Friday, December 6, 2013

Killing Pegasus: a history of horse meat in France

During the siege of Paris by the Prussians (1870-1871),Victor Hugo invited a friend to a dinner. When she canceled, he sent her the following quatrain:
If you had come, o beauty that I admire,
I would have given you an unrivaled meal:
I would have killed Pegasus and I would have had him cooked
In order to serve you a horse's wing.
This was his poetic way of saying he had planned to serve her horse meat. It will surprise some Americans today to know that, until the siege itself, this had been unusual; horse meat had been rare in France for almost a millennium.

Just decades before, the fear that horse-meat had made its way into Parisian restaurants had created a stir in the city:
A tourist in France (this was about twenty years ago) printed a gloomy caution to his readers to avoid the cheap restaurants. "Horseflesh," he says, "and cat's flesh are reported to be employed as substitutes for beef; and rabbit's or hare's flesh, and not long ago the police took the liberty of prying into these doubtful points. The result of their inquisition has had the sad effect of shaking the faith of the Parisians in the identity of the dishes with those described in the cartes; a faith which a seizure of 2,000 kilograms of horseflesh by the octroi officers at the Barrière du Combat last week will not, I fear, tend to reestablish. This cargo of carrion was on its road to one of the great dining houses."
But the same 1867 article which reported this also spoke of a new movement which was trying to reconcile Parisians to the idea:
But the chief object of this paper is, to refer briefly to the recent effort by a society (called, I believe, Société Hippophage [the Horse-Eating Society]) composed of a number of eminent and strong-stomached gentlemen of Paris, to introduce the regular use of horse-flesh among all classes of French and European society. Occasionally, in the army, when an accident rendered useless a young and fat horse, soldiers are known to have cooked and eaten the best parts; such as the tenderloin and rump. Lately some butchers in Prussia have sold horseflesh, but sell less and less every day.
Still, the writer said: “There is no country where so many hippophagous banquets have been given as in France; but in spite of all these banquets, and the speeches made at them and about them, people do not buy horseflesh.”

The prolonged siege of Paris overcame such repugnance. Any meat was welcome and once this kind became familiar, within a few years boucheries chevaline (horse butcheries) began to open, not only in Paris, but beyond. Some resistance still continued; in 1873, the mayor of Beauvais declared; “there is not and there never have been stalls dedicated to the sale of horse meat” in his city and said that if such meat was sold, it was so fraudulently. But it has continued to this day as a common (if not particularly popular) meat option.

In welcoming horse meat into their diet, most French of the time, like most French today, were not aware that they had revived a practice that was centuries old in their country.

The Gauls ate both horses and dogs; the butchered bones of both have been found in archaeological digs from the period. But this changed dramatically under the Romans; evidence of butchered horses becomes very rare in Gallo-Roman excavations. This is true, says Sébastien Lepetz, even in the North, where the Roman influence was weaker: “In a few decades the inhabitants of northern Gaul stopped eating horse meat.”

Exactly why the Romans themselves did not eat horses, but thought wild ass, for instance, a delicacy is mysterious. Galen writes positively of eating the latter, but says that some people too ate old donkey, which “is distasteful as food, like horse and camel meat”. Pliny, in his articles on asses and mules, casually discusses them as food, but his article on horses does not even hint that people might eat them. The tone of the latter does give some idea of how very special an idea the Romans had of horses; Pliny presents them as, more than companions, partners with human beings.

Too, the Greeks had already found eating horse distasteful and it may be that the Romans simply inherited their attitude.

Conversely, as Roman influence weakened under the late Empire, more and more horses were butchered:

The Late Empire marks a new turning point. In the IVth century, a site again presents horse bones with traces of butchering... In the Vth century,, such vestiges are seen in almost two thirds of the samples. There is then a revival of equine consumption at a moment where Rome is losing its influence. One can suppose that the pressure is less present, the taboo loses its strength, and that Gallic traditions return to the forefront.
Beyond a Gallic revival “at the same time one can see an exterior incidence, a direct consequence of German settlement in the provinces of the North... the consumption of horses was habitual among the Germans.” As Romans and Germans increasingly interacted, this would be one of several key differences between the cultures. Already, some of the rare finds of butchered horse bones from the Gallo-Roman period come from places like Amiens and Arras, settled by German soldiers fighting for the Romans.

Archaeology shows that, under the Franks, horses were again eaten, if mainly in the more Germanic north: “The horse is eaten on numerous Merovingian and Carolingian sites in the North of France.” What is striking however is that this consumption is not reflected in written records. The Salic law, for instance, above all addresses horses as beasts of burden and war. Writing on food to a Frankish king, Anthimus does not mention horse meat at all. To some degree this might reflect his own Greco-Roman background, but certainly if the meat had been at all common at Theuderic's court, he would have commented on it (as he does on eating bacon raw).
Nor was the animal eaten as much as it had been before the Romans: “In the VIth-Vth century, epochs where the horse is again consumed, its remains are despite everything rare; which would lead one to think that its place in the meat diet is very weak.”

The Romans' rejection of the meat also had one incidental effect: in most cases, the horse bones show no signs of the more sophisticated Roman butchering techniques, such as the use of a cleaver. “This is certainly due to the fact that the new butchery techniques... were never applied to the horse in replacing non-Roman traditions. By definition, Rome had no equine butchering technique.”

If horse consumption, though revived, was both less practiced in reality and less visible when it was, it may be because the Franks themselves feared the disapproval of more sophisticated Gallo-Romans. The fact that the Church was dominated by the latter only gave Roman cultural norms that much more weight (as, arguably, American distaste for eating dogs may be influencing Asians today – my guide in Beijing felt obliged to defend, a little uncomfortably, that practice in China). 

Further, in the Christian era, a religious concern joined the basic cultural bias: the Germanic consumption of horse had a distinctly pagan association. The animal played an important role in pagan rituals and may even have been eaten after theseThe eighteenth century writer J. G. Keysler, in a lengthy dissertation on the banning of horse meat, gives several examples of pagan devotion to eating it. In Scandinavia, this lasted until at least the tenth century. One Christian Norwegian king called the pagan Swedes “horse-eaters”. A tenth century tale from the thirteenth century Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson neatly illustrates both the importance of this food to pagans and the repugnance Christians felt for it.:
But on the morrow, when men went to table, the [pagan] bonders thronged [Hakon the Good], bidding him eat horse-flesh, and in no wise the king would. Then they bade him drink the broth thereof, but this would he none the more. Then would they have him eat of the drippings, but he would not; and it went nigh to their falling on him.
The Church's official stand, however, was uncertain. When Boniface went, in the eighth century, to convert those in Germany itself, two different popes wrote to him to condemn the eating of horse meat. Gregory III (pope from 731 to 741) condemned every sort:
Among other things, you tell me that some eat wild horse, others domestic. Do not permit this any longer, dear brother, but by all the means in your power, with the help of Christ, prevent this... It is filthy and execrable food.
The next pope, Zachary I, wrote only that people should avoid eating wild horses (as well as beavers and, strangely, hares).

Note that neither pope cited any biblical source for these bans; they may simply have found the idea repellent, regarding it exactly as some Americans regard the French practice today. But they may have regarded it too as a pagan holdover.

The clearest official interdiction came from a synod held in England by Pope Hadrian in 787. In condemning pagan practices like scarification, tattooing, and ritual mutilation of animals, the canons from the Concilium Calchuthense also say: “Horses too many among you eat, which none in Eastern Christendom do: which also avoid.”

Yet in the same period, most penitentials, across several countries (including France), include the same statement: “We do not prohibit the eating of horse, but it is not customary." It has also been claimed that Charlemagne banned the practice. But in his Saxon capitulary (which largely addresses pagan practices), he says only that people should avoid eating “meats consecrated to the demon”.

Overall then, the official view remained ambivalent, even within the Church. In the tenth century, the monks of St. Gall (a Carolingian but Germanic monastery) included thanks for “the sweet flesh of wild horses” among their table blessings. Still, as a practical matter, the French had begun to eat less horse meat, even if the practice would take some time to disappear; Lepetz: "Its use becomes more occasional starting in the IXth century and then rare in the central and late Middle Ages."

By the end of the period, France was a Latin, not a Germanic, country, and this practice had joined the scaramax as a forgotten Frankish relic. In 1420, the Bourgeois of Paris noted that during the siege of Melun "everyone was dying of hunger and those who had horses ate them." Clearly, under normal circumstances, the French had not done so for some time; no doubt, they did not then expect to ever again.


Émile Blémont, Le livre d'or de Mr Hugo, par l'élite des artisteset des écrivains … 1883

Pierre Blot, "Horseflesh as food", The Galaxy, Volume 3, Issue 3, February
1, 1867

Sébastien Lepetz, L'animal dans l'économie gallo-romaine”, Revue archéologique de Picardie,Year   1996    Volume   12    Issue   NS 12    pp. 81-147

Dufour, Une question historique : 1720-1868 /. [précédé d'une Dissertation historique sur la défense de manger de la chair de cheval / [de J. G. Keysler] ; [traduite du latin par l'abbé Valentin Dufour] 1868

Sturluson, Eiríkr Magnússon, The Stories of the Kings of Norway Called the Round World (Heimskringla) 1893

Saint Boniface (Archbishop of Mainz), The Letters of Saint Boniface 2000

Poisson, Delectus actorum ecclesiae universalis, seu nova summa conciliorum ..., Volume 1 1738

Wasserschleben, Die Bussordnungen der abendländischen Kirche  1851

Keller, “Ekkehardi Monachi Sangallensis, Benedictiones Ad Mensa", The archeological journal,  Volume 21  1864

Journal d'un Bourgeois de Paris, 1405-1449 1881 

1 comment:

  1. you need more history of France and horse meat dishes that they make