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A Brisk Trot Through the Story of Horses and Books

The words “horse” and “book” together likely conjure up vivid characters in the imagination: Black Beauty, Misty of Chincoteague, or even the treacherous steed in Shakespeare's Richard III. Horses’ impact on books has a rich history reaching far beyond these famous examples. For as long as we have historical record, horses have been subject to humans: subjects in human writings and art, and physically subject to them, offering up their bodies for service and materials. Horses were exalted by early modern writers as examples of virtue but also symbolized wealth and avarice. They carried books all over the world and even carried some unpopular books to bonfires.


This prehistoric horse dwarfs his fellow beasts.

If we expand our definition of books to include any physical medium upon which a story is inscribed, horses figured in books and book production as early as the Stone Age. Ancient humans in present-day Spain and France were mesmerized by horses they hadn’t managed to domesticate yet, and painted the majestic animals on the walls of their caves. These troglodytes had an admiration and reverence for horses that hasn’t been replicated since: the horse occupied the place of honor in prehistoric art over bison and humans. This is observed in discrepancies in size, attention to detail, and placement in the art pieces between the subjects. On another continent, Native American artists used horsehair in their paintbrushes to paint stories onto buckskin. They also used hoof glue as a binding agent to help some types of paint adhere to the skins.


In early English printing, early mentions of horses are found in the Bible. One example is in the book of Exodus, when the horses in the Egyptian Pharaoh’s army drown in the Red Sea. The first instance of a horse appearing in printed English (as we understand the language today) was in Brut, or The Chronicle of Britain, written around the year 1200 A.D. in Middle English by Layamon, an English priest. This poem is the first written work in the English language to tell the story of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, and the horse that appears in the story belongs to the king.

The early modern period pushed horses to the forefront of literature as primary subjects instead of anecdotal supporting characters. The bestiary was a fashionable genre in the 16th and 17th centuries, and horses held a place of honor in these books, like the extra-long section dedicated to the horse in Edward Topsell’s 1658 bestiary. Notably, Topsell includes an extensive etymology of the origin of the word “horse” and its equivalent in many other languages, ancient and more modern. Around the same time, the Italian composer and poet Antonio Banchieri wrote a sort of miniature bestiary in which he extolled the virtues of several four-footed beasts including the ass, the lion, and the dog. Of the horse, Bachieri ascribed the following qualities: great of body, beautiful, strong, bold, kind (to their masters), bashful and modest. He supported these claims with references to ancient Greek and Roman writings, an early modern literary habit as popular as the bestiary.

Although absolutely essential to everyday life in the early modern period, and seen as a representation of human virtues, horses were also a sign of great wealth and status. In a sermon to King Edward VI, the cleric Hugh Latimer used horses as an example multiple times through the speech to warn against greed or avarice. A Venetian merchant's account of his trade throughout the Middle East gives a detailed account of the global value of horses in the 16th century, explaining that Persia taxed merchants different amounts based on how many horses they transported out of Persia in their ships, and describing the horses in every country he visited on his journey.


Horses were so essential to England’s national operations that Queen Elizabeth I released a proclamation in 1580 ordering an increase in both the number of horsemen and in the breeding of horses in England. She did not specify for what purpose the horses were to be used, but did say that punishment would be inflicted upon anyone not complying with her rather vague order.


Horse participated in the production and transmission of books during the Early Modern period in two crucial regards: they donated their bodies to create the book object and their labor to transport books around the globe.

The most valuable part of a horse’s body to the medieval and Early Modern book trade was their hair. Craftsmen used it in their paintbrushes as the Native Americans did. Monks used horsehair brushes to paint their gorgeous illuminated manuscripts. More than their bodily contribution to books, however, horses’ greatest involvement in the creation and proliferation of books in the medieval and early modern periods was their service in the transportation of goods. In the 12th century, medieval European horses began to overtake oxen in pulling carts of goods due to their increased speed and stamina. Around this time, ships were designed specifically to transport horses across large bodies of water so that they could assist in cross-continental transportation. By the early modern period, horses were the standard mode of transportation for goods. Mules (half donkey, half horse) get an honorable mention since they were also used as pack animals in Europe during this time.


A copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio took a significant equine-enabled journey from London to France in the mid-seventeenth century. The Folio turned up in 2014 in the library of a Jesuit school for boys in Saint-Omer, France (present-day Belgium). “There was a significant movement of books to and from England through Saint-Omer [in the 1600s],” and books passed between Saint-Omer and England via Antwerp, a trade hub (Graffius). The distance between Antwerp and Saint-Omer is 173 kilometers, or 107 miles. Horses carted the books back and forth before they were loaded onto a ship for the short trip across the English channel.


Moving in the opposite direction, horses also assisted in persecution and book burning. Early English Protestant John Tyndale, brother of the Reformation leader William, was caught in possession of his brother’s Protestant version of the New Testament and sentenced by then-Lord Chancellor Thomas More “to ride a horse while facing backwards with paper on their heads and New Testaments and other books fastened thick about them, pinned or tacked to their Gowns or Clok” (Avner Shamir). Jason Scott-Warren notes that Martin Luther forced merchant Thomas Sommers to follow a similar protocol for possession of certain books as memorialized by Foxe in 1570:

“A horse was brought, and officers arrived to dresse him with books… and woulde have made holes in hys garment to have thrust the strynges of the bookes therin…takyng the bookes and openyng them, he bound them together …and cast them about his necke…like a coller, & beyng on horse backe, rode foremost thorow the streetes.”

The books were then burned and Sommers died in prison.

Whether serving as the subject of writing or painting, donating their hair as tools for craftsmanship, assisting in distribution, or participating in penalization and destruction, the horse shares a history with the book industry that reaches back to the beginning of the horse's relationship with humankind. As we gallop further into the internet age and further from print culture, what will horses bring to the world of books in years to come?


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