Weil is an important voice in animal (or human–animal) studies. This new collection of wide-ranging but tightly linked chapters culminates her research since 1999 about horses in nineteenth-century France. The chapters harness several threads that now define interdisciplinary animal studies—animal ethics, continental philosophy, feminism, and visual culture. Weil’s lively and witty prose is refreshingly restrained in academic baggage. This enjoyable and effervescent book does a remarkable amount of work in around 200 pages.
Though not a historian’s history, the book is deeply historical. Its interdisciplinary perspective will interest scholars who study animals, culture, France, gender, race, and the nineteenth century. Weil reads literary sources, visual sources, and historical documents through the lens of American and French critical theory, particularly from human–animal thinkers like Derrida and Haraway, and she reminds readers that Foucault framed his idea of biopower around the horse-training term dressage.1
Weil’s sources foreground famous French figures from far-flung fields—scientists (Georges Cuvier, the Comte de Buffon, the Saint Hilaires, Gustave le Bon); painters (Rosa Bonheur, Théodore Géricault, Edouard Manet); and literary figures (Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, Théophile Gautier, Eugène Sue, and Emile Zola). She also introduces some fascinating lesser-known characters, including Adah Menken, the creole-Jewish-American woman and star of Paris equestrian shows (Chapter 5). Menken’s career is crucial for illustrating Weil’s argument that gender, race, and species are co-produced.
Weil joins horse historians Greene and Swart in examining the nineteenth-century intersection of class, gender, race, and species.2 These authors show that people in that century consistently used horses to articulate social and biological differences. But unlike Greene, who writes in a U. S. context or Swart in a South African one, Weil links French anxieties about women equestrians (tellingly called “amazons”) with changing gender roles, views of race and evolution, and France’s medicalized idea of national decline, underpinned by Lamarckian evolution and theories of degeneration. Although francophones and anglophones shared concerns about breeding, in which horse breeding informed emerging eugenics, the French voiced unique worries about the biological decline of their national “breed.” Weil reveals horse breeding as an underappreciated site for France’s medicalized national identity and uncovers equestrian practices intended to heal the ailing national bloodline.
All nineteenth-century horse studies confront the diverse ways that horses served humans—through companionship, entertainment, labor, meat, and transportation. Although other horse studies explore many of these services, Weil’s discussion of French debates about eating horse meat stands out as a rare study of hippophagy (Chapter 4). She also focuses more on entertainment (Chapters 5–7) and less on war than do Greene and Swart. With these unique emphases, Weil makes original contributions to understanding how horses became the essential animals in human–animal relations during the 1800s.
Weil also shows how past concerns about animal ethics can inform ethical deliberation today. Chapter 2 unpacks the discourse of “pity” that structured debate about treatment of workhorses surrounding France’s 1850 Grammont law, which prohibited public cruelty to animals. Chapter 4 examines ethical debates about eating horses after 1850. The book’s title nicely encapsulates Weil’s major argument about animal ethics—that horses and humans have always stood in a precarious partnership. Steering a middle course between unfettered animal exploitation and abolishing domestication, she argues that human–horse relations require communication, empathy, and reciprocity. Resonant with recent care ethics, Weil argues that domestication demands cohabitation, collaboration, and companionship. Seeing and knowing animal others—above all, remaining open to affective and emotional relations with them—enables ethical interspecies encounters in which all partners are agents, and none leave unchanged.
The book’s brief afterword is not really a conclusion; in little more than a page, it gallops past major contemporary concerns including the Anthropocene (see also 62). The book feels particularly relevant in 2020 as American and European cities pull down statues—often of men on horseback—that commemorate genocide, imperialism, racism, and slavery. Weil shows how long similar conflicts have raged over the raced and gendered meanings of these iconic images and the inequalities and injustices that they represent for both humans and horses.
Jacques Derrida (ed. Marie-Louise Mallet; trans. David Wills), The Animal That Therefore I Am (New York, 2008); Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis, 2007); Michel Foucault (trans. Alan Sheridan), Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York, 1977; orig. pub. in French [Paris, 1975]).
Ann Norton Greene, Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America (Cambridge, Mass., 2008); Sandra Swart, Riding High: Horses, Humans and History in South Africa (Johannesburg, 2010).