Prejudice and pride in noble pedigrees

June 25, 1999

Lisa Jardine says that beliefs about horses hold the key to early-modern thinking about race

A 16th-century painting by Titian shows the Habsburg prince, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, secular head of the Catholic church, sitting astride a black stallion, after achieving victory at the battle of Muehlberg. It is the great moment when Protestant Europe, effectively or symbolically, was conquered by Spanish/Habsburg Catholic Charles V.

But what grabs my attention is the horse. It is a true Andalusian, which is a carefully bred cross between a Spanish mare and an Arab stallion, and this is crucial.

Titian's painting is a statement about conquest. Parts of southern Spain remained Arab territory until 1492, when they fell to Castille and Aragon. Andalusia was Arab into the 13th century. The painting incorporates emblems of the struggle for the domination of Europe.

Originally, it was even more explicit. Under x-ray, it is revealed that Titian modified the pose to make it more ambiguous politically. In the earlier image, the horse was rearing - as if, as in other paintings of the period, the infidel had rolled under its feet - and Charles V had to assert his control over the reins. The final image is less aggressive, and the strong racism it contains has been subordinated to the image of the Christian prince.

We have lost the ability to interpret this painting completely. We think these figures are just sitting on horses, while people viewing the painting in the 16th century would have identified immediately what sort of horse was depicted and its significance.

We miss the precision of those racial innuendoes, which are to do with European ideas of the relationship between superior Oriental or Eastern stock and a European aspiration to rule.

You can learn more about the ideology of things such as race if you look in the places where people are being less careful than when talking about things such as slaves and cross-breeding of human beings.

The aristocratic passion at this time was hunting, so horses and hounds became convenient visual symbols of all sorts of beliefs. I would argue that everything they say explicitly about horses, they believe about people.

For example, they believe that the mare is a pure receptacle, that only the male genes are significant in creating the next generation. Modern horse breeders are surprised to hear that breeders in the 17th century did not know that the mare contributed to the genetic line, a fact that could wreck some of the long pedigrees they are so proud of.

But the same attitudes carry across to humans. When Henry VIII calls Anne of Cleves "a great Flanders mare" it means she is a good breeder. Flanders mares were regarded very highly for breeding.

He does not say Anne of Cleves is a puddingy European and his superior stock is going to impregnate her and produce a better breed of child, but that is what he means.

When Philip, Charles V's son, married Henry's daughter Mary Tudor, the panic was that any child of Philip's would have been a Habsburg.

But there is another aspect to this, which captures the love-hate relationship with other races that existed in the period. Foreign breeds of horse were valued very highly. A plain, extremely black Andalusian horse was desirable, both in terms of ceremony and warfare.

In the same way, the Ottomans were perceived as culturally the superior power. They had luxury, art, wealth. While Titian was working on his painting, the Ottoman Empire was at the walls of Vienna.

There was an enormous amount of love-hate envy of the Arab - a good comparison is the present attitude towards the Japanese. Materially, they seemed to have everything. They were much more disciplined. They seemed to be less feckless. And their horses were all of these things too - beautiful, desirable, more disciplined.

So at the level of consumerism, markets and exchange, the emphasis was on desirability. At the level of politics, creeds and ideology, the emphasis was on difference, containment, conquest, and this is what has tended to survive in the written record.

Only now are we beginning to trust ourselves to look at the artefacts and images and try to build those into a more three-dimensional picture of cultural life across and beyond Europe.

What I am trying to do is make the period speak about things it is too guarded to say about dynastic intermarriage. I can find the answers. I am looking for another kind of cross-breeding, that of horses.

* Interview by Harriet Swain Lisa Jardine is professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

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