Well, Okay, Go Ahead and Pray for the Horse

2507884027_2878cbfd19You may be familiar with the ending of the romance of Bevis of Hampton, which sees the–SPOILER ALERT! IN THE MIDST OF LIFE WE ARE IN ETC.–deaths of the hero, his wife, Josian, and Bevis’s indominably loyal horse, Arondel. There follows chapel building and a general call for prayer, with an unusual addition:

God on here saules have pité!

And also for Arondel,

Yif men for eni hors biddes schel,

Thus endeth Beves of Hamtoun.

God yeve us alle Is benesoun!


(from the Teams edition of the Auchinleck version of Bevis; the Kölbing EETS edition gives a few more versions of the horse prayer lines, e.g, “And on Arundel, hys goode stede, / 3iff men for hors scholden synge or rede”; unless I’m missing it, the Anglo-Norman version has nothing of this sort; the TEAMs introduction cites “versions in Celtic, Old Norse, Dutch, Italian, even in Romanian, Russian, and Yiddish”: if anyone knows whether Bevis’s horse merits a prayer in these, do let me know)

I had been reading this prayer as an outlier in medieval Christianity, as prayers for animals sometimes just don’t work out all that well. I think of an exemplum from Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum in which several students play at being priests by baptizing a dog in a river; the dog, unable to bear the power of the “trini nominis” (three names), turns rabid.

Recently, though, I’ve been reevaluating my position on the heterodoxy of prayers for animals. Certainly, animals don’t partake fully in the community of the faithful (or do they? “fully”?). Even in the Acts of Phillip, the Apostle must transform the talking goat and leopard into humans before they can receive the Eucharist, and, except perhaps in V.33.4 of Irenaeus of Lyons’ Against Heresies (apparently unread during the Middle Ages), animals do not resurrect, as do humans, into immortality.

Nonetheless, what are we to make of the German ritual of the Umritt?

Beginning around 1300, peasants brought their horses into visual contact with the Eucharist on the feasts of Saint Leonhard and Saint George, patrons of knightly pursuits in previous centuries. The rite appears to have been a kind of equine communion. For this purpose churches were installed with special doors (on an east-west axis — altars were on a north-south axis). Peasants would ride their smartly decorated animals through the doors into the middle of the church, to have them look either at the exposed Eucharist or at the ‘windows’ of the container housing it. The priests also prepared the horses for their meeting with the Host by blessing them with holy water. The entire ceremony was a variant of the Umritt, the most typical form of old Bavarian popular piety, which has been found in approximately two hundred places in its different versions.

Rothkrug, Lionel. “Popular Religion and Holy Shrines: Their Influence on the Origins of the German Reformation and Their Role in German Cultural Development,” Religion and the People, 800-1700. James Obelkevich, ed. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 1979. 20-86, at 30.

More to the point, however, for Bevis of Hampton, what about the model prayers for horses in Middle English veterinary treatises? Once again, I thank Briony Aitchison, in this case, for directing me to this edition by Willy Braekman, where the last of the four treatises overflows with prayers for sick horses:

Aske ye mannes name þat owes þe hors, and þe hew of he hors, and sey þis charme: Lord als wisseley as þis is þe first corne þat god let sow and setten on erth, also stedfastliche, if þi wil be, delyuer þis hors of fester, of worme, and of rankel. Michael in þe hel can to his brother Raphael, þe archangele, and seyde to him: Raphael wher astou ben, þat i no mith þis day sen? I haue ben in þe land of wormes; turne ageyn, Raphael, and sle ye .ix. wormes fro .i. tul .ij,. from .ij. tul iij., [and so on, counting up to .ix. and then back down again], so þat þu let not on on [sic] liue. As Raphael delyueres þe .ix. wormes, als stedfastli, lorde, if þi wil be, delyuer þis hors fro farcion [farcy] and of racle [fester/putrefaction] and of all wormes, and ys is proued for soth.

(p. 96, #26, y’s changed to thorns where meaningful: I’m guessing Braekman’s typewriter didn’t have a þ key]

Another prayer (p. 103, #63] in the same work similarly calls in the big guns, while also suggesting a kind of pantheism:

In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti Amen. I coniure þe, wikked feloun [glossed by Braekman as “a suppurative sore”] , in þe name of god al weldyng of heuen, erthe and hell, and of þe sonne, and of þe mone, and of þe .vij. sterres, and of all creatures, and of all daingeles, and of all þe confessoeres, bisschopes, and of all hundred abbotes redy to syng on mydwynter nyght, þat þu ne longer dwell in þe name of þe fader and of þe sone and of þe holy gost: sey þus a boute þe hors.

Of course, the difference between Arondel and a sick horse is that Arondel is dead. What good would the power of the stars, the 100 abbots ready to sing on midwinter night, and so forth, do for a dead horse? Does Arondel’s soul need to be sped through purgatory? Presumably not, and presumably, then, the ending of Bevis merits this modern-day inquistor’s suspicion of, at least, heterodoxy.

On the other hand, with the Umritt in Germany, with the practical, late-medieval advice to call on, well, everything to cure one’s horse, and, heck, with medieval-modernish animal blessings occuring in my little town, maybe it’s time, at least in my next big project, to radically reevaluate my convinction that nonhuman animals are present in the Christian body only as its inexcluded other?

(Image credit: this from RATAEDL’s flickr stream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/40635353@N00/ / CC BY-SA 2.0)