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Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


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Daniel Roche, La Gloire et la Puissance: Histoire de la culture équestre, XVIe-XIXe siècle, volume 2 (Paris: Fayard, 2011) pp. 493.

Awesome, awesome indeed, is this second volume on the cultural history centered on the horse. A work on a very grand scale, magisterial, learned, and almost intensely personal, as great history almost always is. The reader quickly comprehends the surface meaning, and then the reflection begins. It will never stop for this reader, until his dying day.

As Roche grows older, his prose increasingly becomes paintings in words. Often somewhat oblique. But as the knights come riding out through the mist in George Sand's marvelous story, the picture comes into focus. The bright colors of fact, even statistics, bring clarity and possibility for judgment.

Histories of social and cultural continuities are very difficult to write. Danger of falling into the commonplace. There are, of course, changes, slight but revealing, in the imaginaire that is the horse and rider: the straight postured heads (sic) in proper position, the heroic knightly images, the armor shining in the sun are trans-historical. The Queen's horse guards, the Republican guards, the illustrious Spanish and Austrian lippizaners are perpetual traditions that still turn heads! A rider's abilities become readily apparent. His training and years of riding become immediately apparent, but some individuals learn to ride better than others. The correlation between these "better" riders and elite social standing, wealth, and power would be assumed, rationalized, and expressed in power, prose, and verse. Here was the continuity that, like a huge magic, pulled all European societies into huge outlays of human effort and wealth.

I cannot write a review of this book because my competence is nil. I have had to turn to my dictionaries on numerous occasions and discover that, having learned what the French word is in English, I had to turn to an English dictionary because I did not know what the word meant. I have never learned to ride a horse. The last horses in the Ranum family were put down in 1936. My father loved horses and expected me to love them. I disappointed. My grandfather Ranum bought difficult horses at low prices, trained them (his phrase was "turned them around") and then sold them. My Chaffee grandfather had an elaborate scar on one shoulder. It showed where each tooth of an angry horse had torn his skin. What follows, then, is an informal personal reading, written to be a dialogue with a historian whom I greatly admire, and for readers who have the luxury of time to deepen their knowledge and appreciation for a crucial dimension of Western European culture.

* * *

The careful framing of his study of aristocratic elites is grounded first on the more theoretical works of P. Bourdieu (La Distinction), and N. Elias (court culture), followed by general histories of the nobility by J. Meyer, J.-M. Constant, and the more local studies by M. Figeac (the Bordelais) and F.-J. Ruggiu (villes moyennes). Arno Mayer's work on the continuities of the Ancien Régime down to World War I, and L. Bergeron's and G. Chaussinand-Nogaret's on the Notables, complement each other well and give authority to the arguments centering on continuity. The persistent séduction du monde aristocratique runs throughout the period and was not really undermined by the rise of bourgeois powers or popular democratization. Life centered on the horse exuded a very strong culture of appearances across the centuries; the upward-mobile and the well-to-do would go on sending their children to a manège, buy them the right clothes, and dream that one day they would belong to the Jockey Club.

The first literature about the horse addressed here is generally part of the courtesy-book genre. Books about dressage, and horsemanship in general, were part of that great revolution in printing the "art of" or the "secrets of" that came with large-scale printing in the sixteenth century. The Italians would command enormous respect and influence over horsemanship in the sixteenth century. Differentiating horses into categories such as hunters, war horses, riding horses, and draft horses was already developing, as were regional identities based on size and color.

There follows a short case study to indicate non-court-centered (really state-centered) attention to horse raising by the Marquis du Voyer d'Argenson (not the ones I known from the Fronde or the 1680s!), who lived from 1722 to 1788. Like his predecessors, this d'Argenson thought and dared to act outside routine. As an inspecteur général de la cavalerie he learned firsthand the elaborate networks engaged in horse production, importation, etc, and he developed a "political economy" centered on the horse. This required a lot of money, but he had a lot. The results were successful and important in extending and varying the identities of horses for specific purposes. He sought to establish a different approached that owed something to the English but that had its own cultural depth that combined an educated, refined, and perhaps more distinct cultural dimension for France. Ironically, and this is so French, he was criticized for creating and marketing a product: he risked dérogeance!

D'Argenson possessed high office and high social rank, but he was not above criticism for breaking ever more strict social-elite boundaries. One of the features that historians always stress about the Industrial Revolution in England is the creation of a national market. D'Argenson's reforms might just have helped in that direction - a direction that the French would not take in the horse market for a very long time, if ever.

Almost simultaneously (three decades earlier?) a renewed Anglomania for English horses developed, along with a particular courtly life style, hunting that was still more ritualized, and most importantly, an increased emphasis on selective breeding. There would be stronger regional varietal (like wine!) characteristics, for example in Normandy and the Limousin. Only a few decades later, there would be special rooms for hunting and horse gear, special clothes, portraits of horses and dogs, and châtelains would jealously defend forests, thickets and passages. Racing would come into its own as major country events, and competition for fast runners increased. It would take a lot of money to hold up one's head in the "horsey set" - a leisurely, snobbish pursuit where, as with so many aspects of court culture, there was an almost total break with any social utility. (Roche cites Thorstein Veblen, which I am happy to see: an eminent Minnesotan born about 50 miles from my own place of birth.)

Much of the Anglomania movement involved English, or reputedly English horses, and English carriages, or English-design carriages at its center; and certainly the movement was stronger in the North and West of France. But Toulouse-Lautrec's father comes to mind, at the château and domain of Le Bosc (north of Carmaux, south of Rodez). The Comte de Toulouse-Lautrec, known as the prince noir, kept fine horses and organized outings and hunting parties with the other aristocrats of the region. He as a sportsman and gentleman. No surprise that some of his son's first drawings were of horses.

Roche provides interesting statistics on how horses were a focal point for the 200 richest and locally most powerful families. Expenditures for stables and so forth increased; the duc de Penthièvre had an annual income of 1,600,000 livres in the 1730s, and 4,000,000 in 1789, about 500,000 of which he spent on horses and stables in 1750. High household offices cost huge sums (e.g. grand écuyer). The royal and high-aristocratic households kept stables larger than the "national" budgets of most of the small Italian and German principalities.

Marigny, who owed his favor to Pompadour, was a small player; he nevertheless spent the same percentage of his income on stables as Condé (14%). The detail that Roche gives about the number and type of horses inspires wonder. And of course, it confirms Elias's thesis: court culture was diffused throughout society. The synthesis of the social, the hierarchical, and the powerful is manifest in les apparences.

In the chapters on hunting, it is the courtly and noble code of conduct that prevails through the centuries. The hierarchies of animals to be hunted remained quite stable, the stag being the highest and most noble. I recall when Prof. D.H. Willson described how James I would slit open the dead stag's body on its marble table and then smear blood on each hunter-courtier present. The French deigned to hunt rabbits and hares, but royal hunts very probably still made the stag the central prize. The stag's celebration in the movie about Elizabeth II (played by Helen Mirren) reifies the myth about hunting.

Again, it would be the court officers who set the tone, particularly the Grand Veneur. After "losing" Corbie - out of cowardice, Richelieu claimed - the marquis de Belleforière de Soyecourt returned from exile in England and became the Sun King's Grand Veneur, a remarkable coup for a family with very old but not particularly illustrious service to the Crown. Belleforière no doubt stretched his budget to build the stables and new chateau of Tilloloy (near Roye, in Picardy).

In this first part of the book, Humanism as pedagogy serves as the frame for an ever-extending range of social comportments. I do not recall Erasmus discussing learning to ride, but Castiglione certainly does. First published in Italian in 1528, after its translation into French in 1537, The Courtier increasingly influenced French elites. Good old Maurice Magendie is at hand so I pulled it down and found that he devotes pages and pages on Castiglione and his imitators, but only one page on Pluvinel. More difficult to interpret is the fact that the material on the horse, riding, and jousting is really quite brief and commonplace in Castiglione. There is more about music than riding. If there was controversy about the "programs" developed in the academies (for example, French versus Italian ways), did the courtesy books barely mention it? Multiple editions of the same books seem to have satisfied the market. There would be emphasis on the courtly, even royal dimension. So much of the daily life of the stable and manège seems to have remained visual ("I'll show you...") and oral. There seems to be continuity between Pluvinel and La Guarinière, but not a major refashioning.

The illustrations in Pluvinel probably formalized and regularized how écuyers taught all over the realm. Here was the king, learning to ride, and one could admire and love him in this ideal role. Monsieur Jourdain does not hire a riding master; this suggests that though rich, he is not rich enough. In Molière, the grand portrait of the horse person is in Les Fâcheux. Dare I suggest that there is a strong affinity between Molière and Roche? They capture social imaginaires in prose. Continuities, the trans-historical, "distinction" courtesy literature, the "constant pedagogy" without exams but always the risk of shame for poor performance. The eye of the écuyer could be terrifying. And there could be pride associated with horsemanship, witness Montaigne on his father.

Interpreting the illustrations in Pluvinel would have involved another whole problematic, but whether they are accurate or not (think of all the debates about interpreting the illustrations in Mersenne and in the Diderot Encyclopédie), the result was no doubt to regularize and formalize the learning of horsemanship. Louis XIII's training no doubt strengthened his confidence. His poor health (mostly caused by doctors) often kept him from riding (the royal hemorrhoids are mentioned in the ministerial correspondence), but as soon as he was better, up and away, riding and hunting for hours. Richelieu had also been a student at a prestigious academy; but while he could, and did, ride, it was usually at the scene of a siege or battle.

While the continuities remain very strong on the level of representation, change took place. The hero in Fénelon's Télémaque does not confront war during his aventure, nor for that matter is there much emphasis on horsemanship. Is there a genre question here? Mirrors of princes (cf. Paul Saenger and Jean Meyer) may include little about horses and riding, thereby making Télémaque more of a continuity, I just do not know.

John Locke recommends riding for health. The more countryfied English elite would continue aspects of formal training, but would also turn horsemanship into riding for pleasure and sport. Change also occurs when royals and grands took to walking. The promenade would be less philosophical than the older turn around the garden. Boulevards encouraged walking, as the Cours la Reine had encouraged riding and showing off in carriages. In Émile, Rousseau advised walking; and as he descended into isolation and depression, he wrote Rêves d'un promeneur solitaire, a very philosophical and aesthetic walking. Henry IV walked and discussed politics as he went along, slowing down or speeding up according to how the discussion was going. Louis XIV walked every day when he did not hunt or travel.

When Louis XV authorized the creation of de la Guérinière's academy - an exemplary aristocratic institution if ever there was one - he could not have known that the building would become the site of the National Assembly, those October days of 1789. The pundits had a field day paralleling horses, riders, and politicians. The Revolution would momentarily break the links between the culture that had developed around the horse and the court. The stud farms (for example, the Haras du Pin in Normandy) were suppressed, and the emphasis on training in the manège certainly must have been perceived as anti-revolutionary. But the outbreak of war gave a second chance to those who possessed expertise and experience with horses. After some broad brush strokes about the nineteenth century, Roche turns back to the social history in the royal and aristocratic écuries.

Is there a correlation between royal state-building and the number of horses in the écuries? In 1545 there were 257 horses, about the same number as when Henri IV married Marie de Médicis. The number declined during the Regency. A first carrosse dates from 1577; there would never been more than 10 under the first Bourbon. And on the walls of the stables at Oiron, there are the engraved and leaded brands that marked royal and Roannès mounts (marque du [h]ara de ...), much like coats of arms worn by kings and knights.

The court increasingly set the patterns in selecting the types of horses, as they were differentiated and as the écuries became really strong institutions. The Grande and the Petite Écuries under Louis XIV would have a personnel of 500: palefreniers, groomers, blacksmiths, harness-makers, etc. The number of horses would reach 2,208 in 1787. There never seems to have been a lack of candidates to purchase venal offices in the écurie, and the prices seem not to have declined, as they did for judgeships in the Parlement. Families strove to keep certain écurie offices among sons and nephews. The 235 valets came from only 35 families.

As budgets grew (5,950,000 livres in 1780), the number of hunters decreased in favor of manège and draft horses. The number of imported horses increased dramatically. Their color seems to have counted a great deal, which was not the case in England.

Just what happened to all the beautiful horses, harnesses, and carriages, 1789-1795? Probably obsessively inventoried by officials appointed by the Assembly, were they sold? Were the fleurs-de-lis filed off the brasses on the bridles? Coats of arms on carriages could always be painted over.

With the rise of the First Consul, there would be more parades, the stud farms would be reestablished, and the stables reconstituted without approximately the same size staff per horse as during the Ancien Régime. The number of saddle horses decline in favor of carriage-pullers. Carriages were very expensive (Napoleon's coronation coach cost 30,000 francs), and the general écurie budget rose and would reach 3,700,000 francs before declining to about 2,000,000 in 1815.

Napoleon's horses became cult objects in their own lifetimes, notably "Marengo," whose portrait (and rider) became known across Europe. Londoners paid to see him empaillé, even if it was not certain that they were actually viewing "Marengo." (The skeleton of "Marengo" can be seen at the National Army Museum in Chelsea; this image shows the stuffed "Vizir," who can be viewed at the Musée de l'Armée in Paris.) The Napoleoniana at the Invalides remains popular, as history, legend, and image became one - heroic and immortalized by David, Géricault and many others.

Beginning in 1806, imperial horses were given names when they entered service. Some signalement would also be provided, probably in a register or a fichier - just sixty years after d'Hemery created the first fichier for Parisian (mostly) printers, indicating hair color, height, scars, eye color. Napoleon preferred "oriental" horses, that is Arabians, over English ones.

The chapter on the horse in war during the nineteenth century brings out several important features. Battle lines became longer than they had been at Blenheim or Fontenoy. This required more precise rationalization of supplies and support. Female camp followers would be increasingly replaced by quartermasters. The history of the cavalry in warfare is yet another continuity, not only of the imaginaire from the Renaissance that celebrated medieval combat (Uccello's battle scenes) down to the nineteenth-century adaptations that involved protecting baggage trains and marching columns. The special training given to horses and riders for participation in fêtes that involved fireworks (Kate van Orden) did not nuance the inevitable inferences drawn after the French were defeated by infantry and artillery in Italy. While the charge had less and less to recommend it, the cavalryman's role in reconnoitering and in preventing flanking did not seem to weaken the ideal of the cavalry as the school for heroism and courage. Clausewitz thought that the cavalries in Eastern societies such as Russia were stronger than in the west.

From the cultural ideal and military strategy, Roche turns to the continuities that more more natural, such as the fact that three-fourths of the time the cavalry moved no faster than the infantry. Great care in the feeding and the general upkeep of horses consumed valuable time and resources, especially once armies became so large that living off the land (by purchase or by confiscation) became impossible.

The numbers stagger. For the Russian campaign of 1812, the Napoleonic army consisted of 480,000 combatants, consisting of 80,000 cavalry plus another 70,000 horses for artillery and supply duties. Roche explores the attitudes of Stendhal and Châteaubriand about the elite culture to which they belonged and wrote about. The self and the horse were cultural constructs unique to their age, a Romantic age that continued as a nostalgic feeling for the knightly past that remained present. George Sand's short story about seeing medieval English knights riding through the mist in her garden bears witness to a centuries-old enmity yet admiration that coexisted with a world filled with the noise of steam locomotives.

The reconstituted nobilities of the nineteenth century centered many of their claims to once again dominate on owning, riding and fighting on horseback. There would be more cogent studies of recruitment for the cavalry (again, country versus urban, horse-raising provinces versus the others), as Saumur and the cadre noir remained a strong magnet. When could one still become a member of the Jockey Club if one did not know how to ride?

Roche ends his book with chapters on the war horse and the ever-changing but continuing heroic images of serving France and risking death. Adventure, uniforms, swords, respect for a dashing cavalryman riding down the street- continuities and snobbery that underwent devastating carnage in World War I. Roche notes how, in the early nineteenth century, the Germans overcame their shortage of horses and how the English further codified the synthesis already present of country, leisure, and horsemanship.

This essay is already far too long, yet I feel unfair to its depth and complexity. One of the reasons is that there is so much more that merits mention here. What an enormously powerful cultural construct, centered on the "cheval moteur"! The continuities ought to make every historian who obsessively searches for change, think twice. Wasn't there a Polish cavalry in World War II that was virtually destroyed by the Wehrmacht (sic)? A German army largely commanded by aristocrats or would-be aristocrats, deeply admired the superbe of a horse and rider; but the Polish horses and riders were mowed down.

As I put down this book, a host of extraordinarily powerful images come to mind. Roche has painted with words, described paintings, cut to the heart of novels, and celebrated the aesthetic dimensions of a world we have lost. It isn't the cost of illustrations that impedes Fayard from adding them to a book that cries out for them. It is some survival of a cultural snobbery centered on the primacy of print over pictures in "important" books. Books with illustrations are for children and coffee tables. Let us hope that after volume III appears, an entire folio volume of illustrations, selected and captioned by the author, will appear (not unlike what Le Seuil did for Ariès's folio book on the history of death).

Reading and writing about Roche's work on the horse has been a splendid experience for me. I doubtlessly have omitted and distorted the author's intentions and accomplishments; my only aim has been to encourage readers to delve into this book. One will look at buildings (the manège at Bolsover and the grandes écuries at Chantilly, for example) and paintings (Gericault and Stubbs) with a more informed eye. And when walking through the lovely wild grasses, flowers and rocks of the Larzac this summer, we will not only think of the major horse-raising carried on there, and transport to the Middle East, via Aigues-Mortes. We will think of our enriched experience and understanding of European cultural history, thanks to Daniel Roche.