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When Fastrada, my heroine in Queen of the Darkest Hour, is comparing the Avars’ horses to her husband Charles’s Roman military horses, I have her think the Avarian steeds are about a foot shorter. Although I rarely employ this unit of measure in fiction, the Carolingians did use feet.

Carolingian warriors on horseback

From a ninth century Carolingian manuscript (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Now all you horse lovers are cringing. As S.K. Keogh, author of the Jack Mallory series and one of my astute critique partners pointed out, horses are measured in hands. Today, thanks to Henry VIII, a hand is standardized at 4 inches.

But what about people who lived centuries earlier? Did the folk in early medieval times use hands to measure the height of their horses?

Well, this unit of measure goes way, way back. The Egyptians used it, and Ezekiel 40:43 (New International Version) uses “handbreadth” to describe the length of double pronged hooks.

But what about my people? Here, I consult the Romans, whom Charlemagne tried to emulate. Turns out, the Romans used palms. They had two forms: the great palm, which is length of the hand, or 12 fingerbreadths, and the small palm, the breath of the hand, about four digits. A palm as a unit of measure varied with the size of the hand.

So would a Germanic woman who grew up east of the Rhine think in terms of palms or something else? And what about modern readers who don’t measure livestock by hands or palms?

Fastrada might have used palms as a unit of measure, especially when bargaining with merchants. For the non-equestrian modern readers, though, I might use “four palm-breaths.” Perhaps, it’s not exact, but it will be simpler to visualize.

Just to complicate matters, the average early medieval horse was shorter, about 4 ½ feet at the withers, I mean 13 ½ hands. In this current draft of my work-in-progress, here is how I’m describing these animals:

Whispering about the Avars, she and Meginfrid strode toward the courtyard. At the entryway, Meginfrid marched ahead to announce her to their foreign guests, who bowed when she stepped outside. Surrounded by their Frankish and Bavarian escort, the Avars had dismounted from their armored steeds. The sturdy horses were the same height as most Frankish animals, about four palm-breadths shorter than Charles’s Roman military horses. Even though the withers of the Avarian beasts only reached Fastrada’s breastbone, they were majestic with gold discs on their bridles and feathers from gold objects just above their broad, convex foreheads. And there were those objects hanging from the saddles, what Charles had called stirrups.


A Mathematical and Philosophical Dictionary: Containing an Explanation of the Terms, and an Account of the Several Subjects, Comprized Under the Heads Mathematics, Astronomy, and Philosophy Both Natural and Experimental, by Charles Hutton

Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, edited by William Smith

Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures, edited by Helaine Selin

A General Dictionary of Commerce, Trade, and Manufactures: Exhibiting Their Present State in Every Part of the World; and Carefully Comp. from the Latest and Best Authorities, by Thomas Mortimer