When in 1820, José Xavier Dias da Silva discovered that a large in folio volume kept in the Royal Library of Paris contained two manuscripts, hitherto unknown, of King Edward I of Portugal (1391-1438), he did not immediately realize that he had revealed an inestimable treasure of world equestrian literature. In that codex, bound in morocco leather, it, in fact, contained the oldest book about horseback riding that has been handed down to us, after that of Xenophon. Until then, the primacy was attributed to Gli ordini di cavalcare (The Rules of riding), the treatise that the Neapolitan gentleman Federico Grisone published in Naples in 1550. Da Silva’s discovery showed, instead, that more than a century before the eleventh king of Portugal and Algarve and second lord of Ceuta, also known as Edoardo the Philosopher, or the eloquent, for his passion for humanities, wrote a work dedicated “to the art of riding with any kind of saddle”, entitled Livro da ensinança de bem cavalgar toda sella. In the Parisian manuscript, the equestrian treatise was preceded by another work by the sovereign’s hand: O leal Conselheiro, in which the Portuguese ruler expounded philosophical considerations and patterns of behavior.
An original work
Not only is the book by Dom Duarte the first book devoted entirely to equitation written in modern times, but it is also a very original work that, instead of focusing on equestrian technique, deepens the psychology of the rider, offering at the same time a very interesting overview of equestrian practices in the late Middle Ages. This peculiarity makes this book, in the beautiful definition given by the Portuguese scholar Carlos Henriques Pereira, “the first page in history of psychology applied to equestrian sports and probably to sport’s pedagogy in general” (PEREIRA, 2009, p. 141).
First of all, the author lists and analyzes the advantages, that at the time, were derived from being a skilled rider: it gives social prestige, it infuses courage, it cheers the spirit, it is useful in war and for hunting. Moreover, a good rider is always ready to go to his sovereign’s rescue and this can bring him much honor and many benefits.
I am sure , writes Dom Duarte, that all knights and squires should want very strongly to excel in the art of riding, as they will be well esteemed because of such skill (DOM DUARTE, p. 6).
The rider must have three requirements to excel: first the will, then the economic means to buy good horses and to then take proper care of them, and finally the knowledge, which allows him to choose the best animals and to enhance their merits and correct their defects.
According to Dom Duarte, the most important quality that distinguishes a good rider is the ability to keep himself firmly in the saddle, under any circumstances. Immediately after, however, comes the talent to not to be afraid of falling, maintaining an adequate confidence in himself and in the animal, on any ground where he is riding. This self-confidence can and must be acquired through a process of spiritual maturation of the rider, in fact:
although it is commonly said that we cannot change our nature, I believe that man can reform themselves immensely, under God, correcting their shortcomings and increasing their virtues (DOM DUARTE, p. 45).
The first way to overcome fear, says Duarte, is knowledge:
In riding, like in all the things we want to do, if fear makes us unable to do it well we should, first of all, learn how to do it better; and if we know how to do it well, we will have the aforementioned presumption which, in itself, normally causes most or all the fear to vanish (DOM DUARTE, p. 45)
As for the equestrian technique, Dom Duarte indicates different ways of riding, substantially opposing the different techniques of the so-called “a la brida” style, in which the rider mounts keeping his legs extended, and the so-called “a la gineta” technique, characterized instead by the the fact that the rider mounted with shorter stirrups and bent legs.
The “a la brida” style was the typical technique of heavy cavalry and was characterized by the use of long stirrups. Dom Duarte distinguished two different methods: the first one consisted of riding deeply seated, keeping the feet forward; the second, in contrast, consisted of riding standing up in the stirrups, never sitting on the saddle. To facilitate this second method, the stirrups were fastened to each other with a strap under the horse’s belly in order to prevent them from separating. According to Dom Duarte, the method of standing while riding was older and required the rider to keep his legs perfectly straight under him. Both of these techniques were used to facilitate the knight in handling the lance.
In contrast, in the “a la gineta” style the stirrups were shorter, allowing the rider a more direct and precise contact of the “lower aids” with the horse’s sides. According to Dom Duarte, this style required the rider to sit “in the middle of the saddle”, not using the support of the pommel and the cantle, keeping the feet firmly resting on the stirrups, with the heels slightly down. The bits that were used with this riding technique were identical to those still in use in North Africa, while the saddles, also clearly of Arabic origin, were quite similar to the “silla vaquera” still used in Spain. Riding “a la gineta” was also the basic technique of bullfighting on horseback. The short stirrups allowed the rider to make fast stops and departures, as well as sudden changes of direction, which are essential in the fight with the bull.
Dom Duarte’s book and Italy
After discovery of Dom Duarte’s manuscripts, the scholars have continued to wonder about which path it has followed to finally arrive at the Royal Library (now National) in Paris. The oldest attestations of the volume in France place it in the Library of Blois, in the mid-sixteenth century, property of the Dukes of Orléans. In 1544, this collection of books merged into the Royal Library established by Francis I (1494-1547) in Fontainbleau, then transferred to Paris, at the end of the reign of Charles IX (1560-1574).
The scholars now consider it to be almost certain that there was only one copy of the work of the Portuguese king. It was probably brought to Spain by the widow of Duarte, Leonor of Aragon (1400/2-1445), when she left the Kingdom of Portugal in 1440. The hypothesis now more credited is that the manuscript later became the possession of Leonor’s brothers, the infants of Aragon, Henrique and Joao, because she sold it to them (which is probable, given her economic situation), or because they inherited it at her death. Now belonging to the Aragonese court, the manuscript then passed to the Library of the Aragonese Kings in Naples. This is demonstrated by the presence, in the lower right corner of the last written sheet of the text, of a brand that is present on other manuscripts that certainly belonged to the Aragonese library of Naples. The Neapolitan collection of books, which gathered the precious collections created by Alfonso I (1435-1458) and Ferdinando I (1458-1494), who were both passionate bibliophiles, passed then to Blois probably after the ephemeral conquest of Naples by Charles VIII (February 1495), or perhaps after the sale made to Louis XII (1462-1515) by Isabella, widow of the last Aragonese king of Naples, Frederick I, who died in exile in France in 1504. So, the first treatise about horseback riding written in modern times, passed from Portugal to Spain, then stopped in Naples and went on to France, joining in an ideal, as well as material, itinerary with other nations that have contributed further to the development of the European equestrian culture, between the fifteenth and the eighteenth century.
(This article was published in Italian in the first issue of Lusitano Magazine, Journal of the Italian Association of Lusitano Breeders)
CASTRO, Maria H. L., “Leal Conselheiro”: itinerário do manuscrito, “Penélope”, Lisboa, n. 16, 1995. p. 109-124.
DOM DUARTE The Royal Book of Jousting, Horsemanship and Knightly Combat. A translation into English of King’Dom Duarte’s 1438 Treatise Livro da Ensinança de Bem Cavalgar Toda Sela, by Antonio Franco Preto, ed. by S. Mulhberger, Higland Village, The Chivalry Bookshelf, 2005 (there is now a more recent English translation of by Jeffrey L. Forgeng, The Book of Horsemanship by Duarte I of Portugal, Boydell Press, 2016. You can find on line the 1854 Portuguese edition, by following this link, Leal conselheiro, o qual fez Dom Duarte: seguido do Livro da ensinanca de bem cavalgar toda sella).
PEREIRA, Carlos Henriques, Le traité du roi D. Duarte: l’équitation portugaise a l’aube de la Reinassance, in AA. VV. , Les Arts de l’équitation dans l’Europe de la Reinassance. VIIe colloque de l’Ecole nationale d’équitation au Chateau d’Oiron (4 et 5 octobre 2002), Arles, Actes Sud, 2009, pp. 140 – 150.