Jemima Hubberstey is currently studying towards an MSt in Literature and Arts at the University of Oxford, having graduated from the University of Exeter last summer. In terms of research, she is interested in the ways that the figure of the horse is used as a social signifier, particularly in relation to gender. Studying aside, she works as a communication consultant in London. In her spare time, she enjoys horse-riding, reading, painting, and writing. However, she also has a tendency to bake spontaneously without recipes in the hope she will find her inner creative genius. That is still a work in progress.
Through the lens of seventeenth century horsemanship, this essay explores the complex power relations between man and his subordinates. Understanding different models of power and governance allows us a rich insight into the subversive potential for a dangerous woman, like a spirited horse, to resist and destabilise the patriarchal order.
Looking at this woodcut from 1595 (fig. 1), it is unsurprising to detect the way in which early modern society readily conflated women and horses, especially when it came to the question of power in relation to men. This particular woodcut comically depicts a “rich churle” being subjected to the “subtil practise of one Judith Phillips… a professed cunning woman” (1). This representation makes the churle appear ridiculous for being gullible enough to believe that the strange rituals advised by the “cunning” Judith Phillips would bring him greater wealth. There are many challenges that this depiction of man raises, not least since it destabilizes the viewer’s assumptions of power, authority, and order.
In William Gouge’s Domesticall Duties, it is suggested that wives should “moderate their passion” and “keepe in their tongues with bit and bridle” (285). Loose tongues equated with a loose sexuality in the early modern imagination, so it’s unsurprising that any woman who transgressed these boundaries was potentially seen as a ‘dangerous’ threat to domestic order. The culmination of these ideas is made manifest in the scold’s bridle; although it was an illegal practise, it was widespread enough for Ralph Gardiner to highlight it as one of his major concerns in Grievance discovered in relation to the coal trade (fig.2). Yet the act of punishing such women reveals a strong cultural concern about women’s potential to destabilise man’s authority. As a horse can overthrow its rider, so too could a wife disrupt the domestic order.
Early modern plays of the period offer a rich glimpse into the complex relations between husband, wife, (and horse).
William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is perhaps the most well-known play to highlight this tension.
However, many critics and audiences alike come to the play with the general assumption that the relations between a man and his wife (and his horse, for that matter) in the early modern period revolved around man’s unquestionable authority.
This viewpoint inadvertently advocates a necessary model of domination and suggests that a woman is little more than a dumb beast to be bridled and tamed (Hartwig 292). Far from it, the brilliant stichomythia between Katherine and Petruchio in Act 2 Scene 1 reveals that Katherine is competently able to reason and articulate her thoughts, presenting a dangerous threat to her husband’s authority:
KATHERINE. Asses are made to bear, and so are you.
PETRUCHIO. Women are made to bear, and so are you.
KATHERINE. No such jade as you, if me you mean. (2.1. 200-203)
The play on the word “bear” linguistically parallels women and asses, signalling a tension (and a good old bawdy joke) between the rider and the ridden. When Katherine calls her suitor a “jade”, this is a significant social inversion since the term can refer to a “contemptuous name for a horse,” as well as a “term of reprobation applied to a woman” (“jade” def. 1a; def. 2). By bestializing and emasculating Petruchio in this way, Katherine resists acknowledging him as her superior. Compared to the ideas expressed in seventeenth century horsemanship manuals, most trainers would be reluctant to work with horses that did not want to work with their masters. Nicholas Morgan’s The Horse-man’s Honour stipulates that “teaching is not fit for Horses, as nature hath not framed fit to be taught,” for such a horse would be “umpossible to be reduced to perfection of action, other then by great force” (177).
Unfortunately for Katherine, this analogy proves to be uncannily accurate. One might argue that Katherine’s ability to reason for herself makes her resist her husband like a spirited horse unwilling to yield to its rider’s rein, declaring that “a woman may be made a fool/ If she had not the spirit to resist” (3.2.217-18). Since she is naturally indisposed to serve her husband, Katherine’s submission can only be achieved by force. Ultimately, she is a ‘dangerous’ woman to her husband because her wit challenges Petruchio’s authority and exposes his bad household governance.
Other plays also question how far a woman can pose a dangerous threat to the domestic (and civil) order, using the horse as a vehicle through which to project these tensions. In The Witches of Lancashire, the main plot focuses on the downfall of the relationship between Generous and his wife, Mistress Generous. Despite trying to hide her clandestine identity from her husband, Mistress Generous is exposed by the groom, Robert, who discovers where she takes the horses for her meetings.
The subplot also dips into this theme as Robert’s lover, Moll, also turns out to be a witch. Both Moll and Mistress Generous seek to subvert and overthrow the power of their male ‘superiors’. It is through the figure of the horse that the power shift is made clear to the audience. At the beginning of Act 2 Scene 6, Robert is in control of the plot line when he plans to leave Moll so that he might ride to Lancaster and fill the bottles for Generous. By the end of the scene, Robert has become passive to Moll’s actions once she has bewitched his mount, merely protesting with “Nay but, nay but ̶ ” (2.6.63). Robert’s “nay” has an onomatopoeic parallel with the horse’s ‘neigh,’ as though to suggest that like a bridled horse, his protests are ineffectual and merely denote passivity to Moll’s commands.
Robert is fated yet again in Act 3 Scene 1 when he himself is transformed into a horse, this time at the hands of Mistress Generous, and exits the stage “[neighing]” (59). There is no mistaking the bawdy undertones of the “riding” here, particularly when Robert declares that “I bethink myself how damnably did I ride last night, and how devilishly have I been rid now” (4.1.15-7). Richard Levin has shown that plays of this period often employed the trope of the upper-class woman who is sexually attracted to her husband’s groom, since lower-class men were “more physical (with stronger backs), more primitive, more animal-like, and hence more virile than the men of their own class” (209-10).
A sexual appetite that transgresses the framework of marriage and social class would make Mistress Generous a particularly dangerous woman, with the ability to render her husband a cuckold to his own servant. Act 4 Scene 2 opens with Generous’s concern that his wife “slept not in my house tonight” and his fear of a “contract betwixt her/ And this my groom” (4.2.23-4). For the mistress of the house to be absent is to allow the domestic structure to collapse.
As it turns out, like Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, the price that Mistress Generous must pay for her dangerous transgression is to be punished and broken. Despite being bridled by a revengeful Robert, Mistress Generous does not submit like an obedient horse, but instead tries to evade the relationship of control and obedience altogether. Her transformation into a cat in Act 5 Scene 2 shows that she will not submit to her husband’s command: a transgression for which she forfeits her paw/hand and her marriage.
While this may seem to place her outside of the horse-rider discourse, horsemanship manuals do have specific uses for cats. E.R. Gent recommends that to cure a “Bruise on the Sinews,” one ought to “Take a live Cat, wilde or tame, and cut off her Head and Tail, then cleave her down the chine, and clap her hot Bowels and all to the Bruise” (295). Thomas Blundeville suggests that one can correct a horse with a “shrewd cat teyed at one ende of a longe pole,” if one “thrust[s] the Catte betwixt the [horse’s] thyes so she may scratch and bite him” (214).
Notably, both Gent and Blundeville use feminine pronouns to describe the cat, which contrasts with the masculine pronouns used for the horse. These feminine pronouns equate the cat with the shrewish or dangerous woman, since both embody a paradoxical position as both victim and aggressor. The discourse of these manuals would suggest that it is better to be the horse willingly co-operating with man rather than the shrewd cat who will be thoroughly disempowered and exploited by him.
It’s important to note though, that not all early modern dramas construct the dangerous woman as a femme fatale. As the title would suggest, John Fletcher’s The Woman’s Prize, or, The Tamer Tamed implies a power reversal between man and wife as Petruchio reappears onstage, this time to be tamed by his second wife, Maria. In Shakespeare’s Shrew, the audience is lead to believe that Petruchio has succeeded in taming Katherine. Fletcher’s play would suggest otherwise, as the audience is informed that Petruchio has been driven to start “Hiding his breeches out of fear her [Katherine’s] ghost/ Should walk and wear ‘em yet” (1.1.47-8).
Maria does not accept Petruchio’s authority, and akin to Lysistrata, locks him out of the marital bedchamber on their wedding night. While Petruchio believes he will conquer his wife with his “war-like lance” as he tries to charge into the bridal chamber in true tournament fashion (1.3.26), he is pulled up short. Finding that Maria has unexpectedly locked him out, he admits that “if I suffer this, I may go graze” (1.3.91). Far from being the virile jouster, unable to consummate his marriage, Petruchio’s ‘lance’ is made redundant and he becomes like a surplus horse put to pasture.
In fact, as the play develops and Maria gains more control, it is through her newfound interest in horsemanship that the audience can appreciate how far she challenges male assumptions of power:
PETRUCHIO. She means to ride a great-horse.
SOPHOCLES. With a side saddle?
PETRUCHIO. Yes, and she’ll run a-tilt within this twelvemonth.
MARIA. [To servant] Tomorrow I’ll begin to learn. But pray, sir,
Have a great care he be an easy doer;
‘Twill spoil a scholar else. (3.3.88-93)
The ‘great-horse’ was, of course, still needed for battle, and many horsemanship manuals emphasise the necessity of making “a horse seruiceable for the warres” (Browne 1). Unsurprisingly, the “side saddle” does not feature in such texts, which places women outside the discourse of horsemanship. As a result, Petruchio has to configure his new wife as quasi-male, which is made manifest in the phallic jousting image. Considering that Petruchio’s “war-like lance” was “bent” on his wedding night, Petruchio fears that Maria harbours the potential to emasculate him (1.3.26).
Maria, on the other hand, has a different horse-rider model in mind to that advocated by her husband. Morgan’s The Horse-man’s Honour suggests that the rider who teaches a young horse is like a “discreete Schoole-maister” who teaches “a young scholler” (173). If Maria is like the “scholler, she does not situate herself as the knowledgeable rider, but rather seeks to learn from her horse. Her request for an “easy doer” follows Morgan’s advice that one should choose a horse that is “by Nature, louing to man,” so that through “milde teaching,” the “Horse and Ryder may neuer seeme but as one body” (47; 174; 180). If one compares this to man and wife as one flesh, then Maria’s relationship with the horse prefigures a more sympathetic manègement between herself and her husband. The social hierarchy has not been overturned, but The Woman’s Prize suggests that marital harmony should be achieved not through dominance and submission, but through patience and cooperation.
While these ‘dangerous’ women can never completely overturn the order of seventeenth century society, they do call into question men’s authority and reveal the limitations of patriarchal power. In the same way that a good rider can only prove his ability if he can ride a recalcitrant horse well, so these women make their husbands work hard to prove themselves worthy of their superior positions. After all, it is only through this sympathy and understanding that man and wife, like horse and rider, can truly become one flesh.
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 ‘Manage’ or ‘Manège’ is a very particular term in horsemanship which refers to the art of schooling a horse, comparable to modern dressage today. Nicholas Morgan defines it as the point “when the rider shal exercise the Horse perfectly and gracefully in his place, trot stop, aduance, double or single turn, cariere, gallop, leape, caperiole, coruet, assaut, or whatsoeuer” (206).