Beasts of Burden

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In 2013, Czech authorities discovered that Ikea’s signature Swedish meatballs contained trace amounts of horse meat. Consumers were furious, and over the following years a bit of a scandal arose in Europe as it became clear how vast the problem of mislabeling meat was. Ikea apologized in a formal statement and assured the public of their commitment to solving the problem and making sure it would never happen again. However, in that same statement, they also made sure to mention that “horse meat from authorized slaughter is in itself not dangerous.”

To some people reading that news, it was likely the first time encountering the notion of “authorized” horse slaughter. In the US, we don’t usually eat horse, and anybody who took up the practice on a regular basis would likely be regarded with alarm or outright disgust.

For centuries, horses have held a special social status for an animal species; a status that stems from their long history of service and companionship. We form close relationships with them as individuals, giving them names, treating them as pets, and overall granting them unique personalities through our closeness to them. Because of their huge role in human history and society, and because of the relative subjecthood that we give them, it seems grotesque and transgressive to consume them; a moral trespass. After all, it’s not nice to eat your friends. 

Way before this taboo was ingrained, horse meat was consumed throughout the world with as much regularity as any other meat. Paleolithic cave art depicts the hunting of wild horses, and their bones have been discovered in ancient food middens. It wasn’t until Pope Gregory III expressed his disapproval for eating horse flesh to a missionary in 732 AD that the seeds of discontent were planted. The practice was only starting to fall out of fashion, though horses had been domesticated and consumed for many centuries by then.

It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that the new climate surrounding horse-eating had a lot more to do with marginalizing European Pagans (who regularly ate and sacrificed horses) than it did with any concern about morality or animal welfare. In fact, the custom of eating of horse meat continued uninterrupted in some places for many centuries onwards. Ideologically speaking, though, in the 8th century, horse-eating, or hippophagy, was one of the things that separated the “civilized” from the “barbaric.” And as we now know in retrospect, this classist dichotomy comes up time and again throughout the history of man.

The official moratorium on eating horse lasts today throughout Europe, with the exceptions being in Italy, France, and the Netherlands. France, which had not previously been a horse-eating country, legalized hippophagy in 1866 due to economic hard times. Horse became a sort of “poor man’s beef,” a cheap protein to sustain the working class. It was never outlawed again.

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Although the practice has waned in recent decades, one can still find boucheries chevalines (horse butchers) in some parts of the country. Younger generations of French people generally consider eating horse meat something vaguely embarrassing that their grandparents did. There’s a fog of working class shame that still hangs around it, as well as the awareness that it’s a taboo practice in most other developed countries. If you do some casual Googling about the modern-day practice of hippophagy—along with eating other animals that are considered taboo in Western countries, like dog—you’ll still be confronted with racially-charged terms like “barbaric” and “uncivilized.” 

As a nearly lifelong vegetarian, I became curious about this taboo around eating certain species of animal. I remember a formative conversation with a teacher when I was 11 or 12 years old about whether or not to eat meat. She said that she ate fowl, fish, and occasionally some game meat, but that she wouldn’t eat pork or beef. “I can’t bring myself to eat something that I recognize as like me,” she said. 

I remember thinking, how selfish. Does the value of a creature’s life really only rest upon its degree of human likeness? If so, where do we draw the line at how like a person it must be to deserve to live?

 

 
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The economic hardship that incited the legalization of hippophagy was due, in large part, to a series of revolutions in 18th century France. With the threat of the guillotine fresh in the minds of the country’s aristocracy, it was decided that keeping the working classes fed was in everybody’s best interest. So, let them eat horse. Or, as Kari Weil says in her essay “They Eat Horses, Don’t They?,” “The working classes should eat horse, perhaps so they would not eat each other or, more likely, so they would not revolt against the hand that fed them.”

Of course, horse steaks didn’t appear on dinner tables overnight. People had qualms about eating horses: we don’t want to recognize the face on our plate. Since many of the horses sold to slaughter were “retired” carriage or service horses, eating an animal you had previously seen alive on the street was a real possibility.

Throughout 1865, “hippophagic banquets” were held in Paris, to which the elite, socialites, and people of influence were invited. Sumptuous dishes of horse were prepared: horse liver paté, horse tartare, vermicelli with consomme of horse. This heavy handed public relations campaign was designed to ease the lower classes’ qualms about this new food that was appearing in butcher shops, and, essentially, to show them that the rich were eating it, too.

At the time that hippophagy was legalized, horses were a very large and very beloved part of French culture—and, truly, culture all over Europe and America. The 19th century was the era of horsepower: horses served as transport, beast of burden, military mounts, companion animals, sport, and status symbols. Working class people worked with horses as teamsters, cab drivers, jockeys, and farmers. The elite bred horses, enjoyed leisure and sport riding, and trained them for dressage (arguably the most elite of sports, if sport it can be called). Horses were something to invest in and display your wealth with. At the equestrian goods shop Moseman & Brother, for example, “Horse clothing such as boots, caps, and tail covers came in many designs and colors, as did sands for floor monograms and crests.” One particular horse was even a national hero: Gladiateur, a French Thoroughbred racehorse, won the English Triple Crown in 1865 and, consequently, the hearts of the nation. 

Given the degree to which horses were entangled in French daily life, holding a place of relative privilege in society compared to other animal species, to begin eating them seems like a sudden betrayal. That said, the entanglement and the emotional bonds that the French formed with horses did not mean their interactions were always kind. People who had close relationships with particular horses—whether jockeys, breeders, teamsters, or show riders—also were the most likely to abuse them. Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century by Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr contains a passage about the everyday cruelty exhibited towards horses, and how it might point to the foundations of man’s culture of cruelty, in general:

“Horses, just like physically weaker family members, were perhaps victimized by teamsters who perceived status decline, by some excessively greedy owners, and even by wealthy, leisurely horse “lovers” seeking the perfect gait, the perfect posture, or the perfectly shaped tail. Even bystanders participated in the kind of sadism that the broader society sought to stop, such as children throwing firecrackers under horses or the young boy who put honey on a lamppost in subzero weather, knowing that a horse would lick it, freezing its tongue to the iron. As psychologists have demonstrated today, individual histories of violence against animals, especially by children, are often closely linked to later violence against people.” 

This kind of violence has an “I love you but you’re lesser than me” flavor to it; it’s psychological distancing for the sake of the rider’s comfort. Despite the close and sentimental ties that riders formed with their horses, there remained the need (or desire) to forcibly separate one’s self from the beasts. As Kari Weil pointedly asks, “Might it be that the horse, in nineteenth-century France, was that animal which, whether groomed or mounted, revealed above all man’s intimate and bestial relationship with animals; and that activities like pleasure riding subsequently required a drastic means of separation, sending…[an] equestrian immediately to the chevaline to eat his disgusting mate and so prove himself its master?” In this instance, horses became too “like us,” and some policing of the species hierarchy felt necessary. 

With this dynamic in mind, perhaps it is not so shocking that France began to eat horses. They were already extracting free labor from them, after all. With their extensive presence in daily life, horses’ social status was acquiring a tinge of subjecthood—or, to put more plainly, personhood.

 
 

There’s a story I found about Franz Kafka, who became vegetarian as part of his Judaic practice. One day after he stopped eating meat, he went to an aquarium to look at the fish. While looking through the glass at the animals, he said, “Now I can look at you in peace.” Perhaps to sincerely look at animals in peace we must relinquish any sanctity we hold in being supremely human. When personhood inevitably becomes weaponized, it’s used as a justification for cruelty towards those who fall somewhere on the spectrum of “not like us.” Personhood, as a function, will always elevate some. But the designation of personhood also turns a whole group of others into beasts of burden.

Later this year I will be visiting France with a friend. We’ve been planning some of the places we want to visit, and in the middle of writing this story I texted her an article about the continued but dying practice of serving horse meat in restaurants in Paris. “I know this is deeply weird coming from a vegetarian, but I’d be really interested in visiting one of the few remaining horse meat cafés in Paris. The practice has mostly fallen out of fashion but it’s kind of a historical delicacy now.” Obviously, the culture of taboo doesn’t scare me away from horse meat despite being a vegetarian (albeit a lackadaisical one), nor do I shy away even though I believe all life that has the capacity to suffer is equal. After all, it is only by denying a creature’s subjecthood that we are able to hurt it without qualms.

Robin Babb