Dog Poo, Horse Traps, and Cat Guerilla: An Animate History of Medieval Warfare

The Case of Dog Poo in Medieval Warfare

What has dog poo to do with medieval warfare? According to a drawing in a late medieval pictorial manuscript, the answer to this sticky question is: a lot (fig. 1)!

Fig. 1: On the use of dog poo for the production of saltpetre, Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms. Rh. Hist. 33b, fol. 40v.

Since the introduction of firearms in mid-fourteenth century “Europe”, the demand for saltpetre as the indispensable raw material for gunpowder had been soaring. As the natural occurrence of potassium nitrate was scarce, it became a common practice to use manure as an alternative “natural” source.⁠1 And, as the colourful drawing of the happily pooing dog illustrates, it seems that canine manure was highly valued for its nitrificational properties. In what follows, I would like to use the case of dog poo as a starting point to discuss the role and significance of animals in medieval warfare and martial culture as it is presented in the so-called Ms. Rh. Hist. 33b, an illustrated manuscript on medieval war technology from the Zentralbibliothek Zürich. This compendium on late medieval war technology is an odd document. It’s one of the few still existent serially produced pictorial manuscripts that were produced in the first half of the fifteenth century for low-budget buyers.⁠2 The manufacturers tapped into a huge pool of warfare knowledge that was concocted by the mixture of ancient authorities, professional experience and popular lore. And so, through our copy, which addressed not only lords and urban elites, but a broader audience, we get a glimpse of popular warfare culture. ⁠3

Fig. 2: On the use of horse traps, Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms. Rh. Hist. 33b, fol. 115v.

A Kingdom for a Horse?

When we think about medieval warfare, there is one animal that immediately springs to mind: the warhorse.4 Shakespeare wrote famously about the almost priceless value of a horse on the battlefield, but many medieval epic texts also celebrated famous valiant steeds and their deeds. In real life, if you wanted to impede your opponent’s cavalry it was important to know about a horse’s weak spot: its legs. Two drawings highlight quite vividly how horses could be effectively targeted by hurting their legs (fig. 2 and 3). The gruesome depiction of the bleeding fetlocks and the breaking knees gives us an idea of how horses could be intentionally hurt or fatally wounded for tactic purposes. Yet, if we want to understand medieval warfare culture, we have to talk not only about horses and dogs, but also cats, cows, sheep, and pigeons, in short: the whole diversity of the animal realm that was used and misused in times of war, siege or battle.

Fig. 3: On the use of horse traps, Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms. Rh. Hist. 33b, fol. 116r.

The Animal Spectrum

If we look at the range of animals depicted in the manuscript’s 336 drawings, it becomes clear that animals contributed both actively and passively to late medieval warfare in very different ways. We learn about horses, mules, and donkeys who added their working force to human mobility, transport and infrastructure. At the same time, animals such as dogs, sheep or cows were used because of their value as commodity (manure, leather, wool etc.). What this manuscript brings to our attention in addition to these obvious functional aspects of animal contributions is their weaponization. A memorable example is the use of urban cats as arsonists in the context of sieges (fig. 4). The drawing shows how you should catch local cats roaming outside the town wall and set fire to their tails. This practice builds on the fact that the cats would instinctively hide inside the town wall and eventually set fire to the occupied town.5 A similar tactic involved pigeons. They could be used as flying carriers of little firebombs by attaching a burning bundle to their feet. Even if we dismiss these brutal examples of weaponized animals as figments of booksellers who wanted to add entertainment value to increase the demand for such manuscripts, we still have to consider the role of these animal warfare stories in the wider context of popular warfare culture.

Fig. 4: On the use of cats to set fire to a town, Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms. Rh. Hist. 33b, fol. 131r.

Toward an Animate History of Warfare and Martial Culture

The vivid drawings in Ms. Rh. Hist. 33b can be used as a reminder of the importance of animals in medieval warfare, in both practical and cultural terms. In that sense, the manuscript does not give us a how to-guide to medieval warfare but should be understood as a compendium advocating tactical and technological resourcefulness. Animals contributed to the way battles were fought, sieges were held, and wars were lost and won: As commodity, as working force, as targets, and as weapons. They were used because of their physical strength, their skin, their excretions, but also because of their flight and survival instincts. By integrating animal contributions into our analysis of warfare culture we might get a more holistic idea of medieval martial culture. The argumentation should not just revolve around questions of agency or non-agency, but rather enlarge the scope of different “doings” in the context of war. This leads towards an approach that can be understood as an “Animate History”6 of warfare and martial culture: A historical perspective that focuses on the complex and interrelated effects, deeds, and contributions of human and non-human lives. Never underestimate the power of dog shit!

Cite this article as: Isabelle Schuerch, "Dog Poo, Horse Traps, and Cat Guerilla: An Animate History of Medieval Warfare," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 27/07/2020, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/1042.

1 See Jack Kelly, Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics. The History of the Explosive That Changed the World (New York: Basic Books, 2004), p. 33.

2 For the serial illuminated manuscript production see Lieselotte E. Stamm, ‘Auftragsfertigung und Vorratsarbeit: Kriterien zu ihrer Unterscheidung am Beispiel der Werkstatt Diebold Laubers’, Unsere Kunstdenkmäler : Mitteilungsblatt für die Mitglieder der Gesellschaft für Schweizerische Kunstgeschichte = Nos monuments d’art et d’histoire : bulletin destiné aux membres de la Société d’Histoire de l’Art en Suisse = I nostri monumenti storici : bollettino per i membri della Società di Storia dell’Arte in Svizzera, 36/3 (1985), p. 302–309. For a description of Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Ms. Rh. Hist. 33b see Giulio Grassi, ‘Ein Kompendium spätmittelalterlicher Kriegstechnik aus einer Handschriftenmanufaktur (ZBZ, Ms. Rh. hist. 33b)’, Technikgeschichte, 63/3 (1996), p. 195–217. For a general discussion of “artes belli” see Rainer Leng, Ars belli. Deutsche taktische und kriegstechnische Bilderhandschriften und Traktate im 15. Und 16. Jahrhundert, (Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2002).

3 The manuscript itself offers both options: it addresses urban elites („Wie man stet leren sol, das sich der herschaft erwerent wol“, fol. 1v) and lords („Wie man herren underwissen sol, daz sy sich der stet erwerent wol“, fol. 2r).

4 See Ann Hyland, The Warhorse. 1250-1600, (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1998), and Ann Hyland, The Horse in the Middle Ages, (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1999).

5 For more details on the use of cats see Nürnberger Codex MS. 25801, fol. 16v: „Wiltu wissen ain andern satz | so vach uff ain lebent katz | die uß der stat komen sy | mach ain für seklin da by, | und bind dz der katzen an den swantz | ich verstand unwol disen tantz.“

6 For an introduction of the concept of “Animate History” see Gesine Krüger, Aline Steinbrecher, Clemens Wischermann (ed.): Tiere und Geschichte. Konturen einer Animate History, (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2014).


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Isabelle Schuerch

Isabelle Schuerch is Senior Lecturer for Medieval History at the University of Bern. From 2015 to 2017, she was a senior researcher in the DFG-funded Reinhart Koselleck project "Societalisation among participants and their transformation . A history of society and theory of the European early modern period." (Prof. Dr. Rudolf Schlögl). Her main research interests include historical human and non-human forms of relationship, practice theories and the history of mediality and materiality.

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