By Treva J. Tucker
PhD Dissertation, University of Southern California, 2007
Abstract: This study argues that horses and horsemanship played a crucial role in refashioning noble identity in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century France. During this period, the traditional nobility experienced a variety of military, political, social, and cultural changes in its circumstances. Part of the nobles’ response to these changes was to gradually restructure the way they perceived and defined themselves. Between roughly 1550 and 1650, they transitioned from a medieval warrior-knight identity to an early modern courtier-aristocrat identity.
The dissertation explores the ways horsemanship facilitated this shift in noble beliefs. The destrier—the battle mount of the medieval knight—was a key component of noble identity going into this period of transition, when the definition of nobility revolved around heavy cavalry service and the qualities comprising what the nobles called vertu. The manège horse—the “dance partner” of the early modern aristocrat in the movements of manège equitation—offered an unmatched platform for displaying key components of noble identity by the end of this period, when the definition of nobility revolved around physical grace and sprezzatura, or the appearance of effortlessness no matter what the task at hand.
The dissertation focuses on a subset of manège equitation, the spectacular and dramatic “airs above the ground.” Using contemporary manuals of horsemanship as evidence, it argues that these movements served as a vehicle for the transition in noble identity, because they allowed noblemen simultaneously to demonstrate the old and familiar qualities of martial vertu and the newly emerging qualities of grace and effortlessness. Horsemanship functioned as a bridge between the old and new definitions, serving as a familiar and comforting touchstone for the nobles as they struggled to adapt to their changing circumstances.
As knights gradually evolved into gentlemen, the mounted display of noblesse moved from the battlefield to the manège, and the display mechanism evolved from the medieval destrier to the early modern equine danseur. By facilitating this shift from an obsolete identity to a more relevant and effective one, horses and horsemanship supported and assisted the nobility’s successful adaptation, and thus ultimately contributed to its survival and continued vitality as well.