Saturday, January 08, 2005

Hi-Ho Silver!

Montaigne liked horses. Not the My Little Pony kind of horse, or the hard working plow horse. No, Montaigne, being a gentleman and a manly sort of man, admired war horses. In his essay "On War-Horses," he fairly gushes about them. Now, a horse to Montaigne, an "entire horse," as he calls it, "is a stallion with ears and mane; no other will pass muster." These horses have spirit and fight in them. Montaigne admires horses that have been taught to assist their rider's in battle, horses that have been taught "to run down anyone who threatens them with a naked sword and to kick and to bite all those who make or come straight for them." Taking a horse into battle, however, may give you an advantage over an unhorsed foe, but it also adds to your own personal risk. Apparently, once a war-horse gets itself all worked up in the fray it is almost impossible to control any longer. You also risk your own valor and fortune. When on horseback, your fate and that of the horse is tied together. Therefore "its wounds and its death involve your own; its fear or its impetuosity make you too either cowardly or foolhardy; if it does not respond to bit or spur it is your honour which has to answer for it." Montaigne makes a digression into a discussion on the weapons of war. He suggests choosing the shortest weapons because you have more control over them. And don't use a pistol. There are too many things that can go wrong. It is an "ineffectual weapon" that Montaigne hopes we give up using. Would he ever be surprised at their proliferation these days. Though he'd also be surprised at how easy they are to use. Too easy in my opinion. The essay then meanders back to war horses and stories from history about them. Montaigne mentions the Spaniards coming to the Americas and bringing horses with them:

those new people of the Indies thought that both the men and the horses were either gods or animate creatures of nobler or higher nature than theirs. When those Indians were defeated some, coming to seek peace and pardon from the men, brought offerings of gold and food which they did not omit to offer to the horses as well, addressing speeches to them exactly as to the humans, interpreting their whinnying as the language of compromise and truce.
Unfortunately the horses weren't the ones in charge. If they were the world would be a whole lot different these days. Another interesting historical note in this essay. Even in the 16th century they had trick riders. Montaigne tells of a man he saw who "rode over a hat, shot backwards at it with his bow, hitting it repeatedly; he picked up anything he liked, with one foot on the ground and the other still in the stirrup--and many other tricks by which he earned his living." Wild Bill's Wild West show was not original after all. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Democritus and Heralitus"