knight in full armor and operate as a sort of premodern tank. Indeed, the horses of barbarian Europe were smaller and lighter, as were most animals, and bore light-armored bowmen. Moreover, Carolingian horses were not used to carry mounted shock troops, as some scholars have suggested. There is no evidence to prove that the Carolingians had the stirrup, which would have been necessary to allow the use of mounted shock troops.Cattle, both oxen and cows, were important for labor and food. With the arrival of the barbarians and the end of Roman civilization in the old Western Empire, however, the practice of selective breeding - except in the case of horses and dogs - came to an end, and cattle, as well as most other domestic animals, decreased in size. Despite their smaller size, cows and oxen remained vital in daily life. Before the so-called agricultural revolution of the year 1000, the ox was the most important agricultural draft animal. Its size, strength, and docility made the ox an ideal source of power to drive the plows used in cereal production and farm wagons. Although slower than horses, oxen were the preferred draft animal because they were less expensive to feed and keep than horses.Cows and bulls, although prevalent, were rarely used as draft animals and were used primarily as a food source. Not only was beef the main source of meat for those who could afford it, but cows also provided milk, cheese, and butter, which were prominent in much of the northern European diet. Although the end of selective breeding and the practice of mating before maturity limited the size of the animals and their milk production, cows continued to be a significant part of agricultural life and diet. Cattle had one further use. In the summer they were put out to pasture to graze in farmland left fallow (land that was left unplanted so that it could replenish itself), which they would fertilize naturally with their manure. Most extra animals were sold before winter because of the scarcity of food to feed them and their human owners.Along with horses and cattle, a number of other animals were commonplace in early medieval daily life and diet. Sheep provided a source of food and clothing, and pigs also formed a valuable food source. Pigs were raised nearly in the wild, being left in the forest to forage for food, mostly nuts and berries. Written records, such as Charlemagne's capitularies, and archeological evidence reveal the existence of chickens and geese, useful for both eggs and meat, on early medieval farms. Along with these domesticated animals, wild game - including deer, rabbit, and swine - was hunted and made part of the diet. Finally, dogs were a common feature in society. They were selectively bred and used in hunting and to shepherd flocks of animals.See alsoAgriculture; Attila the Hun; Capitulare de Villis; Capitularies; Carolingian Dynasty; Charlemagne; Clothing; Diet and Nutrition; Lombards; Merovingian Dynasty; VisigothsBibliography♦ Bachrach, Bernard S. Merovingian Military Organization, 481-751. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972.♦ Contamine, Philippe. War in the Middle Ages. Trans. Michael Jones. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984.♦ Duby, Georges. Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West. Trans. Cynthia Postan. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1968.♦ Gladitz, Charles. Horse Breeding in the Medieval World. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1997.♦ Riché, Pierre. Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne. Trans. Jo Ann McNamara. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.♦ Slicher van Bath, Bernard H. The Agrarian History of Western Europe: a.d. 500-1850. Trans. Olive Ordish. London: Arnold, 1963.
Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.
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