Did horse sacrifice persist in Christian Europe?

History Asked by Nick Nicholas on December 11, 2020

While researching the Indo-European horse sacrifice, I happened upon the following claim online:

Although the papal ban seems to have greatly reduced the consumption of horseflesh in most of Europe, the ritual sacrifice of horses continued for a surprisingly long time. Horses were slaughtered at the funerals of King John of England in 1216 and the Holy Roman Emperor Karl IV in 1378. As recently as 1781, during the funeral of cavalry General Friedrich Kasimir at Trier, his horse was killed and deposited in his grave.

The source for this claim, which is widespread online, appears to be A History of Pagan Europe by Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick (Routledge, 1995), p. 140:

Pagan horse sacrifice continued in Denmark until the early eleventh century [footnote 6], and it continued as a funeral rite of kings and knights. Horses were slaughtered at the funerals of King John of England [footnote 7], the Emperor Karl IV in 1378 and Bertrand Duguesclin in 1389.[footnote 8] In 1499, the Landsknechte sacrificed a horse to celebrate the end of the Swabian Wars (Schwabenkrieg).[footnote 9] During the funeral of Cavalry General Friedrich Kasimir at Trier in the Rhineland in 1781, his horse was killed and thrown into his grave.[footnote 10]

It’s published by a reputable if non-university publisher. It has a nice font. It has footnotes. And there is a long history of pagan survivals in Europe; the 1781 incident sounds plausible. So you’d think the book is reliable.

But the notion of horses being slaughtered over King John’s grave, in full view of the ecclesiastical hierarchy of England, just doesn’t pass the smell test.

Reason (a) to be wary of the claim: reviews of the book at Goodreads:

I’m always a little leery of historians with an obvious axe to grind, and the authors of this book – better known for a series of New Age and Wiccan publications – definitely qualify

I’ll also say that the bibliography is helpful, and there are a fair number of footnotes (though still, not enough), which is unusual for something Nigel Pennick had a hand in. (In his other books you’re always thinking, "Wow, that’s interesting. I’d like to know more, but hmmm…there’s no reference. How does he know that??")

Reason (b), no independent mention of this in the Wikipedia page on King John, the PhD thesis on Burials of English Kings (that starts with King John), or the French Wikipedia page on du Guesclin (which spends six paragraphs on his quadruple burial). You’d have thought it a noteworthy enough detail to mention.

Reason (c): Google Books does not show Jones & Pennick’s footnotes; but I think I did find their source, Tylor’s Primitive Culture (1873) (p. 474), and that’s not what Tylor said:

All these rites probably belong together as connected with ancient funeral sacrifice, and the survival of the custom of sacrificing the warrior’s horse at his tomb is yet more striking. Saint-Foix long ago put the French evidence very forcibly. Mentioning the horse led at the funeral of Charles VI., with the four valets-de-pied in black, and bareheaded, holding the corners of its caparison, he recalls the horses and servants killed and buried with præ-Christian kings. And that his readers may not think this an extraordinary idea, he brings forward the records of property and horses being presented at the offertory in Paris, in 1329, of Edward III. presenting horses at King John’s funeral in London, and of the funeral service for Bertrand Duguesclin, at St. Denis, in 1389, when horses were offered, the Bishop of Auxerre laid his hand on their heads, and they were afterwards compounded for. [Saint-Foix, "Essais historiques sur Paris", in "Oeuvres Comp." Maestricht, 1778, vol. iv. p. 150.]

Germany retained the actual sacrifice within the memory of living men. A
cavalry general, Count Friedrich Kasimir Boos von Waldeck, was
buried at Treves in 1781 according to the forms of the Teutonic Order;
his horse was led in the procession, and the coffin having been
lowered into the grave the horse was killed and thrown in upon it. (J. M. Kemble, "Horae Ferales", p. 66.)
This was, perhaps, the last occasion when such a sacrifice was consummated in solemn form in Europe. But that pathetic incident of a
soldier’s funeral, the leading of the saddled and bridled charger in
the mournful procession, keeps up to this day a lingering reminiscence
of the grim religious rite now passed away.

(The reference Tylor cites for von Waldeck does not give the details he does.)

That’s why there was no mention of any of this in the PhD thesis about the burial of English Kings, by the way: as @MAGolding point out, the burial was not of King John of England, who lived a century and a half before King Edward III, but of John II of France, who died in London in 1364 as Edward’s prisoner. Edward III was kind enough to send the horses with the body back to Paris for burial.

Some new references may have been unearthed by Jones & Pennick, and I have not seen their footnotes; user @justCal did find the source they gave for their footnote 7 (King John), and it has if anything less information than Tylor (and certainly less than Saint-Foix): Johann Nepomuk Sepp, Die Religion der alten Deutschen und ihr Fortbestand in Volkssagen, Aufzügen und Festgebrauchen (1890), p. 267. (My translation from German):

Eduard III brought horses to the Offertory at King John’s funeral in London. The Bishop of Auxerre blessed the horses in 1389, which were offered (geopfert) to St Denys at the funeral service of Bertrand Duguesclin.

Sepp cites Tylor for von Waldeck, in fact. And (linked above) this is what Saint-Foix had written (again, my translation):

In a transaction dated 1329 between the priests of Paris and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it was written that someone dying was free to choose to be buried in that church, but that his body would first be brought to the parish where he died, and that the priests of that parish would have half the lamps, herds and horses to be offered up (présentés a l’offrande), before he was buried in the Holy Sepulchre. The Continuator of Nangis reports that when King John died in London, Edward III carried out a magnificent service for him, and that he offered up several prize horses, caparisoned in black, with the French escutcheon ("offerens pro eo multos equos insignitos armis Franciae, cum equitibus…"). In the service in 1389 at Saint Denis for Bertrand Duguesclin, by the order of Charles VI […] [citing Hist. de l’Abbaye de S. Denis, D. Félibien] "The Bishop received the present of horses by placing his hand on their head; then they were brought back (on les ramena): but they had to be later compensated for with the abbey, in which they were vested."

I have reason to assume Jones & Pennick have misread "offering" (German: geopfert) horses in their sources with regard to Christian royal burials, as literal sacrificial killing rather than the attenuated Christian notion of blessing at the altar. (The German verb is translated as both "sacrifice" and "offer up". In Saint-Foix’s account, lamps are being offered up in the same breath as sheep and horses—they are hardly being slaughtered. Not to mention that the Latin chronicle speaks of offering up horses and their knights.) The sources also sound to me like the churches involved got to keep the horses (alive) after they were offered up.

So much for the evidence of the 14th century. Does anyone have any further evidence for or against a survival of horse sacrifice in Christian mediaeval Europe?

One Answer

No. Evidence seems to suggest that the 1781 incident was highly irregular as the sources point towards one specific incident. There is also no corroborative evidence to suggest that there was an actual tradition in the German Order to sacrifice horses alongside Landkomture.

I investigated different avenues where horse sacrifice should have been mentioned, but in every case the death of von Waldeck is brought out as an unique event. Looking into the burial traditions of the Teutonic Order, there is no mention of horse sacrifices—though some promising articles are out of reach—nor would one expect the warriors of a socialized medieval elite to sacrifice one of the key elements of their military might to a burial ceremony when they were supposed to be humble and pious.

Case of Friedrich Kasimir

From the OP's:

Germany retained the actual sacrifice within the memory of living men. A cavalry general, Count Friedrich Kasimir Boos von Waldeck, was buried at Treves in 1781 according to the forms of the Teutonic Order; his horse was led in the procession, and the coffin having been lowered into the grave the horse was killed and thrown in upon it. (J. M. Kemble, "Horae Ferales", p. 66.)

This source, however, doesn't cite a better one. Indeed, 'Horae Ferales' is less exact in its description:

It is very remarkable that so late as the end of the eighteenth century we should find a similar custom practised among the members of a martial and Christian order of knighthood; for in 1781 Frederick Casimir was laid in his grave with his slaughtered horse.

Most of the language of 'Horae Ferales' is rather old, and Kemble's use of Teutonic is often with the emphasis on the Roman-contemporary Germanic tribes. He even emphasises the more prevalent nature of horse sacrifice in earlier times, with the 1781 event specifically highlighted as an exception:

Our most ancient forefathers attached that disgrace not to this trusty asso ciate but to that cowardly shrinking thief the wolf ; and in homely Pagan times the hound and the war-horse accompanied their master to the bright regions of the unseen world. We hear that it was an old custom in the North to bury the hero with his horse and dog.

This event is otherwise described in an English synthesis of a Russian article:

Coming down to more modern times we find that the custom of burying horses with their masters is less frequent in Wwestern Russia than in Estern Russia and Siberia; ... Among the Germans, the custom of which we have been treating seems to have died out in the time of the Karolingians, among the Slavs about the eleventh century; the Finnish and Turkic tribes of Eastern Russia continued it in some cases down to the eighteenth century ... Isolated cases of killing a horse at a funeral may be found in Western Europe, even in the eighteenth century, the last case being at the burial of General Count Boos von Waldeck in 1781, when it took place as a part of the regular ceremonial of the old Teutonic Order.1
—Wardrop, 'The Use of Sledges, Boats, and Horses at Burials in Russia'

The provided source for the 1 here is Stramberg, "Rheinischer Antiquarius," I, vol. i. "Colbence," 1851, p.203; Tylor, "Primitive Culture," 3rd ed., vol. i, p.474. Even if this isolated case exists, that only a few mentions for this event exist indicate that it was definitely not common occurrence.

Traditions of the German Order

I've read a bit on the military of the Teutonic Order, and I don't know of a single instance of horse sacrifice from that. Further, two articles relating to burials within the lands of the Teutonic Order support this:

The Livonian Rhymed Chronicle

I was originally unable to access to articles. Access to one of these was provided by @LarsBosteen who cited the most relevant parts which I've included here:

It would appear also that the Teutonic Knights sometimes practised the local Baltic tradition of sacrificing material goods. The thirteenth century Livonian Rhymed Chronicle is extremely useful is this respect, informing us that after a successful battle with Lithuanians, members of the Order sacrificed horses and weapons to God. ... [The Chronik des Preussenlande says native Prussians] believed in a resurrection, but not correctly. They believed that as he is on earth, noble or common, poor or rich, powerful or not, just so would he be after the resurrection... it was customary after the death of a noble to bury with him his weapons and horse, servants and maids, beautiful clothes, hunting dogs, falcons,... Also with the common people everything they owned was burned, because they believed it all would rise with them and continue to serve them.
—Kļaviņš, 'The Ideology of Christianity and Pagan Practice among the Teutonic Knights: The Case of the Baltic Region'

I highlighted the bold section from the above which looked the most promising. However, looking at the original Rhymed Chronicle I'm not sure it's so clear (though Kļaviņš is a lot more experienced in this than I am). A liberal translation (from my Estonian copy) of these lines (2662–2675 if I'm not mistaken) in the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle is:

When the battle had ceased
From horses to the ground
Stepped the brothers and their assistants.
They all rejoiced in their hearts.
In truth, their anger had passed,
For they had not lost anyone.
Jesus Christ was praised for this,
Who had been the saviour of the world.
He was worthy of great honour.
The arms and horses
Were divided equally.
God in Heaven
Was given His part.

The original Low German reads:

Do des strites ende was,
do irbeizeten nider uf daz gras
die brudere und ir helfer do.
von herzen Waren sie alle vro.
durch recht vergangen was ir zorn,
sie batten niemant da verlorn.
des wart gelobet Jhesus Crist,
der al der werlde ein loser ist:
er was wol der eren wert.
beide wapen unde pfert
die teilte man gliche.
gote in himelriche
wart sin teil behalden.

A similar moment is described near the end of the Chronicle, in lines 11984–11995. Free translation:

After it had gone so
the Christians all rejoiced.
Those who had fall to the Lithuanians
To be imprisoned in Courland
Were rejuvenated
And liberated from the heathen.
There heathen horses,
helms, shields, and swords were taken
and shared out equally.
God in Heaven
Was also given his share,
He had given them success.

The original Low German:

Do diz was irgangen so,
die cristen wurden alto vriu,
die der Lettowen hant
gevangen hetto in Kurlant,
die wurden vrolich getrost
und von der heidenschaft irlost.
do nam man der heiden pfert,
helme, schilde undo swert
und teilten daz geliche.
gote von himelriche
wart bescheiden ouch sin teil,
der in gegeben hette heil.

In a different location (lines 4701–4709) some opponents of the Germans describe how they want to burn horses for their gods (plural). The success of the Samlanders in the battle is described next, and their sacrifices are mentioned as now-happening in lines 4873—4876.

Further Research

One further article may still provide relevant informaton:

Answered by gktscrk on December 11, 2020

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