Making Fearless Men: A Medieval Riding Lesson

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I briefly mentioned King Duarte I of Portugal’s Livro da Ensinança de Bem Cavalgar Toda Sela (The Book on the Instruction of Riding Well in Every Saddle) in The Age of the Horse. It was written in 1434, 82 years before Xenophon’s On Horsemanship was first printed. If you’re used to the narrative in which all riding was brutal and dire until the Italians rediscovered ye olde Greek texts, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised by this medieval Portuguese book, which was finally translated by Jeffrey L Forgeng and issued by The Boydell Press as The Book of Horsemanship this year.

I spent a few hours poring over it in Cambridge University library last summer, kicking the desk in frustration that I hadn’t been able to include it in the book. It’s quite a revelation. Every now and then archives deliver a shock of realisation: these people from the past were human! They breathed and farted and got anxious! This is one of those texts.

Duarte I, “the philosopher king”, reigned from 1433 till his death in 1438, and had a difficult apprenticeship as a prince: at one stage he was incapacitated by depression for three years. He was also a superb horseman and hunter. In The Book of Horsemanship, both these elements come together, because not only is there advice on riding, there’s also tips on how to handle nerves in oneself and in one’s pupils. He is preoccupied with “will”, which sounds, in this context, rather like self confidence.

When I was researching If Wishes Were Horses, I found very little pre-eighteenth-century material on teaching the young to ride – especially girls. So I was delighted to find a chapter that gave me an insight into medieval pedagogy and psychology. I’ll share a brief extract from “How good experiences make some men fearless; and how to teach boys and others who are starting to ride”:

You should not give him instructions except to stay tight on the horse’s back and hold himself well however he finds most suitable. Whatever he does wrong, you should not correct him much, but minimally and gently. If he does well, you should praise him generously – as much as you can without lying. You should continue in this way with him for a time until you see that he is coming to enjoy learning and practicing, and wants to receive correction and teaching. From then on start explaining to him how to hold himself strongly, for this is most necessary, always minding what I have said: more praise, less blame. If he happens to fall, or loses a stirrup, or some other contrary thing, and you see that he feels it greatly, you should excuse it as much as possible, so that he does not lose the hope and will that is of great value for this and all other things.