hobby horses


hobby horses
   The literature on the hobby horse has been expertly collected and analysed by Dr E. C. Cawte, and this entry relies heavily on his findings. Cawte discusses the various meanings of the term 'hobby horse', which need not concern us here but which caution researchers to be careful in interpretation of early records. He opts for an ultimate derivation from Scandinavian or Germanic sources, although by an odd accident two of the earliest references are in a 14th-century Welsh poem by Gruffud Gryg, and in the Cornish play Beunas Meriasek (1504). In both cases, however, the actual term is in English. The earliest reference to England comes between these two in time, in the churchwardens' accounts for St Andrew Hubbard, in London, for 1460/1: 'To Mayers child for dawn-syng wt ye hobye hors'.
   There are several types of hobby horse, with differences in construction, use, and historical development. Tourney Horses: the 'rider' wears a roughly oval-shaped wooden or bas-ketwork frame around his waist or chest, usually suspended by straps from his shoulders. The frame has some sort of horse's head at one end and a tail at the other, and a piece of cloth is fixed all the way round, hanging like a skirt to the ground and hiding the legs of the rider. Stuffed dummy legs can be attached to the side to look like the rider's legs, but this seems to be a much later embellishment. Mast Horses: a horse's head (made either of wood or from a real horse skull) is fixed to a pole about four or five feet tall. The bearer bends over and grasps the pole in front of him with two hands, and a cloth or sack is attached to the pole and completely covers and hides the bearer. Sieve Horses: the bearer stands inside a large circular wooden frame (such as a farm sieve) hung from his shoulders. A cloth hangs all the way round to hide him, with a horse's head and tail attached. Stick horses: an imitation horse's head is attached to a stick, which the rider bestrides and pretends to ride. The latter has been familiar as a children's toy for centuries, but as far as is known does not play any part in traditional customs. It is worth noting that with the stick horse, the person rides the horse. With the mast and sieve horses, the person is the horse. In the case of the tourney, the person both rides and is the horse, but the effect is predominantly the former.
   Historical records concerning hobby horses are almost exclusively concerned with tourney horses; although many of the early records do not stipulate the type of horse concerned, the cumulative evidence is overwhelmingly in the tourney horse's favour. In its long history, the tourney horse turns up in a number of different contexts: ecclesiastical, municipal, court, theatrical, and with the morris dance.
   In addition to the 1460 London reference, records show that the hobby horse was one of the major ways of raising money for the church in several parishes - either for special purposes, such as candles, or for general upkeep - from 1529 until well into the 17th century. Accounts include numerous entries for money collected, and also for expenditure on making and repairing the horse, for painting and decorating it, and for people to take the hobby horse role, and show that the performances took place mainly in the New Year. Municipal horses were more often summer beasts, appearing in Midsummer Watch and other civic processions, often in conjunction with giants and other processional figures, while in civic pageants there could be troupes of horses and mock jousts. Another context for hobby horse performance was at the court, where they are mentioned on several occasions between 1551 and 1575, often as an element in the Christmas/New Year celebrations organized by the official Lord of Misrule. In addition to church, town, and court horses, there are also a few references in this period to travelling players and/or entertainments at the homes of the well-off or in the presence of local dignitaries, such as the two records of performances 'before the mayor' at Newcastle in June 1567 and August 1600.
   From the end of the 16th century, literary sources and, particularly, theatrical productions, include numerous references to hobby horses and indeed regularly introduce them on to the stage. Cawte (1978: 48-53) provides a list of plays in which hobby horses are mentioned or appear, commencing with Paris and Vienna, performed at court in 1572, and including pieces by Shakespeare, Dekker, Jonson, and Beaumont. In the playwright's mind, the hobby horse is inextricably bound up with the morris dance, and the horse is rarely mentioned on its own. Descriptions in the plays and pictorial illustrations of the period (e.g. the anonymous painting The Thames at Richmond, c.1620) confirm that the horse here was a tourney horse. Apart from various revival morris teams, the only surviving traditional tourney horses are those which accompany the Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers, and Christopher the Salisbury Giant.
   The sieve horse only appears in Lincolnshire, as part of the local mumming or wooing plays, which are recorded from the 1820s onwards. Cawte suggests that this type of hobby horse is either a modified tourney horse or, conceivably, vice versa.
   The mast horses, although apparently much rougher and cruder than the tourney horses, appear much later in the historical record, from the mid-19th century onwards. In many cases they appear on their own, as a visiting custom, but they are more likely to be found as part of, or accompanying, other groups such as mummers, wassailers, and so on. In the category of mast horse, it is convenient to include other animals constructed on the same lines. Examples of the genre are Old Tup, Old Horse, the Broad, the Wild Horse, Old Ball, and Hooden Horse. Even if the very important custom of the Mari Lwyd, found only in South Wales, is included, the earliest record is still only 1798 (see Cawte, 1978: 94109). The two unique horses, from Padstow (Cornwall) and Minehead (Somerset), are also described under their own headings. The Pad-stow horse in particular has the feeling of an archaic custom, but even this is only recorded from 1803, and Minehead from about 1830.
   The idea, proposed by Violet Alford and others, that these hobby-horse customs are a direct survival of primitive humans' ritual behaviour is not borne out by the available evidence. Certainly the early Church fathers fulminate against people dressing in animal skins, but, as has been shown, the hobby horses and other animals of the 15th to 17th centuries are a very far cry from these skin-clad characters. Our hobby horses are sufficiently respectable to be not merely tolerated but actually organized and owned by church, guild, and corporation. Admittedly, the Puritans of the 17th century argued against these horses, but then they forbade virtually everything which was fun, and their displeasure can hardly be used as evidence of real pagan origins.
   The more rough and ready mast horses, which are apparently more akin to what primitives might be expected to construct, are nearly all reported from the 19th century onwards, and so there is the paradox that the apparently rough and primitive comes after the relatively respectable. As is so often the case with English seasonal customs, writers have recourse to foreign analogues to attempt to bridge the historical lacunae, and in this case there are unusually close analogues which can perhaps be taken into account. The most important foreign evidence is found in Scandinavia, in the form of the Julebukk or Julegeit, 'Christmas goat', although it appears under various other names as well. This goat was widespread across Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, up to the 19th century, as a visiting custom across the whole midwinter period, sometimes on its own and sometimes with other semi-dramatic customs and/or songs detailing its exploits and death. The goat's construction is almost exactly the same as our mast horse, except that the animal's species gave the opportunity for fearsome horns, and the bearer was more likely to be covered in furs than in the English examples. Its behaviour was also very similar. The earliest references predate our mast horses by a considerable margin, although not that of the English tourney horses. The earliest Danish record occurs in 1543, when farmers were warned against 'all-night drinking and unsuitable night-time entertainments' such as the Hvegehors ('Rocking-horse') and Julebuk, but the first definite description of the goat dates from 1646. The origin and development of this goat figure is still open to debate, but should be closely monitored by English researchers, and further comparative research into animal disguise in Germanic countries should also be encouraged. There are glimpses of more primitive behaviour, even in England, as in this from Northumberland:
   New Year's Day - On this day of festivity mirth is excited by a rustic masquerading and playing tricks in disguise; the hide of the ox slain for the winter cheer is often put on, and the person thus attired attempts to show the character of the Devil by every horrible device in his power. (W. Hutchinson, A View of Northumberland (1778), ii. Appendix 19; quoted by Balfour, 1904: 63).
   ■ Cawte, 1978; Alford, 1978; Violet Alford, JEFDSS 3:4 (1939), 221-40; Terry Gunnell, The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia (1995), 107-28.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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