Thursday, August 6, 2009

Horses, War and Gender Update

[cross-posted at Investigations of a Dog]

When I started my comeback as a historian in 2006, after a 5 year career break, I wanted to push myself in new directions. Therefore I challenged myself to come up with the most way-out research question possible. What I came up with was: do people construct gender for horses? I decided to look specifically at the roles of horses in war, partly because I’m a military historian, and partly because war is one of the most heavily gendered things in history. I first wrote a blog post about the project in October 2006, but since then I’ve changed my mind about lots of things. I followed up with two posts about how cavalry drill books specified criteria for good war horses. While the books I looked at didn’t always explicitly say that stallions were always best, there was a definite male bias, and mares were never mentioned. This post is a look at where I’ve got to now, and where I need to go next.

In my first post I naively expected animals to be a state of nature where there was only biological sex and no gender. I don’t think this is viable now. I’m increasingly following Judith Butler and Thomas Laqueur in the view that gender versus sex is a false dichotomy. Perceptions of the body are always gendered. Furthermore it now looks hopelessly wrong to assume that non-human species have no culture or gender. Dominance hierarchies can be heavily gendered. Chimpanzees have patriarchal societies in which disputes are often settled by violence, but Bonobos have matriarchal societies in which disputes are often settled by lesbian sex, despite the genetic similarities between the two species (see Joshua Goldstein, War and Gender).

This actually leads to a simpler way of putting the question: if humans always perceive each other in gendered ways, why wouldn’t they also perceive animals in gendered ways? In fact there is scientific evidence that humans even perceive inanimate objects in gendered ways! A post at Babel’s Dawn mentions an experiment which showed that the grammatical gender of a noun affects how people perceive and describe the physical object which the noun refers to. Genus and sexus are not separate in people’s minds. They bleed into each other in a way which can interfere with perception. This could also have major implications for metaphors. Saying that one thing is like another might cause people to perceive them as the same thing, with serious consequences for how they get treated in reality (we all know about early-modern misogynists who said women were more like animals than men).

As I started to read more about early-modern gender I realized that some of my own assumptions about the relationship between gender and biology were specifically modern. While perceptions of the body (and especially the genitals) have always played a part in gender ideology, modern science has made the reproductive organs appear more important than they did before. In early-modern England clothes were probably more important than bodies. This opened up many possibilities for gender swapping. In Agnes Bowker’s Cat, David Cressy looked at the case of a young man who passed as a woman for long enough to gatecrash a lying-in party (one of the few kinds of all female spaces in England at this time). Diane Dugaw wrote a whole book about warrior woman ballads which featured women dressing as men in order to join the army or navy. She showed that this behaviour was possible and not even particularly uncommon in real life (although I now think the differences between ballads and reality might be significant – in ballads the woman was always found out eventually, usually by exposure of the body, although usually not specifically the genitals; in real life they weren’t always found out and sent home; how many more were never discovered at all? Were the ballads a way of dealing with anxiety about this possibility?). If people could change gender by changing their clothes (and since the female soldiers were perceived and treated as male, their gender effectively was male) where does this leave horses?

When I read Dugaw I thought that this was a problem because horses didn’t wear clothes, but then at the Roehampton horse conference Erica Fudge reminded us that horses did wear clothes. I had a quick chat with Erica afterwards, and the point I should have got straight to is that although horses did sometimes wear clothes, sometimes they didn’t. Horses sometimes had their genitals on display in public in a way which would have been very unusual for humans. So where does that leave us? Horses can wear clothes, but don’t have to, which seems to open up even more possibilities and raise even more questions. Why don’t displays of horse genitals cause the same anxieties that displays of human genitals cause? (Or do they? Did William Prynne have issues with this?) Is a stallion with big balls on display the epitome of masculinity? Do the trappings of a medieval war horse signify masculinity? Or does covering up the body (especially the genitals) make a horse less masculine? Can a mare in trappings masquerade as a stallion? Does a more masculine horse make the rider look more masculine? How male are geldings? How does the creation of an artificial third sex through routine castration complicate the ideas of male and female? This is why I was asking strange questions about testicles at the conference.

As Jennifer Flaherty reminded us at the Roehampton conference, there are lots of representations of war and horses in Shakespeare’s history plays, and lots of interesting ways that they intersect with gender. She told us about the substitution of horses for women, and how horsemanship contributed to masculinity. I think there’s a lot more potential for looking at how the horses themselves are gendered, and especially how their roles in war are gendered. I’m hoping that Jennifer or someone else will have done this, or will be doing it, but I just have a few observations on Henry V:

Good war horses usually seem to be referred to as steeds. This is a very masculine word, coming from the Old English for stallion (as does stud) according to the OED.

Bad horses are referred to as jades. The OED is vague on the etymology: it might come from a Norse word for mare, but there doesn’t seem to be much definite proof. Jade meaning bad woman seems to appear later than jade meaning bad horse, but the relationship between them isn’t very clear from the OED. In any case one might still connote the other. In the light of the experiment about grammatical gender that I mentioned above, it wouldn’t be surprising if two unrelated meanings of the same word can bleed into each other in people’s minds. After all, this is how puns work.

Shakespeare seems to assign a lot of agency to horses. They threaten each other, they neigh for present service, they seem to want to keep fighting when their riders are dead. Does this suggest that horses were imagined to be active participants in combat, and not just transport for their riders? How widespread was this idea? Does it require the horses to be male because only men were supposed to fight?

When I started out on this project I was heavily influenced by Joshua Goldstein’s hypothesis that war, gender, and the exclusion of women from combat roles all appear to be more or less universal, and that war and gender shape each other. The more I think about it the more problems I can see with his model. As I pointed out here, his assumption that the point of gender roles is to create warriors doesn’t seem to hold for early-modern England, where (according to Alexandra Shepard) manhood was defined mostly by domestic paternalism (where age, wealth, marital status and other things intersected). War and soldiers were often viewed with ambivalence, and it seems to me that a career in the military was no more than a second best kind of masculinity. As Bruce Boehrer pointed out in Shakespeare Among the Animals, the third Earl of Essex turned to soldiering after the failure of his marriages and his humiliation as an impotent cuckold.

Goldstein acknowledged that although some form of gender is found in every culture, there are wide variations in the forms it takes and the meanings it has. I suspect that if we look closer we might find similar variations in the forms and meanings of war. Although women have mostly been excluded from combat roles in most cultures at most times, I’m not sure that this translates to a universally rigid boundary between active male and passive female roles. The boundary might sometimes be more or less rigid or in a slightly different place, and there might be very different justifications for it. The exclusion of women from combat roles in early-modern England might not have been as exclusive as in later periods. For example, in War in England Barbara Donagan mentions that codes of conduct from the English Civil War protected women from violence unless they took up arms. One of the excuses the New Model Army gave for the massacre of the “Irish whores” at Naseby was that they were carrying knives.

That’s all for now. There’s still obviously a lot to do, and I’m still not entirely sure what that is, so it'll be a long time before I have anything publishable. There’s a whole world of possibilities for looking into gendered perceptions of animals. I’m limiting myself to horses in war to keep it manageable, so there’s plenty of scope for other people to do horses in other situations, and every other species.

  1. Bruce Thomas Boehrer, Shakespeare among the animals (Palgrave: New York, 2002).
  2. David Cressy, Agnes Bowker's Cat (Oxford Paperbacks, February 2001).
  3. Barbara Donagan, War in England 1642-1649 (OUP Oxford, February 2008).
  4. Dianne Dugaw, Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850 (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1996).
  5. Joshua S. Goldstein, War and Gender (CUP: Cambridge, 2003).
  6. Thomas Walter Laqueur, Making Sex (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass., 1992).
  7. Alexandra Shepard, Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 2006).


  1. Gosh, Gavin, there's an awful lot to comment on here. It's hard to know where to start. I'll just begin by posting a potentially controversial comment in the hopes of eliciting lots of responses ;). While it's true that attitudes toward horses are part of the larger construction of gender in early modern Europe, perhaps things like their frequently visible genitals, their supposed similarity to humans, and the economic importance attached to breeding make them less important as a part of the history of gender than as part of the history of sexuality. Of course the two are frequently inextricable (I'm just bypassing a huge theoretical issue here!). The thing is that in all the early modern examples I can think of, equine sexuality is deeply, even obsessively hetero-normative. Even Shakespeare (!) (in "Venus & Adonis") participates in this phenomenon. Given the complex and frequently ambiguous nature of sexuality at the time, I'm wondering why the Renaissance horse is so freakishly straight. Basically, I'm inviting others to queer the Renaissance horse, as peculiar as that sounds. Of course, if someone has already done this, I'd be happy to be reminded :)

  2. Great point. I haven't thought about sexuality that much, but I really should. There is an article that I haven't read yet, arguing that selective breeding of Welsh cobs imposes gender roles and traits that aren't naturally there:

    Samantha Hurn, ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It?’, Society & Animals, 16 (March 2008), pp. 23-44.

    As for queer horses, how about the Dauphin's horse in Henry V? I can't claim to understand it properly but there's definitely something going on there: "my horse is my mistress" seems pretty queer to me. This horse starts off apparenty very masculine with very hot humours, but then it leads to paradoxical gender-bending lines like "my mistress wears his own hair". Gender-swapping? Homosexuality? Bestiality? All three? Is it more transgressive for a man to have sex with a male horse than with a female horse? I get the impression that the most common (or at least commonly perceived) form of bestiality in early-modern England is a man "buggering a mare". Does heteronormativity carry over into bestiality? (Erica can probably tell us more about this.)

    And of course queer doesn't just mean homosexual. There are lots of non-mainstream sexualities which can blur gender and species boundaries. Gabriel Egan's conference paper on The Witches of Lancashire mentioned scenes where people put bridles on each other and rode each other like horses. Is this the earliest representation of what is now known as pony play?

    (btw I know it's a very long post, but i couldn't work out how to do a cut tag in Blogger. If you know could you explain or fix it please?)

  3. I was just thinking about the Dauphin in H5 as I was brushing my teeth after posting my wild claim, and of course there are certainly lots of passages and practices that queer horse-human relations (in various ways). I guess what I'm really wondering about is horse-horse relations, which seem so resolutely straight (?)

    As for long posts, I'm not sure about how to make them shorter other than to divide them into smaller sections. Anyway, I wasn’t criticizing you for length, just expressing a sense of analytical vertigo ;) I really appreciate your thoughts!

  4. Don't worry, I didn't think you were complaining. :) I'm just in the habit of putting long posts behind a cut becasue it's easy on Wordpress, but after some more searching it looks like it's quite hard on Blogger.

    I think you're probably right about horse-horse sex. I can't think of any counter-examples off the top of my head. Now I'm wondering how humans represent the sexual pleasure of the horse. Does it get erased because people are only interested in the functional aspects of horse breeding? Or was the mare's orgasm considered necessary for conception, as it was with women? How do the hot humours of stallions affect their sexual appetite?

    Also, if Descartes believed that animals couldn't feel pain, did he also think that they couldn't feel pleasure?

  5. "Is this the earliest representation of what is now known as pony play?"

    Possibly not, as while Googling for pony play (it's research!) I found a rumour that Aristotle was a pony boy, although I'm not sure when it originated. I also found lots of other interesting stuff about pony play, but maybe we don't want to go there...

  6. This is a fascinating research topic (topics? There are so many different strands here that could be pursued), and if 'Queering the Renaissance Horse' isn't already a book title, it should be! On Aristotle, the image/motif of Phyllis riding Aristotle (complete with bridle and sometimes riding crop) was common in the late medieval-early modern period, as a reflection of wider anxieties about 'women on top' and domineering women transgressing their 'proper' gender roles in patriarchal society.

    As to women and war, I think the issue is much more complex than a simple exclusion of the feminine gender from active service. I've been reading some accounts recently dealing with the Wars of Religion in 16thC France where women's active role as defenders/combatants in cities under siege was not uncommon. I sometimes wonder if modern readings of exclusion are partly the product of 19th century historians, who had a much more binary sense of gender roles and sex difference than people did in the medieval/early modern periods.

  7. You're definitely right that it's more complicated than the modern binary. I wrote another post about war and gender (but not horses, so I didn't cross-post it here) where I suggested that the definition of combat roles and/or the extent to which women have been allowed into those roles has fluctuated over time, and that this has something to do with Judith Bennett's concept of patriarchal equilibrium.