Rapunzel Horses – the hot accessory of Early Modern Europe?

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I’ve been reading beautifully illustrated books about horses all my life and in the last twelve years I’ve trawled all sorts of academic articles and image libraries, so it’s always delightful to find an image I’ve never seen before. The Palazzo Pitti in Florence just opened an exhibit called Leopoldo de’ Medici: Prince of the Collectors to celebrate what would have been the cardinal’s 400th birthday. Someone shared this image of the young Leopoldo in a Facebook group for Lipizzaner fans, and I was smitten. The 1624-1625 painting is by Justus Sustermans, a Flemish court painter to the infamous Medici clan. Look at the detail: the flecks of foam on the paving under the horse’s mouth, the way it’s patiently resting one hind hoof. What I’d give for a huge poster of it!
But of course the really striking thing is that MANE. ALL OF IT. Has anyone written about the meaning (if any?) of the turnout of court horses in the Early Modern era? I’ve seen great articles on baroque bits and read about the costumes worn in carrousels, but do we know anything about this commitment to hair? It’s not mentioned in the rather beautiful part of Guerinière’s The School of Horsemanship that describes exotic coat colours and the significance of whorls (read an earlier post about that here). But it does feature in other images, like those in the Certamen Equestre (Gallica has a facsimile online for extended tea-break consideration and these screengrabs are sourced there):

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This book records a carrousel and procession that took place in Stockholm on 18 December 1672 to celebrate the coming of age of Karl XI at 17. It was illustrated by the court painter, David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl, and these plates were later engraved by Georg Christoph Eimmart in Nuremberg. Lena Rangström has written the most detailed account in volume II of Mulryne, Watanbe-O’Kelly and Shewring’s Europa Triumphans, a collection of studies of European court and civic festivals in the period.
Rangström describes the decking out of Stockholm with triumphal arches, tapestries, a firework display and even a wine fountain. The 560-strong procession, which included 100 nobles on horseback and 80 more horses led in hand, culminated at the tilt yard in the riding school at the Hay Market or Hötorget. It was meant to depict the young Karl as a force for unity in Europe against the Turk, and so he led the “Roman” quadrille, Field Marshall Gustaf Banér the “Turks” in their caftans, Count Bengt Oxenstierna led the “Poles” (see their “winged horses” below) and Privy Councillor Krister Horn was captain of the “European States” in modern dress. Here are images of the quadrilles:

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Karl as a Roman. Certamen Equestre, via Gallica.


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The “Turkish” horses in the Certamen Equestre, via Gallica. It looks as though all the Black grooms in Stockholm were drafted in to add extra “exotica” (oof).


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“Polish” horses, Certamen Equestre, via Gallica.


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“Europe” in the Certamen Equestre, via Gallica.

It was – of course – spectacular. “On knights and horses everything shimmered: gold, precious stones, and rich pearls,” says one account, and, “On the horses, one saw different ornaments on their heads, different ones on their feet, and different ones on the other parts of their bodies.” Pine branches hung from the ceiling and the riding school was lit by thousands of candles on hundreds of chandeliers against the dark Stockholm winter.
There was only one game – running at the ring – and the King won, for:

“None deserved it more, none knew how to control and turn his horse with such gentleness; nobody bore off the ring with such pleasing gestures and such grace of the whole body.”

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For other long-haired horses stories, I present the eighteenth century Swan of Arnstadt and a nineteenth-century freak, The Wild King of Oregon Wonder Horses.

How Byron Invented the Wild Horse – and How to Tune into The Age of the Horse


I have a new essay for LitHub about the surprisingly scandalous story behind our Romantic ideas about wild horses, and some lovely news: The Age of the Horse is now available as an audiobook.

I’d have loved to include this bit of doggerel I found when researching the story of wild horses – it’s clearly inspired by the stage play and was published in the Bristol Mercury, on March 19th, 1836. In The Waterfall, a series of wild animals approach a waterfall but all turn away in fear, until the last verse:

The wild horse thee approaches in his turn:
He changes not his proudly rapid stride;
His mane stands up erect, his nostrils burn—
he snorts, he pricks his ears, and starts aside;
Then, rushing madly forward to thy steep,
He dashes downward into thy torrents deep.

The photo above is the last “tarpan” in captivity. The colt was captured on the Zagradovsk steppe in 1866 and is unlikely to be a “pure” bred wild horse. He was kept in Moscow Zoo. Image and information in public domain, via Wiki Commons.

The Half-flayed Horse: your Hallowe’en story


Some men drove their horse and gig to Greenbank on the island Yell in Shetland. They left the horse outside a pub and went in to drink without ensuring it had water. The frustrated horse pawed at a barrel of porter, split it open and drank all the booze.
When the men re-emerged much later, the horse was not looking good. They climbed into the gig and shook the reins and the horse keeled over – apparently dead. Loathe to lose money, the men flayed its hide and went home on foot.

They were woken a short time after they clambered into their beds by a clattering in the yard. To their horror, it was the horse, skinless, and “very cowld”.

The farmers had recently killed some sheep for the winter so they hastened to get the sheepskins and clap them onto the flayed horse.

The sheepskins grew very naturally onto the horse, and thereafter the farmers got the wool of five or six sheep from it each year.
Adapted from The Lore of Scotland: a Guide to Scottish Legends by the peerless Jennifer Westwood and Sophia Kingshill.

Welcome to The Age of the Horse

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“In 5,500 years of domestication humans have transformed horses’ bodies into everything from buttons to a physical reincarnation from the mythical past of a nation. This is not a history of the horse, but it is a story of six ways in which we have recreated it, from Wildness to Culture, Power to Meat, Wealth to War.”

The Age of the Horse was published by Atlantic Books in the UK and by Grove Atlantic in the USA. Hara Shobo are working on a forthcoming Japanese translation.

Amazon UK  Book Depository  A Great Read  Alibris  Angus & Robertson Waterstones   Booktopia

US: Amazon   Barnes and Noble  Books a Million  Powells  Shop Indie! Hudson Booksellers

Australia: Booktopia Amazon.au

Audiobook: Tantor.