When trying to understand the everyday workings of people in the Early Modern Period, one must widen the focus of sources one was initially going to work with. I at some point during my studies of the Early Modern German newspaper became interested in the breeding of livestock as I found a few news items on how exceptionally well horses bred in Augsburg were. The search for contemporary sources made me stumble over a work by the Augsburg publisher Heinrich Steiner and I soon found myself reading the entire source instead of just trying to extract that one detail I was interested in. And it turned out to be a fantastic find.
Horses were one of the most important multi-purpose tools in the Early Modern period. Their sturdy nature provided workforce in mills and on the field. Horses allowed people and goods to cover large distances. For contemporaries, horses were omnipresent in the shires, towns and cities. For burghers and peasants, they meant great commercial value. Newspaper publishers offered a special service to horse-owners: they could report runaway horses and seek public support in locating their lost animals through an advertisement in the press. Stealing a horse was a serious and sometimes dead serious issue. The value of a well-bred horse was so high that those who stole horses in Germany often faced capital punishment for their offence.
For those with little experience, buying a suitable horse was a difficult task. Those who were tricked and bought a bad horse usually lost good money and ended up with an animal incapable of doing the job. Counsel was needed and publishers reacted to this. They printed a staggering amount of works on domestic and farm animals, their breeding and veterinary care.
Choosing the right horse must have been a hard task for inexperienced buyers and Steiner’s work has solid advice. When checking out the horse, the buyer ‘should pay attention to make sure the horse has subtle neck and muscular shanks’. A muscular body and small head and a thick bead over the eyes furthermore indicate good riding material. Once these boxes are all checked, a test ride goes without saying. For special purposes, the buyer is to ‘try out the horse at night too so as to make sure that it does not baulk when riding in the dark’.
The book reminds its reader how important maintenance is for the wellbeing of the animal. Horse-owners always worried about fractured legs, dislocated joints, ankle sprains and the lack of interest in proliferation. And Steiner’s work offers advice. Should anything happen to the legs, the weak point of every horse, a home-made medicine can do the job of curing orthopaedic evils. For this, chalk, aquilegia petals and gold foam, must be cooked together until a thick block of residue remains at the bottom of the kettle. This block, crushed and mixed into the fodder, will help the horse to recover. A dislocated joint should be treated with a bandage soaked in flour and vinegar. Breeding was a particular concern in the text. Should the reader take an interest in breeding but stallion and mare show no affection for each other, a stimulating paste can be the key. A mixture of honey and onion, applied to the nostrils of the stallion and the female parts of the mare should heat up the atmosphere and get the two going, at least according to the book.
The title of the work, Breeding and Use of all Livestock is somewhat misleading. Steiner puts horses in the centre of attention and devotes more than two third of the book on selecting, breeding, keeping and healing of horses. Gees, in comparison, are only graced with three lines of text, remarking that there are inedible and thus of no further interest. Steiner himself was not at all an expert in the world of farming. He printed an eclectic series of Protestant works, most notably a four-volume deluxe edition of Luther’s bible on velum. Four identical books featuring the same text appeared in Frankfurt, Munich and Cologne in 1631, the year that Steiner published his edition. He presumably sensed good marketability of the title and decided to give it a go. The book claims to be written by Varro Reatinus who compiled texts of Pliny and Vergil, authors who lent it the aura of classic wisdom. In reality, an anonymous author pieced the text together from established sources of the time. It is a wonderful insight into the Early Modern ideas of veterinary care.