Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Book of Horsemanship by Duarte I of Portugal, translated by Jeffrey L. Forgeng

A new translation of this fascinating treatise on horsemanship by a fifteenth-century king. This interview with Jeffrey Forgeng comes from Boydell and Brewer's newsletter on their line of medieval history books, the Medieval Herald. Anyone interested in how horses and knights related to each other in the later Middle Ages should have a look.

The Book of Horsemanship by Duarte I of Portugal Translated by Jeffrey L. Forgeng

Jeffrey L. Forgeng is curator of Arms and Armor and Medieval Art at the Worcester Art Museum, and Adjunct Professor of History at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Dr Forgeng, welcome back to the Medieval Herald! Coming so soon after the publication of The Art of Swordsmanship yours is by far the quickest return appearance we’ve had. Does this mean that you were working on your latest publication, The Book of Horsemanship, alongside The Art of Swordsmanship?

I actually finished the initial version of the Art of Swordsmanship more than a decade ago, when I was curator at the Higgins Armory Museum. The museum closed in 2013, and its final years were very challenging for me: writing books was therapeutic, being one of the few things in my life over which I had some control. But what I couldn’t control was the pace of publication, so by the time the Armory closed I had a prodigious backlog of largely completed books. Somehow the backlog started to clear quickly after that: I had two books come out in 2015, two more this year, and I anticipate another in 2017.

When did you first encounter the Livro do Cavalgar?

As the curator of a collection of armor, I am naturally interested in resources that help me interpret these objects for the public. Some years ago a translation of Duarte’s book came out, and I bought a copy. The translation wasn’t accurate enough for me to use it, but there was enough there to make it obvious that the book offered a remarkable window into the material culture of chivalry.

Its author is Duarte I, king of Portugal – did he write it during his reign?

Duarte produced most of the book while he was still crown prince, prior to 1433. As early as the 1410s, when he had only just turned 20, Duarte was playing a significant part in his father’s government, and that role increased over time, but he still found time to work on the book amidst his administrative duties. His first foray into government, helping to administer the country while his father was preparing an expedition to the Moroccan port of Ceuta, brought on a major bout of depression. The Book of Horsemanship seems to have been partly motivated by this episode. Duarte tells us that writing the book helped him occupy his mind constructively during times when his mind might otherwise focus on unhealthy thoughts—I can relate, since translating the work played a similar role in my life. But once Duarte came to the throne he had to set the book aside for a number of years, picking it up again to finish the remaining chapters sometime around 1437.

Was it published and widely read at the time?

Remarkably, no. One might imagine that a book by the king would be well stewarded after his death, but the sole surviving copy seems to have left the country with his widow Eleanor in 1440. The manuscript passed into the holdings of Eleanor’s family, the Aragonese royal house, ending up in the family’s palace in Naples. It was either plundered or purchased by the French crown around 1500, making its way to Paris, where it now resides in the Bibliothèque Nationale. For all those centuries, the Portuguese remembered that Duarte had written a book on horsemanship, but it wasn’t rediscovered until 1804.

How much do we know of Duarte? What sort of man was he and did he make a successful king?

Anyone who reads The Book of Horsemanship will be struck by Duarte’s intelligence and insight. He’s steeped in medieval scholastic culture, yet his insights have a freshness that speaks across the centuries. As a king he was an able administrator, but he seems to have lived under the shadow of his father. In 1437 he tried to repeat his father’s military success with an attack on Tangier, but the expedition was a disaster: the attack failed, and Duarte’s youngest brother was captured, dying in prison a few years later. Duarte himself succumbed to the plague in 1438—though I suspect the stress of the Tangier expedition was a factor as well. The final chapters of the Book of Horsemanship may have been written while Duarte was anxiously awaiting news from Tangier. They are very different from the rest of the book: rushed, breathless, and distracted, and the text breaks off rather abruptly at the end.

The Book of Horsemanship is much more than a guide to riding, it seems to touch on all aspects of equestrianism. Duarte must had had a deep affinity with horses and have held them to be of great significance.

In the past I have always assumed that knights had a strong bond with their warhorses, but Duarte has made me reconsider that. His attitude to the horse is utilitarian: he rarely says “the horse,” almost always a besta, “the animal.” From at least the 1500s equestrian authors have said much about horse psychology, but the subject rarely comes up in The Book of Horsemanship. For Duarte, the horse appears to be comparable to a car today—an object you take reasonable care of, but not something in which you necessarily have any emotional investment.

Do you think that modern riders could still benefit from Duarte’s coaching?

Duarte is a spectacularly insightful analyst of the psychology of riding, addressing crucial questions like fear, confidence, and pedagogy...

The work is singularly important because it’s the sole surviving contemporary source on the definitive skill of the medieval knight. Why do you think this is the only example when many more swordfighting manuals still exist?

Combat manuals are relatively easy to generate: you just have to think of scenarios and come up with possible responses. The permutations are infinite, modular, and easy to illustrate. To write a really good book on horsemanship takes a mind like Duarte’s, capable of seeing through the surface to grasp the underlying principles—while still keeping an eye on material details like whether you should buckle your jousting helmet in front or in back first.

What among Duarte’s advice struck you as most telling of the man himself?

Duarte has a great discussion about how to cultivate and display confidence on horseback. After a lengthy theoretical discussion about confidence, he offers a few specific tricks: if your horse is acting up, he says, deliberately adjust your clothing, as if you were more concerned about the angle of your hood than about your horse. People will think you are a confident horseman, and you’ll start to feel more confident in yourself. But he’s quick to reassure the reader that this kind of deliberate display won’t lead to a habit of lying!

May we ask what your future projects are? Any more translations? I actually undertook the Duarte translation as a waypoint in a long-term project to translate Pedro Monte’s Collectanea. Monte was a Spanish knight working in Italy around 1500s: the Collectanea is a Latin translation by Monte himself of his Castilian treatise on martial arts, sports, military equipment, horsemanship, and other topics important to a knight. But Monte’s Latin is dreadful, and the multiple linguistic layers make this the single most difficult translation I’ve ever done. Duarte has been a huge help: he is another Iberian addressing similar topics from a similar perspective. Coming back to Monte, I find him much easier to understand, and in fact I’m only months away from having the translation ready for press.

The Book of Horsemanship by Duarte I of Portugal

Translated by Jeffrey L. Forgeng

7 colour & 3 b/w illus.; 184pp, 9781783271030, £25/$45, hardback

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