The English aversion to eating horses
Although everyone knows that we don’t eat horsemeat in this country, have you ever wondered why?
Is it because it tastes bad or isn’t good for us? According to lots of our European neighbours, it’s a lean, healthy and slightly sweetish meat. So, if it’s not because of those kind of factors, why don’t we eat horses?
As a historian who specialises in the health of animals, I would say that it’s because of the important roles that horses have always played in our society. According to Edward Topsell who wrote The historie of four-footed Beastes (London, 1607), their special status can be traced back to ‘the holy scriptures’. Whether this was true or not, it is clear that while animals had originally been domesticated in order to serve some sort of human purposes, horses served multiple ones. This would depend, of course, on what kind of many different types a particular was. While those at the lower end would probably have done hard labour in the fields, others were valued for everything from their sheer beauty, ability to run fast or to provide companionship.
As the author of the seventeenth century bestselling The English Horsman described it:
"Of all four-footed Beasts I cannot find any so useful to man, and so serviceable as is that generous Creature we call an Horse. Neither doth the pleasure man receives by him, come any ways short of the profit he reaps thereby. In peace he serves to till the ground; and as he takes great pains in causing the earth to bring forth its fruits in its proper season; so when produced, he labours no less to lodge them where his master shall appoint."
However, as with all working animals, their usefulness depended on their state of health.
Despite stereotypes about sick horses in early modern England (roughly 1500 – 1800) either being left to die, this wasn’t the case at all. As I’ve explained in A plaine and easie waie to remedie a horse: Equine Medicine in Early Modern England (Leiden, 2013), there were a huge range of health-related options for these important animals. In common with contemporary human medicine, these included an emphasis on providing them with what we’d now call a ‘healthy lifestyle’.
While lots of different types contribute to human well-being, horses are generally considered to be at the very top of the domesticated animal kingdom. Given that, it’s not very surprising that we wouldn’t want to eat them!
If you want to hear more about The Early Modern English Aversion to Eating Horses, please join us on Thursday 26 May for a free public lecture at the University of Winchester, given by Professor Peter Edwards from Roehampton University.
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About the Author
Professor Louise Hill Curth is Professor of Medical History and the Convenor of the Centre for Medical History at the University of Winchester