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Posted by Rena Maguire

One of the things I’ve become really interested in is animal husbandry of the past. In Ireland we are incredibly lucky to have the Breatha Comaithcesca, a set of laws and judgements for tenancy, made to keep 8th century AD society stable (some could say to keep the lower classes in their place!). These statutes and rulings involve care of animals from birds to bees and even crops, giving us an insight into a very rigidly structured society.

It was a legal necessity that all domestic animals had a herdsperson by night, and that horses should be fettered or else in a stable of an evening “ eich I cuib rech teachta na a ninde”. There was a ‘right’ way to do this, with the cuibreach, a simple straw or rope fetter which could be used for cattle or goats – think of the old-fashioned hobbles you see in Western movies of the 50s (Figs 1 and 2). However, when it came to horses, there was also a wrong way to do this – the laingfiter, or langphetir – decidedly Norse-looking words to describe getting a bit over-the-top in ensuring your pony didn’t wander off! This involved a hair or withie[1] bit in the poor equid’s mouth, which then connected to both fore and hindlegs with a long rope.

The great Irish studies scholar Whitley Stokes translated Cormac’s Glossary, a 10th century primer of Irish words, supposedly written by the Bishop King Cormac mac Cuilennáin , who refers to the langphitir the ‘fetter of the foreigners’ *(Stokes 1868, 101). This word is not used to describe hobbles for any other kind of animal except the horse.

Fig 1. Modern fabric hobbles.

So, does Cormac’s records give us an insight into animal management of the ‘foreigners’ aka Vikings regarding their horses? They were a people who placed quite an emphasis on the use of stallions – and stallions can be quite a handful, even without adding the Viking passion for the decidedly nasty activity of ‘skeid’ or horse-fighting (Fig 3), which may have started in Norway and extended to Iceland (Adalsteinsson 2012). Such draconian fettering may have been sensible in its own way (although not very nice) to make sure your frisky pony didn’t wander off to annoy neighbours!

Just as a by the way – Cormac, of Glossary fame, died in 908 AD by falling off his horse. Probably wasn’t tethered!

Fig 2. Fetters, or cuib reach, from the Aran Islands, part of the collection at Castlebar Folk Museum, National Museum of Ireland.

Fig 3. Skeid, or horse-fights, persisted into the modern era. Image from the excellent


Adalsteinsson, J. H. 2012. A Piece of Horse Liver: Myth, Ritual and Folklore in Old Icelandic Sources. Rekjavik: Haskolautgafan.

Stokes, W. 1868. Cormac’s Glossary.Calcutta: O.T. Cutter

[1] Pliable willow branches

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