Tuesday, 22 January 2013

My kingdom for a horse! Mmmm ... tasty!

TV chef Clarissa Dickson Wright thinks that the recent outcry over horseflesh in supermarket burgers has less to do with the public feeling cheated out of their advertised ration of mechanically-recovered cow parts than it does with our ancient cultural taboo against eating poor Neddy.

I used to think that the our national aversion to hippophagy might have had something to do with the Normans. After all, William the Bastard's spawn and their cronies in the Norman nobility appropriated huge tracts of England as "royal forests", their own private hunting grounds, and felt so strongly about keeping the plebs out that penalties for poaching included the blinding or castration. If these were the sanctions for filching the odd bit of game, imagine the strop our horse-loving overlords would have got into if hungry Anglo Saxons had dared to butcher one of their beloved destriers or hunting steeds for the pot.

Then I googled it, and found that most authorities seem to think that the taboo had more to do with religious, rather than aristocratic, disapproval. Specifically, Pope Gregory III was apparently keen to stamp out pagan horse-eating rituals among the Germans.

According to Clarissa Dickson Wright, though, the taboo started with an ecclesiastical ban, but not a papal one:
I do think I know why we’re alone in Europe by not eating horse, though. It’s all down to King Alfred. When he was trying to build up his cavalry squadron, he brought in horses from Spain, which were stockier than our own. But the English, much to his annoyance, kept eating them – in those days, horse meat was eaten in large quantities. So he commanded the Archbishop of Canterbury to anathematise the eating of horse. Essentially, if you ate it, you were going to hell. 
So there you have it - a specifically English (Wessex-ish?) ban, enacted by the Primate of All England, at the behest of the Monarch least likely to win Celebrity Great British Bake Off. This raises two possibilities; either:
 a) CDW is citing some apocryphal tale, like the one about King Alfred burning the cakes, or

 b) A lot of the things I thought I knew about the Dark Ages are wrong.
As every well-informed schoolchild knows, in 1066 the Normans had cavalry, but the English fought on foot and William triumphed at Hastings after the English shield-wall broke. Nothing there about King Harold fielding cavalry of any sort. If King Alfred had really introduced a squadron of mounted warriors help see off the Vikings, the idea must have failed to catch on, given the notable lack of cavalry in England a couple of centuries later.

And where did he obtain his bloodstock? In Alfred's time, the larger part of the Iberian peninsula consisted of the Islamic Emirate of Córdoba. I'm guessing that a Christian monarch didn't get Arabian steeds from a Muslim realm engaged in sporadic border warfare with Christendom, as represented by the fracturing Carolingian Empire and the Kingdom of Asturias. Christian Asturias, however, did have mounted warriors of its own by Alfred's time:
At the start of the 9th century Visigothic armies were mostly composed of infantry. They had not yet adopted the Moorish jinete style of fighting. Their cavalry was a small cadre of knights. After the reconquest had moved into the plains south of the Douro River they would begin to have town militias, mostly spearmen and archers, but also including mounted sections of caballeros villanos. It was the caballeros villanos who fought in the Jinete style of the Moors. Asturias continued to have a cadre of armored knights.
If being at war with Viking raiders was enough to cement some sort of alliance with Alfred, the Kingdom of Asturias might have ticked that particular box:
By the mid 9th century the Viking attacked on the coastal Kingdom of Asturias in northwest of Spain. During the reign of Alfonso III Vikings were stifling the already weak threads of sea communications that tied Galicia to the rest of Europe. Raiding continued for the next two centuries. 
CDW's tale's sounding improbable, but possible, so far. But what about the ecclesiastical aspect?

There were two Archbishops of Canterbury during Alfred's reign, Æthelred and Plegmund. According to CDW's own A History of English Food it was Æthelred who came up with the horesemeat ban. But I've not been able to find any other source for her story of an Archbishop ordering the gentis Anglorum to abstain from their unchristian taste for  horsemeat, or any reference to Alfred's army including cavalry.

It's an intriguing story, but from what I've seen so far, I'd trust TV historian Michael Wood to do the history of the Dark Ages and TV chef Clariss Dickson Wright to tell me how to make a rabbit pie, but not vice versa.