In this study of the relationship between men and their horses in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, Monica Mattfeld explores the experience of horsemanship and how it defined one’s gendered and political positions within society.
Men of the period used horses to transform themselves, via the image of the centaur, into something other—something powerful, awe-inspiring, and mythical. Focusing on the manuals, memoirs, satires, images, and ephemera produced by some of the period’s most influential equestrians, Mattfeld examines how the concepts and practices of horse husbandry evolved in relation to social, cultural, and political life. She looks closely at the role of horses in the world of Thomas Hobbes and William Cavendish; the changes in human social behavior and horse handling ushered in by elite riding houses such as Angelo’s Academy and Mr. Carter’s; and the public perception of equestrian endeavors, from performances at places such as Astley’s Amphitheatre to the satire of Henry William Bunbury. Throughout, Mattfeld shows how horses aided the performance of idealized masculinity among communities of riders, in turn influencing how men were perceived in regard to status, reputation, and gender.
Drawing on human-animal studies, gender studies, and historical studies, Becoming Centaur offers a new account of masculinity that reaches beyond anthropocentrism to consider the role of animals in shaping man.
Monica Mattfeld is Assistant Professor of English and History at the University of Northern British Columbia and coeditor of Performing Animals, also published by Penn State University Press.
“Monica Mattfeld explores eighteenth-century English masculinity and gentlemanly honor from a scintillating new perspective—the horse’s back. Richly archival and theoretically alert, this splendid book illuminates the equestrian worlds of William Cavendish, London riding houses, the hunting field, Philip Astley’s celebrity circuses, and Henry Bunbury’s savage satires, revealing a hidden history of horses as secret sharers and historical agents in Englishmen’s self-imagining. A must for historians as well as animal studies scholars.”
—Donna Landry, author of Noble Brutes: How Eastern Horses Transformed English Culture
“Mattfeld’s book covers an interesting time period as well as imperative questions in relation to the social construction of masculinities. Moreover, she presents new knowledge of how the human–horse relationships are essential for the understanding of masculinity performance in the long eighteenth century.”
—Susanna Hedenborg, idrottsforum.org: Nordic Sport Science Forum
“Becoming Centaur deftly blends cultural, political, and human-animal history. It is a masterful case study of how a particular social group—in this case elite horsemen—can shed light on broader cultural and political trends, both illustrating and complicating dominant narratives of change over time.”
—Ingrid H. Tague, Journal of Modern History
“Monica Mattfeld’s brilliant and incisive book describes the embodied process of co-becoming that entangled men and horses in eighteenth-century culture. Blending posthumanist and materialist perspectives to illustrate how the horse-human partnership was crucial to the creation of diverse and competing versions of masculinity, Mattfeld offers a thoroughly historicized and original account of ‘centauric leviathans,’ equine theatrical actors, urban riding schools, and reactionary satirists, adding exciting new scholarship to a burgeoning field.”
—Karen Raber, author of Animal Bodies, Renaissance Culture
“This is the first detailed study of horsemanship and masculine identity across a long period, reinforcing our appreciation of the iconic status of horses through the eras. While Mattfeld draws on work done on the seventeenth century in particular, she takes the analysis forward into comparatively untouched territory. In doing so, she not only opens up the latter period but also charts the changes that occurred over time, resulting in a work of considerable value.”
—Peter Edwards, author of The Horse Trade of Tudor and Stuart England