Horse and people at the end of the 16th century in Europe

From Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the age of Philip II, Volume 1:

A large book could be written on animal life in the sixteenth century and no doubt every country would lay claim to the first place. Certainly
the Mediterranean has no particular right to it. The many thousands of images it has to offer are neither original nor exclusive. In the
Mediterranean as in other places man already had the upper hand, although he was not yet the absolute master he has virtually become today.  And as one would expect there was less open country in the more densely populated west than in Islam. Islam was the animal kingdom par excellence, with its great deserts both natural and man-made. On the borders of Serbia, ‘the countryside is a desert’, notes Lescalopier in 1574, ‘which prevents Christian and other slaves from trying to escape’. Wild life proliferated in these uninhabited lands. Busbecq, during his stay at Constantinople, took enormous pleasure in turning his house into a

The wide, uninhabited areas of Islam help to explain its reputation for horse-breeding and consequently its military strength, for the Balkans and
North Africa were protected from Christian Europe in the first place by their immensity and in the second place by their abundant supply of horses and camels. Following the advance of the Turks, the camel successfully conquered the great flat spaces of the Balkan peninsula, as far as the foothills of the Dinaric Alps to the west and to the north as far as Hungary. Sulaiman’s army, encamped before Vienna in 1529, was brought supplies
by camel. Door-ships with doors for the embarkation of animals, continually ferried camels and horses over from Asia to Europe. Their comings and goings were part of the daily sights of the port at Constantinople.  And we know that caravans of camels accomplished immense journeys in North Africa. Horses, donkeys, and mules took over in the mountains of the Balkans, Syria, Palestine, or on the routes from Cairo to Jerusalem. 

Facing Europe along the Hungarian border one of the great strengths of Islam and its immediate neighbours was long to be its outstanding cavalry, the object of much envy and admiration on the part of the Christians. The cavalry of any other country looked slow and clumsy in action against the Turks, of whom Botero wrote ‘if they beat you, you cannot escape from them by flight, if they scatter under your attack, you cannot follow them, for they are like hawks, they can either pounce upon you, or fly from you at great speed…’ 

Quality and quantity: this double wealth was well-known. When Don John’s advisers were discussing a landing in Morea and Albania, in December, 1571, the prince was of the opinion that horses need not be shipped. It would be sufficient to take on board the requisite number of saddles and harnesses and enough money to buy the animals on landing.245 In Christendom, by contrast, even in the famous horse-breeding regions, such as Naples and Andalusia, horses were treasures jealously guarded and notoriously the subject of smuggling. Philip II would delegate to no one the duty of dealing with applications for export licences for Andalusian horses, personally examining every request.

In short, on one side there were too many people and not enough horses: on the other too many horses and not enough people. This imbalance may have been a reason for the tolerance exercised by Islam, only too eager indeed to receive men, of any origin, whenever they came within reach. 


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