, Volume 97, Issue 4, pp 627-639

Rediscovering the Horse in Medieval French Literature

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Abstract

Scholars of medieval French literature have often overlooked the horse as a purveyor of complex meaning within a text not only because it is mentioned in such works so often, but also because it is wholly common. The horse was one of the earliest domesticated animals in humanity’s history, and as such, it has no particular link to the realm of the merveilleux, superficially a source of creatures of richer allegorical or esthetic interest. An encounter with a frightening monster such as a dragon might represent a test of a knight’s martial skills or a challenge to his piety, whereas in contrast, what could possibly be the importance of the horse, such a ubiquitous, seemingly banal, inhabitant of the period’s literature? This study seeks (1) to elucidate the conception of the horse on the part of the medieval cleric and reader by exploring the mythical lore and contemporary bestiaries associated with the animal, and (2) to define the horse’s function in medieval romance and epic through an analysis of the relationship between the protagonist and his steed in several seminal works, most notably La Chanson de Roland and Alexandre de Paris’s Le Roman d’Alexandre.