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Koert van der Horst, ed., Great Books on Horsemanship: Bibliotheca Hippologica Johan Dejager
by Kevin De Ornellas

Van Der Horst, Koert, compiler and editor. Great Books on Horsemanship: Bibliotheca Hippologica Johan Dejager. Leiden: Brill, 2014. 784pp. ISBN: 9789061944805. £175 cloth.


This is an enormous book. It is folio sized; it has nearly 800 pages; there are over 1,000 illustrations; and it weighs nearly a stone. It may be a victim of its own opulence. The book is too expensive for most academics or so-called general readers to purchase; it may also be simply too large for people with limited domestic space. It is daunting. Just taking the book from a necessarily heavy duty shelf and opening it on a suitably robust surface is something of an event. It may also be inconspicuous on the sometimes-overlooked outsize books areas of libraries; there is a tendency for academic browsers to simply not notice books that are not on the standard-size library shelves. Finally, it might simply be seen as a sort of grandiose coffee-table book (for heavy tables), or, even, as a sort of ego-trip for Johan Dejager. Essentially, the book is a descriptive catalogue of the collection of historic horse books owned by Dejager, a wealthy Belgian industrialist, bibliophile, hippophile and philanthropist. It would be a pity if this book is overlooked because it is valuable – for scholars of early printed books in general and for scholars of the literary and material horse in history.

The bulk of the editorial work has been done by Koert Van Der Horst; he did a terrific job of managing, organising and accounting for a vast range of materials. Three hundred and sixty-four items are described and illustrated; the vast majority of items are books published from the times of incunabula to the early 1800s. This book serves that collection well. The quality of reproduction – usually of title-pages or of significant illustrations within the books described – is immense and the quality of the description of the items is detailed, useful and enjoyable. The quality and quantity of illustrations alone make this book an essential reference point for scholars of the pre-1900 horse. But, as I will assert later, the text is not always faultless. In this review I shall respond to every main section: the introduction by Dejager, four complementary essays by well-chosen scholars, the 700-page catalogue itself, a bibliography and various indices. Reading through this book, examining the text and surveying the illustrations has been a time-consuming, laborious process – but a profoundly enjoyable and useful one.   

The Introduction is the work of Dejager himself. It is a strangely Whiggish piece about the role of horses ‘in the progresses of human civilization’ (16). Dejager quotes a sentence by John Trotwood Moore (1858-1929), who comments on the ubiquity of horses as companions to humans ‘in the long ascent from barbarism to civilization’. Dejager considers this remark to be ‘essentially humorous’ (16) – I don’t know what is humorous about it. It is just a rosy-tinted view of humanity’s ‘progress’ and a factual observation about human exploitation of horses’ various capacities. Some slightly sexist language follows: a notional book collector can only be a ‘he’ according to Dejager’s gendered pronouns: ‘knowing that many beautiful books are still lacking, he is driven to new purchases to complete his collection’ (18). Dejager goes on to account for the centrality of the horse to ancient and modern agriculture as well as cultural representation and, along the way, writes of his own experiences riding horses and boasts about his son being ‘an international rider in show jumping’ (17). The remainder of the introduction describes the scope of his wonderful collection of antiquarian horse books and acknowledges the contributions of the large team who made the catalogue possible.

The first of the four contextualising essays is by Elisabetta Deriu. It is terrific. The essay accounts for the dissemination of knowledge about horse management in Renaissance Europe. Deriu undermines the lazy assumption that Italy was the source of most knowledge of the horse in the period. She also challenges Eurocentric notions about equine expertise, underlining the role of Africa and Asia in the development of various horse breeds. She also stresses the importance of manuscript culture, pointing out that the sharing of manuscripts did not end with the flourishing of print culture from the late 1400s onwards. That said, Deriu underlines the centrality of printed books about horses in the period; this essay serves as an introduction to crucial, relevant horse books of the Renaissance period.

The second essay by Bernard Clerc is also useful. It introduces us to developments in equine medicine in the Europe of the 1600s and 1700s. We learn about a wide range of relevant publications of the period – many of these publications are usefully cross-referenced to catalogue entries later in the book. The importance of the sixteenth-century hippiatric writer, Carlo Ruini, is stated. Also featured is the French expert farrier, Nicolas Beaugrand. Some of these writers’ works outlived them: Clerc points out, for example, that a work by the French writer on horsemanship, Jacques de Solleysel, was in print for 102 years after the author’s death (33). Clerc accounts for the complex interactions between riding mastery and veterinary advances; he does an admirable job of conveying a large amount of information about many writers over a large historical period. Overall, it is an engaging, readable, information-heavy essay.

The least substantial of the four essays is by Thierry D’Erceville. It concentrates on developments in French cavalry techniques in the 1700s. There is a vague implication that French investment in military horses was motivated in part by awareness of their defeat at Agincourt way back in 1415. This defeat is linked to another humiliation, the defeat of the French by the Spanish at Pavia in 1525. These distant memories of defeat start the essay which ends with a brief account of a Napoleonic-era victory over Prussians. There is an implied, centuries-long trajectory: when the French underinvested in horses they lost; when they exploited centuries of practical and theoretical work on military horsemanship they won.

The fourth essay, by Tim Clayton, is a splendid overview of visual horse culture over four centuries. He tells us about the differences between woodcutting and etching – the latter results in more efficacious, detailed images but is more expensive. He takes note of the major horse artists who worked on canvas, such as Théodore Géricault and George Stubbs and of the prolific producers of prints, such as Johann Georg Pforr and Carle Vernet. Clayton describes a growing eighteenth-century market for prints, underlining the importance of racing to the commercial growth of equine visual culture. Men of means wanted to buy prints of famous horses; they wanted to be associated with winners. Clayton goes on to remind us that the upheavals of the 1790s damaged the art market but describes later years of the 1800s as being the great age of British equestrian art. There is a particularly informative account of anti-cruelty series of prints by artists such as Thomas Gooch and Thomas Rowlandson. This wide-ranging essay ends with a discussion of the impact of photography on the culture of the post-1848 age; technology facilitated the accurate equine details in the photographs of Edward Muybridge and in the paintings of Edgar Degas and Alfred Munnings. After 1900 the public expected accuracy in equine art of the realistic type.  

These four essays work as a sweeping but not intimidating avenue into the meat of the book: the 364 catalogue entries. They are organised efficiently, into centuries, although the organisational thinking is sometimes unclear. Within each century division there are national divisions. For example, the sixteenth-century section has sub-sections on the Low Countries, Germany, England, France, Italy and Spain and Portugal. The Iberian Peninsula is treated as one unit in this catalogue: I’m not sure that that is a great idea because the Habsburg-dominated Iberian Union lasted for only six decades. It will be impossible to do justice here to the full range of materials accounted for; but I shall make comments about each century section just to give a sense of the scope of Dejager’s collection and of the efforts to describe it in this book.

Each catalogue entry features one or more photographs of the material object – which is normally a printed book, but is sometimes a manuscript or a print or a series of other forms of equine images. The quality of reproduction is high. The illustrations are augmented with the full, long title of the work, a physical description of the artefact, an account of the author or artist (when known), a commentary on the significance of the work to the dissemination of equine knowledge in Europe and information about relevant secondary works relating specifically to the item being described. It is fascinating stuff. I particularly enjoyed the lavish detail of descriptions of book bindings, translation histories, provenances, where known, and differences between manuscript and printed versions of texts. That said, I think that some readers would appreciate a glossary to help with quite specialised terms such as rubrication, cursive, tipped-in, fillet and tail-piece etc.

The shortest century section is that for the 1400s. There is one German work accounted for – an anonymous manuscript from the late 1400s about remedies and cures for horse diseases and injuries. All of the other works in the section are Italian and are works deriving from the writing of the medieval veterinary pioneer, Lorenzo Rusio (1288-1347). I should clarify that all of the works in the sub-section are Italian in that they are based on Latin texts written by Rusio but some of the artefacts derive from other nations – for example, a 1531 French edition of Rusio’s Hippiatria Sive Marescalia is illustrated, described and contextualised. Two manuscripts and five printed books conveying translations of Rusio’s works are described. The printed books range from an undated incunable to one from 1610 – this demonstrates the lasting importance of Rusio’s work throughout the Italian Renaissance. Books of the 1500s and 1600s containing translations of work from the early 1300s are included in the 1400s section – it is a puzzling decision.

The section on the 1500s begins with coverage of two copies of the same 1578 book credited to the engraver and publisher, Abraham de Bruyn. The book is basically a compendium of military riding styles around the world. Each of the two distinct copies owned by Dejager is afforded an individual catalogue entry. Some of the plates inside the book are illustrated – but all are described. So anyone who wants to see 1570s representations of Dutch, Irish, French or Polish riders, will know where to look. De Bruyn’s work is comprehensive and a rich source for scholars of the horse and of military mores of the period – it is great to have it described so accessibly here. It is not just books that are included in the collection. Another Dutch work, by Jacob de Gheyn II, consists of 22 engraved plates – as the compiler describes it, it is a ‘magnificent series of cavalrymen and lansquenets’ (71). I confess that I had to look up lansquenets – German foot soldiers of the period.

The German part of this section is notably rich: some 25 artefacts are described in this section alone. Highlights are many. An extraordinary 1576, folio-sized work by Hans Kreutzberger is described – the book serves as a culturally rich treasure-trove of descriptions and illustrations of spurs, bits, bridles, stirrups, tack and other items. We also learn of manuscripts: it is a potent reminder that print culture was not entirely dominant in the period. Dejager owns a late-1500s German manuscript with some 200 excellent drawings of horse-managing paraphernalia (90), a manuscript with coloured drawings from c.1585 (110-11) and a suite of 117 partly coloured drawings (126-7). Many (to me) obscure printed German horse books of the century are described.

After Germany we have England. Naturally, Dejager owns a delectable early edition of the first book on horsemanship published in England: Thomas Blundeville’s The fower chiefest offices belonging to horsemanshippe (1565) as well as a copy of John Astley’s 1584 work, The Art of Riding. It is erroneously stated that this 1584 edition of Astley’s book is ‘the only edition’ (133). It was published in a handsome ‘English Experience’ facsimile in 1968 – on page 553 it is pointed out that a 1777 edition of a work by Johann Gottfried Prizelius is the only edition ‘except for a [2011] modern reprint’. So reprints and facsimiles do count; the 1584 edition is not the only edition according to the definition of that as postulated in this book.

Sub-sections on France and Italy ensue. The collection of Italian books is notable for its outstanding editions of works by sixteenth-century Italian riding masters and for its coverage of printed editions of ancient works. For example, there are four books of works by the thirteenth-century writer on veterinary medicine, Giordano Ruffo, a 1580 translation of Xenophon’s ancient Greek treatise on dressage and three books of work by the late Roman Empire writer, Vegetius. Of particular historic significance is a 1528 edition of Vegetius’s Digesta Artis Mulomedicinae – a work generally regarded as the first book of the Christian era to focus on veterinary medicine and, also, the first book on the subject to be printed. Two copies of a rare book on the dressage of young horses by the physician Michel Angelo Biondo are described. The section on the 1500s ends with accounts of books by Spanish equestrians including Alonso Suárez, Pedro de Aguilar, Eugenio Mançanas and Pedro Fernandez de Andrada. These names will be familiar only to specialists with a grounding in Spanish culture of the period or to horse historians who have an enviable geographical sweep in their knowledge of Renaissance equine writing. Making these texts better known is a great credit to the compilers of this work.

Dejager’s collection of books from the 1600s is equally vast and significant. There are several books from the Low Countries accounted for but the highlight of the sub-section on the Low Countries is, for me, an account of six numbered plates of horses by Pieter van Laer, published in Haarlem c.1640 (240-41). The six plates feature horses doing the most quotidian things: drinking, urinating and lying down in death as horses do after their short (compared to human) lives. It is typical of the generosity of this book that we can see all 6 plates reproduced (albeit on a much-reduced scale) for ourselves. After lengthy sections on 1600s books by German authors we are given an account of Dejager’s English books. I was slightly surprised that Dejager seems to ‘only’ own four books by the prolific Gervase Markham. William Cavendish is better served: copies of his essential works on horsemanship feature in abundance and we are also given overviews of the careers and samples of the work of other equestrians including Michael Baret, Thomas de Grey, Andrew Snape and Gerard Langbaine. Seventeen different French writers are dealt with; then we learn about sixteen Italian writers and ten writers from the Iberian peninsula.

The section on the 1700s has, as is to be expected, copious accounts of fascinating works by Dutch, German, English, French, Spanish and Portuguese writers. Many elaborate anatomical texts are featured: I was particularly drawn to a text that I was hitherto unaware of – a 1796 work by Strickland Freeman on the anatomy of horse’s feet. The work addresses the springiness of a horse’s step for its own academic interest but also for the purpose of enhancing the quality of the shoeing process: scholarly curiosity and practical instruction combine. Works from the 1800s take a noticeable turn towards the picturesque. The producers of this book have the same attitude to Scotland that they have to Portugal – the Scottish animal painter, James Howe, is placed in the England sub-section. A series of engraved plates from drawings by Howe is described, as are a series of aquatints of St. Leger winners by John Frederick Herring as well as a gathering of thirty lithographs of equine scenes by the same artist. There are also anonymous portraits of named royal brood mares. Purchasers of these art works clearly wanted to bask in the reflected glory of aristocratic riches and success – it is a world where social, economic and cultural aspiration (still) depends to a large extent on ownership of prized horses.

The book concludes with a useful bibliography and five indices - of ‘authors’, ‘artists’, ‘printers and publishers’, ‘other names and places’ and ‘former owners’. Also, I would have liked a full, inclusive index either instead of or as well as these five. It is difficult to deal with five indices if you cannot remember if, for example, Messer Iuvenale was an ‘author’, an ‘artist’, a ‘printer or publisher’, an ‘other’ or an ‘owner’. I would prefer to look for his name in one index rather than in five: when engaging with a huge book like this one needs all the help one can get. That said, if you want to quickly find a list of Renaissance horse authors or a list of historic book owners, these specialised indices will be convenient. This lavish book has some errors but it is an epic work that is utterly essential for any scholar interested in the historical representation of interactions between horses and people. Hopefully it is not too big to be seen because the contents are as diverse as they are immense and as useful as they are fascinating. There is no better overview of early modern Western horse culture.



Kevin De Ornellas

Ulster University






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Cite as:

Kevin De Ornellas , "Koert van der Horst, ed., Great Books on Horsemanship: Bibliotheca Hippologica Johan Dejager," Spenser Review 48.2.5 (Spring-Summer 2018). Accessed September 28th, 2021.
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