The horse slaughter crisis raging in America today began in the Vatican 1276 years ago, and the anti-slaughter lobby may discover that its all-time most powerful ally and founding father is actually Pope Gregory III.
Hello…! What’s that you say? Sounds odd, yes. Facts, however, prove it.
This fascinating history is not entirely unknown today, but has yet to be seriously considered as a motivation for the current battle playing out in newspapers, magazines, and legislatures.
A team of researchers and equestrian-minded academics at the Long Riders’ Guild Academic Foundation (LRGAF) spent months compiling solid evidence to shed light on this obscure fact in the hope that it may be fully considered in the present debate.
It is significant, they assert, that centuries before Columbus (or even horses) came to America, the seed for the present heated push for anti-horse legislation germinated in Europe. It took root and mostly eliminated the practice of eating horses in all of Christendom.
Beginning in the 8th century, decrees officially linked the Pagan practices of slaughtering and eating horses with opposition to the church. These misdeeds were considered quite serious, punishable offences.
The Pope’s geopolitical manoeuvre found a capable agent in Boniface (later to become Saint Boniface). This missionary famously felled the holy oak tree dedicated to Thor in northern Hesse, amazing the Pagans when a lightening bolt didn’t strike him, and setting in motion the felling of the Pagan ways of northern Europe.
Pope Gregory III sent Boniface a letter in 732 AD charging him with the sacred duty of abolishing the Pagan custom of slaughtering and eating horses – a taboo successfully woven into the layers of the cultural fabric of the modern west.
This little-discussed ancient history sheds new insight into the highly emotional drive to eliminate horse slaughter, and even eating horsemeat, in the United States. It also helps explain why horses get this fervent attention yet other domestic livestock remain in their feedlots outside the political show ring.
In addition to the Catholic history at play in the horse slaughter debate, another important, albeit recent, point also has escaped consideration. It is the cutting edge work of a respected scholar, Dr Richard Bulliet, PhD, Professor of History at Columbia University, which likewise caught the attention of LRGAF researchers.
Bulliet recently spearheaded a new school of thought divulging a peculiar development in human-animal relationships. He argues that people are entering a new period of relating to animals, one with characteristics and ramifications never before seen.
This theory seems to add much towards understanding the recent surges in the concern for animal rights, and the highly emotional responses many Americans feel in the ongoing horse slaughter debate even though many of them likely never have had a direct experience with horses.
The edict against eating horses traces back to that letter Pope Gregory III sent to Saint Boniface. It says in part: “You say, among other things, that some eat wild horses and many eat tame horses. By no means allow this to happen in future, but suppress it in every possible way with the help of Christ and impose a suitable penance upon offenders. It is a filthy and abominable custom … We pray God that … you may achieve complete success in turning the heathens from the errors of their ways.”
This Catholic decree and its enforcement were borne of a raging conflict playing out across Europe. The stringent stance by the church against the consumption of horseflesh proved highly political and ground breaking. This ritualistic and culinary forbiddance stuck firm in most European regions.
It then traveled across the Atlantic centuries later, along with horses themselves.
“The papal taboo on horseflesh was an extraordinary departure from the established principles governing the Church’s definition of what was good to eat,” explained the renowned American anthropologist, Marvin Harris, in his book, The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig.
“Taboos against specific foods were antithetical to the universalist proselytizing thrust of Christianity. From the time of Saint Paul, the church was opposed to any food taboos that placed obstacles in the path of potential converts. As stated in Acts 5:29, God only asks Christians that ‘Ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood and from things strangled.’ The horse is the one exception (aside from fast days and the unwritten taboo on human flesh).”
Even though the anti-horse eating edict ran counter to any previous Christian policy, a variety of cultural, military and political factors combined to convince the leaders of the Catholic Church to take this unprecedented culinary action.
Lightening fast, thundering hooved cavalry (à la Genghis Khan’s mounted archers) easily overwhelmed molasses-slow, floppy-footed infantry (the bailiwick of Roman military tradition) as the decisive military technology in a historical eye blink. It proved to be the point where – as Danish equestrian scholar, Bjarke Rink, poignantly states in his recent groundbreaking historical work, The Centaur Legacy – “horsemanship [became] the Catalyst of History”.
Christian Europe suddenly found itself hopelessly militarily antiquated. They were sedentary sitting ducks to the roving, worldly, exquisitely equestrian peoples in their neighborhood. Christian Europe barely met the economic necessities of playing equestrian catch-up.
Every resource available went for breeding, feeding, and affording warhorses on the rather woodsy, less-than-ideal grazing land as it was, let alone enjoy an equine excess large enough for feeding people.
Of course, the battle against eating horseflesh was won by the Christian Church, so its influence and the effectiveness of its tactics are undeniable. It is interesting that this fact is unknown to many in America today, even to those who carry the same cross as St Boniface.
Likewise, it partially explains why the taboo is absent in other cultures around the globe where Rome had little influence. It is easy enough to discern that the western psyche singling out horse, as taboo from the table is a purely cultural matter. Observably no physiological reasons exist showing that humans shouldn’t consume horse protein any less than that of chicken, fish, swine, or cattle.
In fact, many humans (Yakutians for example) depend on horsemeat for their very survival. Not to mention horse meat as a dish is, as Harris points out, “tender red meat minus a lot of calories and cholesterol”, quite healthy, and savoured by many peoples around the world.
Yet the emotionally charged actions of the anti-slaughter side might have a deeper core motivation resulting in part from the long ingrained horsemeat taboo with its religious origins. As extraordinary as Gregory III’s original edict was to Christian traditions, the anti-slaughter interest group may not only succeed to make it illegal for Americans and those staying here to slaughter or even eat horseflesh, but also perhaps even to disallow anyone from aiding other nations from doing so with our unwanted stock.
Imagine the FBI showing up at your door because the horse you sold to a “trail rider” ended up in a Canadian slaughterhouse, so now you’ve innocently broken a law with a stiff penalty.
Eliminated presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee could have found himself in just such a situation in Iowa, when he admitted to eating a horsemeat dish in the Netherlands. If he had eaten that Dutch treat in California, he could have gone to prison rather than the next state on his campaign tour.
Absurd though these examples sound at first, California Penal Code Section 598 states, “… horsemeat may not be offered for sale for human consumption. No restaurant, cafe, or other public eating place may offer horsemeat for human consumption.”
It is a felony violation (that’s right … a felony) punishable by a lengthy imprisonment. In the academic paper, Repugnance as a Constraint on Markets, published in 2006, Harvard Economics Professor, Alvin Roth says, “sufficiently many Californians not only don’t wish to eat horses themselves, but find it repugnant that you should do so, and it is this repugnance that was enacted into law in 1998, by popular referendum. The measure passed by a margin of 60% to 40%, with over 4.6 million people voting for it (almost the same number as voted for the winning candidate for governor that year).”
“This law,” he continues, “is different from those that seek to protect consumers by governing the slaughter, sale, preparation and labeling of animals used for food. And it is different from laws prohibiting the inhumane treatment of animals, including animals that are routinely slaughtered for food.
“It is not illegal in California to kill horses or dogs, although the California law outlaws such killing ‘if that person knows or should have known that any part of that horse will be used for human consumption’.
“Note that the prohibited use is ‘human consumption’. It is apparently legal in California to buy and sell pet food that contains horsemeat (although the use of horse meat in pet food has apparently declined in the face of the demand for US horse meat in Europe, for human consumption).
“As this example makes clear, some kinds of transactions are repugnant in some times and places and not in others.”
So how does so sweeping an action become a written edict? Why such emotion regarding horse slaughter, but not the same intensity for those other domestic livestock? The answer may be found back in history when this first happened …
St Boniface worked in Germany at a time when the pendulum between the influence of the Vikings and that of the Vatican swung back and forth for numerous decades. The Pagans, however, proved to be formidable foes both on sea and on horseback.
Their polytheistic ways, savage warrior traditions, and roving natures struck dread into the hearts of sedentary and predictable “civilized” Roman-based society. These two ways of life crashed into one another in the north irreconcilably.
Since the Pagans drew strength from Odin, the chief god of their belief system, through ceremonies that involved eating horsemeat, the practice presented itself as a clear target for the Vatican.
St Boniface’s assigned task from Pope Gregory III was not an isolated incident. LRGAF research discovered numerous examples as in, History of the Christian Church, by George Park Fisher, published in 1910, wherein he explains: “From Norway, Christianity spread to Greenland and Iceland. For a time, the Icelanders stoutly contended for their ancient right to eat horse-flesh …”
Earlier academics also were aware of the Christian origins of the horse-eating taboo. This is evidenced by a passage in the book, Cave Hunting, by W. Boyd Dawkins, published in London in 1874.
Dawkins discusses the evidence of broken horse bones in numerous caves occupied by early Europeans as an indication that horsemeat was a regular diet for them.
He says: “The present prejudice against [horseflesh’s] use is a remarkable instance of the change in taste, which has been brought about by an ecclesiastical rule aimed against a long forgotten faith.”
Over the next several centuries the taboo spread through the continent with the establishment of Christianity and stuck to become a dominant part of western European culture. The modern English language provides proof too, by lacking a word for horsemeat, unlike its cousins like “beef”, “pork”, and “venison”, (although the term “kicker” once was an English north-country term for horse meat, and the term “kickereater” lingers as a derogatory term for Yorkshiremen).
As mentioned, Bulliet, in the book, Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers, defines and investigates why our society is undergoing sweeping changes in the way it views animals and how human-animal relationships are morphing. It offers interesting original insights into the reasons for the present horse-slaughter debate.
Bulliet applies the term “postdomesticity” to the dawning age in human-animal relationships. On his timeline, the age of “domesticity” is just ending, where some animals are domesticated and given little consideration beyond their products and services. All animals being wild and humans revering and worshipping them even while hunting them characterized “Pre-domesticity”, its predecessor. The earliest era he terms “separation”, signifying the point where early humans pulled away from the other animal species.
One unique aspect of postdomesticity is, according to Bulliet: “The waning of direct contact with productive domestic animals … accompanied by a powerful desire to humanize animals of all sorts including farm animals. From the turn of the 20th century through the 1950s, the children and grandchildren of people who had exchanged life on the farm for life in town incorporated humanized farm animals into romantic visions of a bucolic past with which they had physically lost touch.”
This change is easily seen in such popular culture as the movies Bambi, Babe, and lately a whole slew of animated features with slick talking animals “hip to the human scene”. Bulliet says this is an expression extraordinary in human history. So radical a change in animal presentation in the mainstream culture never occurred before and signifies that the anthropomorphasizing has deep and distinctive affects on moral, spiritual, psychological, and even political life in the postdomestic world.
The English-speaking world is far out front leading the postdomestic pack, according to his theory. It is no surprise, if he is correct, that the US happens to be grappling with the horse slaughter issue at precisely the point in history where the domestic and postdomestic intersect.
Long-suppressed guilt in society towards the ugly aspects of human-animal interactions of the domestic era, spurred hard by the recent separation of the great majority of our society from any real contact with animals that still provide many products for us, fuels the kind of amped-up emotion needed to pass laws like those that have shut down slaughter houses in the US.
The California law discussed above is notable since 4.6 million people voted for it, but likely only a small percentage are horse owners or even regular riders. In all likelihood, many of those voters have never seen a horse up close, seen a hanging carcass of any animal, or even cut up a whole plucked chicken from the grocery store into its various parts – even that is done for the postdomestic consumer, out of sight in a plant, and wrapped in cellophane.
“We are today living through a new watershed in human-animal relations,” Bulliet says, “one that appears likely to affect our material, social, and imaginative lives as profoundly as the original emergence of domestic species.”
The overwhelming majority of people, he argues, for the first time in history have no relationships to animals other than a very few pet species, and even these human-pet relationships are filled with anthropomorphized aspects that have never before existed. The more we view our companion animals as human, the tougher it is to eat them, or raise them as livestock – or even allow others to do so.
There may be no hard, fast answers to the debate presented here, but there are some hard, sweeping, and little known facts. These are noted by the LRGAF as largely overlooked in the current horseslaughter debate, but absolutely germane to it.
Perhaps exposing them will assist in a re-evaluation of positions. Perhaps they can aid in getting to a fully informed decision regarding the slaughter of horses in the US.
If middle ground exists, perhaps it lies in the fact that we humans discover ourselves thrust into a world wherein the living feed on other living things. It is an unavoidable reality for the omnivorous, vegetarian, and vegan – or non-human animal for that matter.
Life comes from and is sustained by Life. It is the undeniable Order of Things. We didn’t create it, but by birth we are bound to it.
When humans decide horses must be eliminated, it is only right to limit the suffering involved. Wholesale slaughtering of horses in deplorable, criminal conditions for profit, is intolerable. What American in this debate doesn’t agree to that?
But, when slaughter is considered an option and carried out to minimize suffering, why not allow horses’ bodies to go to the greatest good and provide nourishment for others if they like to eat them?
Humans are starving in the world, is that not cruel?
The fact remains that every horse dies. Horses’ carcasses can be buried, or left out for the worms and buzzards, but what good is that? Neglected horses living out their days can be a horrible cruel sight too. Of course, conditions in slaughterhouses can be no better. What of all this is reconcilable?
Could it be that the two sides of this raging debate, so seemingly in impossible opposition, have much in common? Could it be that both actually want to reduce the suffering of horses to a minimum in the way they believe is best? Of course, who doesn’t wish all horses could be happy; live-forever, and each have a loving and caring guardian for life?
The reality though is that in this world, horses won’t all be so lucky – neither are humans for that matter. Rounding this up with more questions than answers is no mistake – asking more questions may help lead to an answer. Getting something resolved on this issue, and resolved with the horses receiving the consideration they deserve, must be done.
After all, modern human existence rode into the world on the backs of horses. It’s time to stop chucking those bricks at one another, and start building something new and useful with them.
First published on Horsetalk.co.nz in June, 2008.