By Max Harris
Paper given at the 11th Colloquium of the Société Internationale pour l’Étude du Théâtre Médiéval, Elche, Spain, August 2004
Introduction: Western European scholars generally assume a late medieval, western European origin for the skirted hobbyhorse. Arnold van Gennep, for example, wrote emphatically in 1945 that the origins of the cheval-jupon “are not to be sought in the Orient, nor even in the Balkans and in Greece. The cheval-jupon is a distinctly western European invention, which was perhaps first devised in Provence or in Spain, or independently in these two regions, and among the Basques and the English, and this toward the end of the Middle Ages or at the beginning of the Renaissance, neither beforehand, nor elsewhere.”
Although some have wanted to link the modern hobbyhorse to figures from ancient Greek and Indo-European myth or to “those seasonal creatures [men disguised as animals] so well known and so sternly reprobated by the early Christian church,” no scholar has offered documentary evidence of a hobby horse in Catholic Europe before the mid-thirteenth century.
Some time before 1261, according to Stephen of Bourbon, in the diocese of Elne in southwestern France, “certain young people of a particular village . . . customarily came and mounted on a wooden horse (super equum ligneum), and masked and armed, led dances on the eves of the feasts of the church, in the church and in the cemetery.” When the practice was banned by the village priest, one young man nevertheless entered the church “in the wooden horse [in equo ligneo].” The horse burst into flames and the young man was killed, a sign–some thought–of divine judgment, but perhaps no more than an accident of pyrotechnics.
Jean-Claude Schmitt has argued persuasively that this was a skirted hobby horse: the dancer was “in” the horse and, since “the fire broke out around his feet [ignis arripuit eum per pedes],” his feet were presumably in contact with the ground, propelling the horse. E. C. Cawte notes that this “is the earliest known record of a hobby-horse in Europe.” If by “Europe,” he means Catholic Europe, I know of no evidence to contradict him. According to van Gennep’s theory, therefore, the Elne hobbyhorse should be one of the first skirted hobbyhorses anywhere.
There is, however, evidence of skirted hobbyhorses in Muslim Andalucia by the eleventh century. Moreover, the history of the hobbyhorse in the Arab world outside Europe goes back much further. While the origin of a folk theatrical tradition is notoriously hard to determine, establishing precedence is sometimes a simpler matter. The argument of this essay is that Arabic hobbyhorses preceded European hobbyhorses by several centuries.