By Pia F. Cuneo ~
Originally published in Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, 2011.
Just as there are many different kinds of people, so there are many different kinds of horses, each appropriate to an individual person’s social standing and his way of life. God has ordained it to be thus.” So wrote the Augsburg financier, humanist, and horseman Marx Fugger (d. 1597) in his 1584 treatise on horse breeding. Fugger’s book is almost exactly contemporaneous with Walter von Nitzschwitz’s treatise on the cure and treatment of equine ailments written in 1580 and revised in 1583. Several decades later Nitzschwitz’s treatise, along with three other texts by different authors but dealing with similar subject matter, was copied and compiled into the two-volume Langenburg Manuscript now owned by the National Library of Medicine. The manuscript gets its name from the noble German family that originally owned the volumes in the seventeenth century.
As a compilation of texts focused on equines, the Langenburg Manuscript belongs to the pan-European culture of the horse that developed between 1400 and 1800. The horse, like the car in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, proved essential to almost all members of society: for agricultural and commercial production, transport, warfare, entertainment, sport, and recreation. A person’s very identity was bound up with the kind of horse he or she owned and the uses that the animal served. As Fugger’s remark indicates, this linkage between horse and social status was not only recognized and appreciated but also regarded as part of the divine ordering of human society.
Because a horse was such a valuable asset, for labor or leisure, an owner would be concerned with keeping the animal in good health, no matter what illnesses or injuries might befall it. This was as true for humble farmers and tradesmen as it was for members of the nobility. Remedies and treatments for horses were passed down orally, written down in notebooks, diaries, and manuscripts, and eventually also printed in a variety of forms ranging from modest and easily affordable pamphlets to deluxe, densely illustrated tomes. The Langenburg Manuscript, written by and for members of the nobility, documents the concern of elites for the health and maintenance of their horses. By the select breeding of these animals, and by the artful manner of riding and performing on them, social and political preeminence was manifested and demonstrated. Fugger tells us that finely bred and well-trained horses fetched prices anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 ducats. In comparison, Michelangelo was paid 3,000 ducats for painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, a task that took him four years to complete.
The manuscript prescribes various methods of palliative and curative treatment. Some are unhelpfully vague. For example, for an animal experiencing “respiratory difficulties” it recommends that the reader “take some uncooked roots and give this to the horse mixed in with his feed.” A favorite ingredient in many of the recipes is garlic.
Notable for its lively illustrations, the Langenburg Manuscript documents ways of knowing, visualizing, and interacting with animals that the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution would irrevocably change.
Pia F. Cuneo, PhD, Professor of Art History at the University of Arizona, specializes in northern Renaissance art. Her current research, focusing on illustrated horsemanship manuals, examines the nexus between the production and consumption of books, the practice and evaluation of horsemanship, and social, political, and professional identities in early modern Germany.