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Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


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Daniel Roche on horses

Volume 1

La Culture équestre de l'Occident: XVIe-XIXe siècle
(Paris: Fayard, 2008), vol. 1

Reviewed in November 2009

This, and the two volumes that will follow it, may well be the last great work of history inspired by all that was the best in the so-called "Annales school." There is immense learning, to be sure; but there is the theme itself, at once so important, obvious, and intractable. It is as daring and original as works on thaumatological kings, disbelief or on-belief in the sixteenth century, the Mediterranean, material civilization, nobility in the Mâconnais, peasants in Languedoc, piety and non-belief in Provence ... There is the elaboration and ordering of sub-themes, almost an implicit determinism built into it. And there is the playfulness, the whimsy, the made-up words, the occasionally opaque sentences ...

What follows should not be considered a review. I lack the expertise for that task. Instead, I pick out facts and general remarks, to share with readers in what can only be a highly personal reading.

Wonderful statistics, and by this is meant statistics that inspire wonder. Roche begins with the geography and demography of horses, donkeys, and mules. Often in the shadows, but also there, is the horse "motor" provided, in the words of J. Thirsk, "pleasure, power, usefulness." Several efforts were made to count all the horses in France: 3.2 to 3.5 million in 1906, for 46 million Frenchmen. In the late eighteenth century, there were 300 post departures a week from Paris, arriving in Lyon in 5 days, and Marseille in 9 days. A horse traveled 6-7 km au pas, 10-14 at a trot, and 20 (briefly) at a gallop. In the 1880s, 75% of horses were draft horses. Each year, by the 1880s, 21 million (sic!) bails of hay were brought to Paris, to feed the horse population. A horse needs 30 liters of water a day, and up to 50 for a big work horse. The 20,000 horses in Paris in the 1780s therefore consumed 600,000 liters of water a day. This figure would be multiplied four-fold by the 1880s. There were between 25,000 and 30,000 wells in Paris in the 1830s, with the Seine supplying still more water for horses and humans. The collection, transport, and sale of manure to "truck gardeners" around Paris became a major operation, employing thousands.

The new hôtels or upperclass residences built in the eighteenth century had huge stables and remises for vehicles. The Orléanses had stalls for 200 horses. When Napoleon III added wings to the Louvre, he included a new stable for 112 horses. Auberges became bigger; and the old military casernes on the rue de Charenton and the rue du Bac, for the musketeers, would be expanded in various parts of the capital, each caserne having stables.

The embaras, or traffic congestion, became a literary cliché for mediocre and great poets alike. Legislation by the city fathers includes more than a thousand edicts regarding horses and transport, mostly about food supply and traffic. Driving on the right was imposed in 1829-31, and no galloping was allowed within the city. There were 16 traffic accidents per year, 1830-39, and an average of 25 in the succeeding decade. There were 2 policemen for every 10,000 residents in 1829, and 33,000 in 1892. Cobbles and mud would give way to asphalt in the late nineteenth century. Licence plates were required for vehicles in 1831. Trunks, and the great horse-drawn, high, two-wheelers that transported huge beams would not entirely disappear until the twentieth century. Horse-drawn trams added to the confusion; not until 1897 were brakes required on them.

The growth of Paris stimulated the creation of new market places. In 1865, there were 18 markets, with about 5,000 stalls. The new Halles covered 45,000 square meters, with 18,000 of them reserved for parking horses and wagons. The rhythms of daily life turned on harvesting vegetables and fruits. Fish and poultry were delivered the previous day and on into the night. Drivers strove to make sure that their fully-loaded wagon, pulled by the horse motor, would enter Paris at daybreak, if not earlier. (See the front cover of my Paris in the Age of Absolutism, for a baker from Gonesse and his family, selling bread in Paris.)

After exploring life in the capital around horses, Roche turns to their roles in the countryside. He provides maps indicating the numbers of horses per square kilometer. The North and the West had the highest chevaline populations, with Normandy and Brittany being major suppliers for other parts and foreign markets. Oxen were to be found all over France, but in higher numbers in mountainous and forested areas, particularly in the South. In numerous areas, on mail coaches horses were supplemented on hills by oxen (pompidou), owing to their slow but steady power. Donkeys, oxen, and mules were far more prevalent in the South and in rugged countries. A horse's hoofs take up a lot more surface on a mountain path than a donkey's.

In 1852, there were 60,000 threshing machines; by 1882 there would be 300,000, many of them powered by horses. In the Limousin, the Terrade family, recorded in their livres de raison different remedies for curing sick horses. (See the splendid book by Nicole Lemaître, cited by Roche.) It would seem that naming horses did not become prevalent until the nineteenth century. Horses were given saints' names in some regions. On the exterior walls of the stables at the chateau of Oiron, there are carved, lead-filled, almost heraldic insignia that were perhaps embossed on harnesses and saddles, to express pride of ownership. In the countryside the variety and diversity of tasks had, over the centuries, led to aesthetic and practical influences on breeding. Beauty would therefore not be a common, universal criterion; each type of horse would come to have its own ideal by which a specific animal could be judged. Over the centuries the big trade-off, beauty versus strength, became an almost structural (my term) grid that corresponded to social rank and function. Roche makes some comparisons with the British experience, the major difference being the absence of government-funded stud farms (haras) in England. The British gentry and aristocracy had made horse-breeding ­ partly for personal need (and pride) and partly commercial ­ one of their "identity activities," along with fox hunting. Colbert's royal haras (1665) would extend all over France, with the stated purpose of "improving" the types of horses bred, and increasing production. The principal region without stud farms in the nineteenth century ranged from the Gévaudan down into the Cévennes, and then to eastern Languedoc. Some of this high country ― the Larzac, for example ― had been a preferred location for raising horses for Crusaders' armies. Roche does not explore the Whiggish dimension here (perhaps he will in subsequent volumes); but as Louis XIV's armies reached more than 400,000 men, the number of horses needed for cavalry and transport increased dramatically. The absence of a large standing army in Britain is, of course, the centrol theme of Whiggishness. The French, it seems, believed they lacked horses, whereas the British did not believe such a thing. From 1650 to 1750 the British added 50,000 horses a year to their stables; there would be 1,800,000 by 1780.

As might be expected, the administrators of the haras would have to negotiate, satisfy, and mollify various rural and military requirements for horses. Over the decades, the emphasis on saddle horses ― Arabian and British ― would decline in favor of breeds (like the Morgan in the U.S.A.) that looked smart as a team going into town but that was also strong enough to plow or pull a reasonably large cart of hay. The increasing need for ever-stronger horses would favor the raising of Percherons. In breeding, the overall health of the parents seems not to have been a important factor.

The end of the chapter on horse raising touches on several vast subjects, from the uniformization of prices, the rise of concours at fairs, and Flaubert's masterful description of the economic and social places occupied by horses in the culture of Madame Bovary. A veritable public space opens up around the horse in the nineteenth century, that is not by any means free of class considerations, but with magnified and extended awareness of and interest in horses, their beauty, their utility; and their various abilities to "belong" to individuals, families, regions, and occupations became general knowledge.

The chapter on horses and agronomy traces the slow shift away from attributing human characteristics and, of course, social ranks to various breeds of horses. Antique authors have much to say about the humoral theory as applied to horses, their weakness and strength, heat and cold. Aristotle opposes allowing uncontrolled breeding, and he mentions that the mares from Sparta are good at educating their offspring.

The lunatic horse has blue eyes, is sad, and because he is conceived at the time of a new moon, behaves like that satellite. Over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a general negative attitude would develop about small and "bad" horses, with the result that they would not be permitted to breed.

The pioneering early-seventeenth-century agronomist, Olivier de Serres, had much to say about horses, and he would be influential down into the eighteenth century. English writers about horses began to influence what the French wrote as early as Jacques de Solleyssel, sieur du Clapier, whose Parfait Maréchal had 15 editions between 1644 and 1700.

William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, published his Method in French in 1657, and a revised edition in English in 1667. Often paraphrased, it took on authority across France, as part of the most influential "culture" regarding horses. Newcastle's book proudly displayed not only his knowledge of horses but also ― thanks to engravings made in Flanders and based on precise drawings ― his passion for teaching riding and for designing palatial buildings to house horses The absence of stud-farms, the control of horse breeding and raising by the aristocracy, the gentry, the soon-to-be-influential Jockey Club (1833), and above all the creation and systematization of stud books, constituted a truly powerful model to be followed virtually everywhere in the world. Agronomers, stud farms, managers, government ministers, and defenders of local or regional habits, would collectively and controversially adopt English practices, import English stallions and breed mares, and strive to upgrade the general quality of horses in France, while always paying attention to the markets, with their regional and diversified demands.

In about 1810 there were 4,264 regular foire locations, and an additional 2,446 markets, situated mostly in small towns with between 2,000 and 5,000 inhabitants. Some regions such as the France-Comté remained independent of the national market trends; others, such as the Dauphiné, "imported" horses. The Parisian markets were supplied with horses from distant provinces, with the "marchandise" arriving, of course, on foot. Roche regrets the lack of more precise information; but in the end he tentatively concludes that the Parisian markets became larger, with an increasing number of draft horses, but in their organization they remained about the same over three centuries.

There are some remarks on horse thieves, and a brief evocation of Swebach's famous Horse Market (an illustration of which would have been welcome), plus a thoughtful comment on Turgenev's Récits d'un chasseur. Roche Coignet's Mémoires provide invaluable information about how someone could work his way into, and rise, in the horse-trading business.

In the late eighteenth century, there were about 100 horse merchants in Paris. Some were virtually broke when they died, the richest being worth about 100,000 livres. The horse merchants on the Left Bank lived away from the horse markets; on the Right Bank, quite a few lived near the Halles and the rue Saint-Martin. Between 1776 and 1778, one merchant spent 7,000 livres a year on oats, straw, and hay for about 15 horses. A horse might bring 250 livres on average, but some old horses sold for 40 livres; a war horse might bring 1,500 livres. There seems to have been a quite pervasive consensus about the value of the different ages and types of horses, unless they were recognizably exceptional. Advertising in the form of petites annonces reveals the images of horses, sellers, and buyers; and it gives the merchant's address. An aristocratic sheen, either real or faked, appeared in this more specialized market. Old horses were sometimes declared to be just that, once filing their teeth and dying their coat no longer worked. The price of some horses was low because they had just covered 200-300 leagues in a hurry. As one might expect in an Annales history, there are maps showing the location of horse markets in Paris, and where the merchants lived. (I should have mentioned earlier that there is also a map showing the location of the haras across France.)

In 1891, Alphonse Pierre, a veterinarian for the 29th dragoons and a former teacher at Saumur, that haut lieu du cheval (it still is!), published Le Guide des acheteurs: Marchands de ceval et marchands de chevaux. Mostly a recapitulation of what had been in books about horses for a century, there is a recognition of how horses have become continual subjects of conversation, a very major cultural artifact. As for the buyers, borrowing from courtesy books, some are born horsemen, others are not and never will be!

The chapter on the métiers du cheval begins with a brief inventory of everyone in the stable, the maréchal-ferrant being someone with special authority over the others on almost every aspect of the horse's life. The wheel-makers, saddle-makers, upholsterers, wood- and rope-makers, all had particular skills that turned on the horse. Purchasing a horse brought several of these artisans into play, to make or adapt what would be required in order to "employ" the horse.

And there were several artisan groups that lived off the products of dead horses: hair-workers, skinners, crin specialists, glue- and violin-string-makers, wig- and fly-chaser-makers, plus belt- and trunk-makers. Butchers specializing in cutting up and preparing horse meat became far more numerous in the nineteenth century.

Roche emphasizes just how a vast array of techniques-technologies were not only developed around the horse, but were constantly refined and transmitted from generation to generation. Hermès dates from 1837. A certain Jean-Pierre Séris cites Spinoza about the need to have a hammer in order to make a hammer. Slow innovation and accumulated knowledge of skills that are transmitted over the centuries is a very powerful theme here, with more than longue durée and at just the intersection between thought, analysis, and Braudelian routine. Gar Alperowitz and Lew Daly will make the same argument in their critique of the wild claims made by most inventors and radical capitalists. See their Unjust Deserts; How the Rich are taking our Common Inheritance (New York: The New Press, 2008).

There follows a broad-brush word picture of the variations in the number of specialized artisans in villages and small towns. The painting is simply fascinating, but too difficult for me to summarize. The last two chapters explore the blacksmiths and all the related artisan skill groups, and the carriage makers too. The "triumph of the road" resulted not only from more and better roads, but from slow but steady "improvements" and adaptations in harness and carriage-making. Centuries separated the invention of turning pivots on front axles, and the invention of the steel-springed hard-rubber tired berline. The hundreds of other innovations for which there are no names, haunts us in the twenty-first century, because just as he did in La Culture des apparences, Roche discerns the relation between luxury-elite markets and technological advances. Speed, comfort, elegance for personal travel, solidity, balance, and larger, heavier wagons for transport, prompted innovations that were frequently borrowed by imitators and competitors. And all the while the strong, deft, and experienced blacksmith continued to clean hoofs and shape burning-hot iron into shoes, according to techniques used over the centuries. The more proximate and immediate the horse, the less the innovation? Blacksmiths are veterinarians, with a hammer. Machine-made nails did not appear until 1875.

There were 220 blacksmiths in Paris, 1750-80, and 500-600 compagnons in 1848. Roughly half these compagnons were the sons of blacksmiths. Masterships were part of a jurade. Do the Delamare papers contain lists of these masters? A map shows where blacksmiths lived, and as in so many other corporations, intermarriage was high, there was rivalry, there was "illegal" work. There is some evidence about income; and as usual, the top masters held court posts at Versailles or in aristocratic households. There are some figures for other cities. Villages with less than 50 feux did not have blacksmiths.

Panat confirms this finding; but when we first came to the Aveyron in the late 1950s, Marcillac still had two blacksmiths, one on each principal road into the little city. As the demand for ox- and horse-shoeing declined, the last blacksmith, Monsieur Fages, turned to making more or more andirons for summer residents, and to fixing the motors on lawnmowers and motos. There was an ox-showing frame in Panat until recently, which suggests that the smith came to Panat with ready-made shoes and a portable forge. Monsieur Marcel Delaure has a small portable forge (with a hand-turned bellows). Given the slow pace of oxen, the trip to Marcillac would have required more than a day.

The maréchal-ferrant had a clientele up and down the social hierarchy. The Count of Panat probably had servants ride horses (in pain) down to Marcillac when help was needed; but not since the 1870s have there been horses regularly in the castle's écurie.

To complement his prose, Roche calls attention to the Encyclopédie engravings, and to some of Géricault's paintings, and rightly so, as pictures provide an ensemble of facts that written sources do not. Every bit as challenging to interpret, illustrations nonetheless are vital to historical understanding. Fayard ought to have included illustrative material in these otherwise magnificent book.

The carriage was certainly part of the culture des apparences, from the Greeks and Romans, to the triumphs of Emperor Maximilian, and on to Marie de Médicis riding along the Cours la Reine in luxury in her carrosse. David Landes found national cultural delineations in watchmaking, and Roche does the same for coaches, through the transfer of design and technology from English to French, and vice-versa, would seem to have been more complex than for watches. For coach-making, there was no equivalent of the Swiss coup de marché, although Brussels held its own. British watches were more accurate; French ones were more beautiful. It would seem that the innovations in coach-making involving springs, lightness, shape, and safety, were made on both sides of the Channel. The French pioneered in installing windows. Why is a berline called a berline?

Luc Baby and Céline Descamps have studied the petites annonces from c. 1750 to c. 1810, for information about horse- and carriage-sellers. Their studies indicate just how frequent and widespread the practice was. Social patterns are difficult to discern, except for a large percentage of difficult-to-characterize liberal professionals, along with some merchants and luxury manufacturers who were participating and probably had been less numerous a century earlier.

As for carriages, heavier vehicles declined in favor of faster, lighter ones, one of which was called a tape-cul. The high number of English imports (67%) between 1750 and 1789 makes one question whether these vehicles actually came from England, or whether their characterization as "English" derived from their design ― i.e., the "knock off."

The steel-spring vehicles that became so popular resulted from cooperation between locksmiths (not black-smiths) and body-makers. The cooperation is obvious, when one knows about it, but not until one knows about it. Way down into the nineteenth century, a buyer ordered an individualized vehicle, not a standardized model. Like so many other objects (one thinks of the sous-sol of the Bazaar de l'Hôtel de Ville), there was immense variety available. While real factories with hundreds of workers developed in Paris, there would seem to have been a survival of small shops in the provinces.

Before giving a team of horse the last word, Roche reminds his readers that Marx selected carriage-making (chapter 14, Capital) as his example for the division of labor, and that the imagined coach and team transformed from a pumpkin and some mice in Cinderella, has captivated generations..

Pepi and Haus are fictional horses belonging to Count Leinsdorf, in Vienna, in R. Musil's L'Homme sans qualités (1978). Although the horses do not quite talk, they surmount the usual palaver about the inability to characterize "the other" as their absent sex lives, their passion for oats and fresh hay, racing, and the rare and almost disconcerting run in some vast open space. As they stretch their pace before a carriage, they feel little curiosity about humans. Women's hats are covered with prairie flowers that cannot be eaten. One wonders whether Musil has ever belonged to a horse, because his narrative is strangely lacking in the curious and eccentric gestures, caresses, and noises that develop over time between the individual human and the individual other animal.

Roche has given us a splendid book. This brief evocation of it is woefully inadequate, but it may serve its intended purpose: namely, to encourage others to read it.

Orest Ranum