Thursday, September 13, 2007

Prince Charles visits a bullfight, 1623

This Scene again withdrawing brings
A new and empty Face of things;
A levell'd space, as smooth and plain,
As Clothes for Lilly strecht to stain.
The World when first created sure
Was such a Table rase and pure.
Or rather such is the Toril
Ere the Bulls enter at Madril…

- a stanza from Marvell’s ‘Upon Appleton House’ of course. I’ve been reading James Salgado’s An impartial and brief description of the plaza, or sumptuous market-place of Madrid, and the bull-baiting there (1683). Salgado was some kind of exile in England (“Most Noble, Puissant, Ancient and Generous English … these five years, and above, I have enjoyed Life and Sanctuary by your Protection and Benigne Generosity"), and, fallen on hard times (he writes of himself as “A Poor Distressed man past shame”), tried to make a bit of money from a publication which is sets off as a description, though he resorts to spinning out the pamphlet with an unconnected novella.

I was interested first in the picture of the plaza and its accommodation for spectators. The spaces of early modern performances are so thinly documented, that the woodcut might be considered ancillary to one of Andrew Gurr’s books, sharing some elements with the Inn stages of early modern London, public amphitheatres, and masquing houses – though doing it all sumptuously:

“Lincolns-Inn-Fields are neither so large, nor spacious, as this place of publick resort at Madrid, which is exactly Square, being surrounded with Houses Uniform all along in all their Dimensions, erected to the Altitude of five pair of Stairs, with a great many most Curious Windows, and balconies over laid with the purest Gold. Moreover the Square is Level, to the end that the Foming Bulls, and Prancing Horses may run their Courses with the greater easiness and celerity. From the ground to the first pair of Stairs are reared up Theaters made of Timber for the People: The Thirty Balconies set apart for King and Court, are sumptuously Furnish’d with the Richest Tapestry and choicest Velvet that Money or Art can purchase

None can purchase a Room in the first pair of Stairs, at a lower rate than 200. Crowns, yea, and those places which are not exposed to the Scorching Heat of the Sun after four a Clock, must be supposed to amount to a greater sum of Money.”

Salgado describes the various stages of what evolved finally into a highly ritualized performance. As he knew the bull fighting in Madrid, the night before, there was guitar and harp music in the plaza, “because generally the Spaniards can Dextrously Play on those Instruments”. On the day of the fighting, the seating would be full by 8 in the morning (apart from the balconies for the court), for the “Encierro, or the bringing forth of the Bull”. At 2pm, a general melee between twelve, “Gladiators” seems to have taken place. At Sunset, the King and court arrived, and the arena was watered with 24 hogsheads of perfumed water, then the preliminary part of the main event began.

Interestingly, this part is most like our modern notion of Spanish bullfighting: a solitary man, on foot, confronting the animal:

“The person, whose undaunted Courage or Boldness sets him a work to Encounter with this raging Creature, stands to his posture at the Door of the said House with a long and sharp-pointed Launce in his Hand, having one of his Knees set to the ground: Immediately after the Sound of a Trumpet, a Constable runs with all possible speed, and sets the Door of the Room, where the Furious Animal is enclosed, wide open. Way being thus made, and all persons Attentively looking on, the man is by and by Assaulted with great Violence, which on-set, if by Dexterity or good luck, he can evade; there is a fair occasion presented him for Killing or Wounding the Bull to purpose, which if he miss to do his life and Members are in Jeopardy.”

The early modern Spanish bullfight worked, in general, up a social scale, with some hideous extras (“Sometimes a very despicable Peasant is set upon a Lean Deformed Horse, and exposed very often to a Violent Death”). The unmounted bullfighter has a dagger and ‘Rexones’, darts six or seven inches long, garlanded with sharp points. He fights the bull as best he can, but there was usually no ‘estocada’. Rather, at the end of the bout, trumpets sounded, and then “Butchers-Dogs and men Armed with broad-Swords quickly dispatch the Strength and Violence of those formidable Animals” – the killing was done by these auxiliaries. Salgado recollects as remarkable a bout when the young man fighting sprang on the bull’s back, wounding the animal with the Rexones, and just as the trumpet was about to sound, killed the bull with his dagger. This memorable outright killing seems to be depicted in the engraving.

The bullfight proper followed, when young noblemen, on horseback, and armed with lances, set about the bulls, and were usually able to “accomplish their Noble purposes very often by Killing or Wounding the Foaming Animals”. Should the bull unhorse one of these gentlemen, he was supposed to fight on, on foot. But he was well armed for the purpose, to “encounter the Bulls a Foot, Lashing them with Broad Swords”

This was the bullfight. That “very despicable Peasant is set upon a Lean Deformed Horse, and exposed very often to a Violent Death” was a comic version of the gentlemanly role, on horseback.

The article in Wikipedia explains the general development of the modern version, with a swapping round of priorities: the matador fights on foot, his ancillaries, the two picadores ("lancers") and banderilleros ("flagmen"), are a diminished version of the once aristocratic role.

Salgado tells a story which captures this social shift, a tale in which a beautiful girl wooed by three brave noblemen astounds them by demanding that they lower themselves to fighting the bull on foot. But they desire her so much that they undertake it.

Slagado’s other, and more plausible story is about Charles I, when he was Prince of Wales, in Spain with Buckingham on his ill-fated quest to win the hand of the Infanta. He saw a bullfight, in which three bulls were killed. Then, “not long after a Brisk Lady in most gorgeous Apparel” emerged onto the plaza: “Astonishment Seized upon the Beholders that one of the Female Sex could assume the unheard of Boldness of exposing her self to the violence of the most Furious Beast yet seen, which had overcome, yea almost killed two men of great Strength, Courage and Dexterity. Incontinently the Bull rushed towards the corner where the Lady and her Attendants stood, she (after all had fled) drew forth her Dagger very unconcernedly, and thrust it most dexterously into the Bulls neck, having catched hold of his Horn … after which, turning about towards the King’s Balcony, she made her Obeysance, and withdrew herself in suitable state and Gravity.”

But no, it wasn’t what it seemed to be, as “This person was a man, though in the Habit of a Woman… whom they appointed to be disguised so much the rather, that the Prince of Wales might be the more taken with the thing”. This was actually quite astute by the Spanish hosts: the goggling Charles was very impressionable, and a stunning demonstration of the courage and cruel precision that a young Spanish woman could summon up was exactly calibrated to put him in his place.

After the aristocrats has slaughtered a suitable number of bulls, it would have been quite dark, so the show ended with taurine fireworks: “Thus three or four persons of Quality continue until it be pretty late, at which time they drive out a Bull covered all over with Artificial Fire, by which he is rendered most Furious and hurtful: For Curiosity and want of further order, induces the Rable to approach so near unto him, that by his most dreadful pushings many sustain Mutilation, yea, and Death it self”.

“You may easily object that it is a Cruel and Barbarous Recreation … Nevertheless, an uncontroull’d Custom of long continuance has given it the force and validity of a Law”, says Salgado about the obvious issue. Here's the older form of bull fighting still going on, and in trouble:,,2167714,00.html#article_continue

What is startling about the 17th century form is the way the deaths of "a very despicable peasant" or members of the "Rable" make up part of the show.


Sceopellen said...

Having seen the bullfighting in Pamplona (the festival of San Fermin) whilst hiking the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, I find this rather interesting. My clearest memory of the central bullring was the smell of fear in the air, as though the aura of terror excited the crowds further. It was electric, but shocking and somehow incomprehensible.

Pamplona is different to most of the bullfights, as the bulls are first run through the streets themselves, most of which are very narrow and dark. The bulls often slip in the tight corners when surrounded, and the later bulls even fall on the blood of the bulls from before them...

These days, most Spanish people are not interested in the bullfights, most of which are now simply tourist attractions or seen as a part of a festival.

Fascinating post, thank you.

Adam Roberts said...

Interesting. The Arena at Nimes staged Gladiatorial shows under the Romans, and stages bull-fights today; and the museum they have there makes it clear that the Nimois consider there to be straightforward continuum between one and the other ... so perhaps tossing in "a very despicable peasant" or two might not go down badly with today's crowd.

fiskeharrison said...

A minor correction to Sceopellen, but the running of the bulls in Pamplona which I have done twice. It is - and always has been - along the main streets at 8am, which are neither narrow nor dark, although they can be crowded.

It begins with them leaving the corral and going up calle Santo Domingo, through the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (town hall square), along calle Mercaderes for a few yards, then the 90 degree corner and the length of calle Estafeta and into Plaza de Toros. It is 790 metres long.

They are uninjured for the run, the only blood on the streets being human. They fall on that 90 degree corner because hooves don't grip cobbles at a gallop.