When I first heard the term ‘Frisian horse’, I thought immediately of some genetically-engineered mutant beastie that was an amalgamation of the equine species and the common black-and-white Friesian cow that’s the world’s most productive dairy animal. I visualised a stallion with horns or a mare with milk-dripping udders. However, translated into French, Frisian horse is cheval de frise, which is actually the term for a simple but brutal defensive device from medieval times.
It’s a basic wooden frame, or even a log, that’s been porcupined with long wooden spikes or metal blades and placed across an area to discourage an enemy’s cavalry from riding through it. And should the cavalry decide to ride through the area, it’s there to stop them – messily and gorily.
The cheval de frise, the Frisian horse, takes its name from the coastal part of mainland Europe bordering the North Sea that was the homeland of the Frisian people. I’d always assumed that Frisia corresponded to the modern-day province of Friesland in the Netherlands, where people still speak the West Frisian language and the mainstay of the local agricultural economy is the place’s most famous export, the afore-mentioned Friesian cow. However, when I did some research, I discovered that once upon a time Frisia had extended across the coast of the modern-day Netherlands, across the coast of north-western Germany and to the edge of Denmark. Apparently, the medieval Frisians invented the nasty, spiky, horse-troubling cheval de frise as a defensive device because they possessed very little cavalry of their own.
As time passed and as the horse became less important in military science – as did mechanisms for stopping horses – the term cheval de frise grew looser in meaning. It came to refer to any sort of spiked impediment that’s erected in defence of a place. This included the vicious-looking crests of broken glass that householders would embed in mortar along the tops of their perimeter walls to deter – and if necessary, maim – would-be burglars and other trespassers.
These days, people in Britain are urged not to crown the tops of their walls with large jaggy pieces of glass. The Ask the Police website warns: “Using barbed / razor wire and broken glass in order to stop people getting into your home is not advisable. You are making yourself liable to civil action as you owe a duty of care to ensure that visitors to your property are reasonably safe. Odd as it may seem, you also owe a duty of care to trespassers.” Instead, the website advice, which was obviously written by a horticulturally-minded police-officer, is to reinforce your external walls with “(p)rickly plants such as hawthorn, poncira, pyracantha (rapid growth), rosa rugosa, or any kind of berberis,” which “are an effective obstacle against possible intruders and much more pleasant to look at.”
Apparently, either the police in Sri Lanka are less concerned about trespassers suffering multiple lacerations and about keeping up the aesthetic appearances of neighbourhoods; or Sri Lankans pay a lot less attention to what their local coppers say. That’s because around where I live in Colombo, walls that sport long lethal-looking ridges of jutting, fragmented glass – usually pieces of broken bottle – are a familiar sight in the residential side-streets. Indeed, there’s one wall on the seafront, close to my local supermarket, that’s so packed along its top with fangs of glass that I was inspired to whip out my notebook and write a few lines about it. “It resembles,” I waxed poetically, “the spine of a punk stegosaurus”.
I wasn’t surprised when I recently read Straw Hurts by the Sri Lankan writer Romesh Gunesekera, a short story included in Gunesekera’s collection Monkfish Moon, and saw one of the scene-setting opening sentences describe “the sun… on the smashed bottle-glass embedded in the curved top of the roadside cement wall”.
One thing’s for certain. If you’re a burglar in Sri Lanka, you need to make sure that you’ve had your tetanus shots. This is a place where the cheval de frise still has a painful kick.