Just a Bit of Control: The Historical Significance of Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century German Bit-Books

  • Pia F. Cuneo
Part of the Early Modern Cultural Studies book series (EMCSS)


While recently engaged in research at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, I stumbled across an intriguing source the likes of which I had never seen before. It was an enormous book, published in folio format first in 1562 and then again in 1591, and comprised of over 400 pages, almost each one of which was lavishly illustrated with finely detailed copper engravings.1 The subject of this extravagant production came as a surprise to me: it was almost exclusively about bits, the metal mouthpieces attached to the bridles of horses and used to control the animals when riding. All in all, over 382 different bits were illustrated, one to a page (ca. 16 × 14″), with a brief explanatory text appearing below each illustration (figures 5.1 and 5.2). Each bit was an exquisitely and often astonishingly decoratively wrought piece of metalwork, its likeness lovingly rendered in the graphic medium that had itself developed out of the metalworking tradition, namely copperplate engraving. The book, written by the Augsburg spur-maker Hans Kreutzberger, was originally dedicated to the Hapsburg archduke and future Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian II.2


Seventeenth Century Sixteenth Century Title Page Graphic Medium Secondary Literature 
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  1. 2.
    Maximilian II, 1527–76. The dedication of the 1562 edition refers to Maximilian as the archduke of Austria and the king of Hungary and Bohemia. Maximilian did not become emperor until two years after the book was published, 1564. See Paula Sutter Fichtner, Emperor Maximilian II (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001). Kreutzberger identifies himself on the title page as “Sporern und burgern zu Augspurg,” or “spur-maker and citizen of Augsburg” (all translations from the German in this chapter are my own). Evidently, Kreutzberger was not only successful in his craft but also received recognition for it in the highest circles; the 1591 edition of his book, published posthumously, refers to him as “Rö. Kay. M. etc. Hoffsporer” (imperial court spur-maker) and also includes two portraits of him, one on the title page and a second on p. iiiv picturing him full-length standing next to a horse. The 1591 edition, although also dedicated to “Archduke Maximilian” must actually be referring to Maximilian II’s son (1558–1618) of the same name. Maximilian II had been dead for fifteen years by the time the 1591 edition was published. The dedication also mentions Rudolph (1551–1612), Ernst (1553–95), and Matthias (1557–1619), all of whom were brothers of Archduke Maximilian.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    For microhistory, see Florike Egmond and Peter Mason, “A Horse Called Belisarius,” History Workshop Journal 47 (1999): 241–52.Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    What are mostly illustrated in these books are sixteenth-century examples of a curb bit. This is technically made up of two different elements: the mouthpiece, which lies inside the horse’s mouth, and the shanks, the two vertical elements attached at right angles to either end of the mouthpiece that lie outside the horse’s mouth, one on each side. Reins are attached to rings at the bottom end of the shanks, and the headstall of the bridle is attached to the top ends. When the reins are activated, the shanks move, which then also move the mouthpiece, and its action on the bars, tongue, and/or roof of the horse’s mouth encourages the desired response. A curb chain is an element that can be attached to the shanks, passing under the horse’s chin. When the reins are activated and the shanks move, the curb chain tightens underneath the horse’s chin and augments the effect of the reins. For definitions of these various pieces, see Mary Ann Belknap, Horsewords: The Equine Dictionary (London: J.A. Allen & Co. Ltd., 1997).Google Scholar
  4. 13.
    Marx Fugger, 1529–97. For basic information on Fugger, see Gode Krämer, “Markus (Marx) Fugger,” in Welt im Umbruch: Augsburg zwischen Renaissance und Barock vol. 2 (Augsburg: Augsburger Druck-und Verlagshaus, 1980), 120–21. Fugger’s book on horse breeding is Von der Gestüterey(Frankfurt, 1584).Google Scholar
  5. 20.
    For the history of riding, see Michaela Otte, Geschichte des Reitens von der Antike bis zur Neuzeit (Warendorf: FN-Verlag der Deutschen Reiterlichen Vereinigung GmbH, 1994).Google Scholar
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    See Elwyn Harley Edwards, Bitting in Theory and Practice (London: J.A. Allen, 1990), 10–17.Google Scholar
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    For a discussion of the intelligent use of art as evidence, see Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001). Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) was a printmaker and painter from Nuremberg. For a discussion focusing on the role of the horse in Dürer’s print, see Pia F. neo, “Practicing Art: Dürer’s Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513) as Praxis and Performance,” in Essays on Albrecht Dürer ed. Larry Silver (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), forthcoming.Google Scholar
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    Making an eloquent case for the continuing role of cavalry is Larry Silver, “Shining Armor: Emperor Maximilian, Chivalry, and War,” in Artful Armies, Beautiful Battles: Art and Warfare in Early Modern Europe ed. Pia F. Cuneo (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 61–86. For a fascinating example of how warfare strategists attempted to blend the use of horses and hand-held firearms, see Johann Jacobi Wallhausen, Kriegskunst zu Pferd (Frankfurt, 1616).Google Scholar
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    Treva J. Tucker, “Eminence over Efficacy: Social Status and Cavalry Service in Sixteenth-Century France,” Sixteenth Century Journal 32/4 (2001): 1057–95; see alsoCrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  12. 27.
    This is the definition given to technology in Bert Hall, “The Didactic and the Elegant: Some Thoughts on Scientific and Technological Illustrations in the Middle Ages and Renaissance,” in Picturing Knowledge: Historical and Philosophical Problems Concerning the Use of Art in Science ed. Brian S. Baigre (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 3–39; here 29.Google Scholar
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    Margaret Sullivan, “The Witches of Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien,” Renaissance Quarterly 53/2 (2000): 333–401; here esp. 382–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 35.
    Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1524/30–1569) was a Flemish printmaker and painter. For Bruegel’s series, see H. Arthur Klein, The Graphic World of Peter Bruegel the Elder (New York: Dover Books, 1963), 213–45.Google Scholar
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    For Heemskerck and the Triumph of Patience series, see Ilja Feldman, Maarten van Heemskerck and Dutch Humanism in the Sixteenth Century(Maarsen, The Netherlands: Gary Schwartz, 1977), esp. 65.Google Scholar
  17. 37.
    Hans Vredeman de Vries (1526–1609) was a Netherlandish print-maker and painter. One painting, dated 1586, illustrates the surrender of Antwerp to Philip II (1527–98). The clearly labeled figure of “Ratio” holds a bridle in one hand and, together with the personification of “Clementia,” crowns Philip II with a laurel wreath. The artist’s other figures of “Ratio” appear repeatedly in a cycle of oil paintings made between 1594 and 1595 for the city hall in Danzig. See Heiner Borggrefe, Vera Lüpkes, Paul Huvenne, and Ben van Beneden (eds.), Hans Vredeman de Vries und die Renaissance im Norden (Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2002), cat. no. 147, 306–7, ill. p. 309 and cat. no. 168, 323–31, ill. pp. 326 (168a) and 328 (168e), respectively.Google Scholar
  18. 38.
    For Dürer’s print, see H. Diane Russell, Eva/Ave: Woman in Renaissance and Baroque Prints (New York: The Feminist Press, 1990), cat. no. 139, 212–13. Dürer’s monumental nude female is depicted holding a goblet in one hand and a bridle with massive curb bit in the other. For Alciatus’ Book of Emblems seeGoogle Scholar
  19. Andreas Alciatus, Emblematum Libellus (Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1991), which is a reprint of the 1542 Paris edition. Here Nemesis appears as emblem number 13 (pp. 42–43) under the rubric “injure no one either through word or deed” (Niemand verletzen, mit wort noch that) since, the text goes on to explain, the goddess Nemesis will avenge such bad behavior. She is pictured as well as described as holding a bridle in her hand.Google Scholar
  20. 39.
    Hans Baldung Grien (1484/5–1545) was a Strasbourg printmaker and painter. For a recent discussion of this print, with extensive bibliography, see Sullivan, “The Witches of Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien,” 378–92. For a discussion of this print in terms of the consequences for its interpretation of the fact that the horse is clearly female, see Pia F. Cuneo, “Mad Mares and Wilful Women: Ways of Knowing Nature—and Gender—in Early Modern Hippological Texts,” in Ways of Knowing: Ten Interdisciplinary Essays ed. Mary Lindemann (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 1–21.Google Scholar
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    For the power of women topos, see Susan L. Smith, The Power of Women: A Topos in Medieval Art and Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995).Google Scholar
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    William J. Bouwsma, The Waning of the Renaissance 1550–1640 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000).Google Scholar
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    For a similar argument about control of the body in fencing and riding in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, see the suggestive essay by Georges Vigarello, “The Upward Training of the Body from the Age of Chivalry to Courtly Civility,” in Fragments for a History of the Human Body ed. Michel Feher, pt. 2 (New York: Zone Books, 1989), 148–99. My thanks to Diane Wolfthal for drawing my attention to this essay. For parallel observations regarding the increasing interiority of emotional and physical control in the theological/spiritual realm, see Donna Spivey Ellington, “Impassioned Mother or Passive Icon: The Virgin’s Role in Late Medieval and Early Modern Passion Sermons,” Renaissance Quarterly 48/2 (1995), 227–61. Ellington considers, among other factors, the role of Descartes’ philosophy in this process.Google Scholar

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© Karen Raber and Treva J. Tucker 2005

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  • Pia F. Cuneo

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