The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVII. Writers on Country Pursuits and Pastimes

§ 1. Gervase Markham

WHILE the great Elizabethan writers were producing poems, plays and other masterpieces destined to take an enduring place in English literature, there was another side of literary activity, which, though practically unrecognised as literature, yet had an important influence on a large body of readers for the majority of whom polite literature scarcely existed. The books that formed this by-stream appealed to the country squire and the yeoman, not, indeed, as literature, but as storehouses of facts—practical guides to their agricultural occupations, or instruction in their favourite pastimes of hunting and hawking, fishing and gardening.

Before this period, but few books dealing with these subjects had appeared in print. The first and most famous among them was The Book of St. Albans, first printed about 1486, which stood practically alone until the appearance, early in the sixteenth century, of Walter of Henley’s Book of Husbandry and Fitzherbert’s treatise on the same subject. But it was not till the second half of the century that these subjects, in common with every other branch of literature, were fully developed in that productive age.

For the materials of this literature, there were two main sources: one, the stock of native lore, which was the outcome of the practical experience of generations, supplemented by an occasional dip at the well of superstition, and this was preserved to some extent in manuscript as well as handed down by oral tradition; the other, contemporary foreign literature, notably that of Italy, which was freely drawn upon in the way of translation, these versions being often the work of the purely literary man or of the hack-writer who brought to the subject little or nothing of first-hand knowledge.

The outstanding name among the workers in this field is that of the prolific and versatile enthusiast Gervase Markham, whose activity extended from the last decade of the sixteenth century to his death in 1637. He was born about 1568, and, in his early years, spent at his Nottinghamshire home, he naturally became familiar with every aspect of country life. Like many other younger sons of the time, he took to a military career; but, after some years’ experience in the wars of the Low Countries, he exchanged his sword for the pen.

The subjects with which he dealt included such matters as hunting, hawking, husbandry, gardening, housewifery and the military art, diversified by occasional excursions into polite literature in the shape of plays and poems. But, of the many sides of his literary activity, the most prominent, as well as most congenial, was, without doubt, that dealing with horsemanship and the veterinary art.

The first of the long series of his books on horses was issued in 1593 under the title A Discource of Horsmanshippe. In this same year, also, he made his first essay in belles lettres, by preparing for the press a poem entitled Thyrsis and Daphne; but no copy of this is known to have survived. After having reissued the Discource in a new and enlarged guise, under the title How to chuse, ride, traine, and diet, both hunting-horses and running horses, he followed it, in 1605, with a treatise on How to trayne and teach horses to amble. Two years later, Markham produced his chief work on his favourite theme, the horse, “with whose nature and use,” he claims with some pride, “I have been exercised and acquainted from my Childhood, and I hope, without boast, need not yield to any in this Kingdome.”

This book he entitled Cavelarice, or the English Horseman. But it was not in Markham’s nature to be satisfied with so brief, though comprehensive, a title. Showman at heart as he was, the big drum must be beat, and the attention of the world called to the wonders to be found within. So, characteristically, and with a flourish, he sets forth his wares in detail, and acclaims their originality and his own altruism. Here is the whole:

  • Cavelarice, or the English Horseman: contayning all the Arte of Horsemanship, as much as is necessary for any man to understand, whether he be Horse-breeder, horse-ryder, horse-hunter, horse-runner, horse-ambler, horse-farrier, horse-keeper, Coachman, Smith or Sadler. Together with the discovery of the subtill trade or mistery of horse-coursers, and an explanation of the excellency of a horses understanding, or how to teach them to doe trickes like Bankes his Curtall: And that horses may be made to drawe drie-foot like a Hound. Secrets before unpublished, and now carefully set down for the profit of this whole Nation.
  • But, if Markham was adept at displaying his wares, he was no less a master in the choice of appropriate patrons and in the writing of dedications—a practice reduced to a fine art in those days. It was a poor book which could not be made to carry two, if not three, of his dedicatory epistles, for each of which he doubtless looked for some remuneration. In Cavelarice, the division into books affords him opportunity for no less than eight dedications, leading off with prince Henry, to whom succeed noblemen of various titles duly graduated. In issuing a new edition, “corrected and augmented, with many worthy secrets not before known,” ten years later, the name of Charles, prince of Wales, is quietly substituted for that of the late prince, without the slightest change in the terms of the address.

    And, when we come to the text of the book itself, Markham is not wanting in this matter either. He is master of his subject; and, whether he calls upon the stores of his own experience, or, as was much the fashion in his time, uses material “drawen out of the most approved authors,” he conveys the impression of writing with full knowledge, and inspires confidence as one who speaks with the unhesitating assurance of authority. His directions are full and clear, and his style is touched with an enthusiasm and an engaging familiarity which bring his reader into close contact and almost convey the illusion of oral instruction. Now and again, one comes across bits of that deep-rooted country tradition which has not even yet worn itself out, such as when he directs that “If your horse be shrewe-runne, you shall looke for a briere which growes at both endes, and draw your horse thorow it and he will be well.” But Markham is not much given to this kind of thing, and, whether it was a concession to rural superstition or a filching from one of his “approved authors,” it is noticeable that he neither gives the symptoms of being “shrew-runne” nor describes the nature of the malady.

    The mention, in the title-page, of “Bankes his Curtall,” is a reference to a celebrated performing horse, called “Marocco,” which his owner, one Banks, a Scotsman, had taught to do tricks so astonishing that both the “dancing horse” and its trainer achieved a European reputation. Shakespeare, in Love’s Labour’s Lost, makes reference to Marocco’s power of counting money, and many other allusions to his cleverness may be found in contemporary literature. The most renowned exploit of this famous animal was the ascent of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which took place in 1600. He was afterwards exhibited in Paris, Frankfort and other places, and the amazement which his performances created brought his owner under the suspicion of employing magic. But Markham, with his knowledge of horse training, calls Banks an “exceeding honest” man; and, since it would be impossible for Markham to admit his inferiority to any one in any matter relating to horsemanship, a chapter is, accordingly, devoted to showing “How a horse may be taught to doe any tricke done by Bankes his Curtall.”

    In one of his later books, Markham complains that, by reason of a too greedy and hasty bookseller, his Cavelarice was not only exceedingly falsely printed, but, also, the most part of the book of cures was left out. To supply this omission, he brought out, in 1610, his Maister-peece, wherein, he says, “I have set down every disease, and every medicine, so full and so exactly that there is not a farrier in this kingdome, which knowes a medicine for any disease, which is true and good indeed, but I will finde the substance thereof in that booke.” Markham evidently prided himself on this work, in which he describes himself to be amply and fully adorned with the best of his own feathers; and his estimation of it as his master-piece finds justification in the fact that it continued in use for upwards of one hundred years.

    Not content with having produced these comprehensive works on his special subject, he sought to reach a still wider circle; and, in 1616, he brought out a popular little octavo called Markhams Method: or Epitome, which, with an innate knowledge of the essential elements of popularity, he further attractively described as containing “his approved remedies for all diseases whatsoever, incident to horses, and they are almost 300, all cured with twelve medicines onely, not of twelve pence cost and to be got commonly everywhere”; and he also includes remedies for the diseases of every description of domestic live stock, from oxen and sheep to hawks and singing birds. By this time, he is well aware that he has gained the reputation of being a book-maker, for, in the preface, he says,

  • me thinks I heare the world say: Sir, why load you thus both mens mindes and the Booke-sellers stalls with such change and variety of Bookes, all upon one subject, as if men were tyed to your readings?
  • and he then proceeds, in three pages, to justify the appearance of this epitome. But, however plausibly Markham might defend his book-making in print, the stationers concerned in his publications felt that this multiplying of treatises was becoming a serious matter, and, from the following entry in the register of the Stationers’ company, it appears that they took steps to protect their interest in such of his books as were already in print.
  • Memorandum That I Gervase Markham of London gent Do promise hereafter Never to write any more book or bookes to be printed, of the Deseases or cures of any Cattle, as Horse, Oxe, Cowe, sheepe, Swine and Goates &c. In witnes whereof I have hereunto sett my hand the 14th Day of Julie. 1617.
  • Gervis Markham.
  • It is probably this memorandum which has led to Markham being often described as the first English “hackney writer,” a phrase used by Harte; but he no more deserves this appellation than many another contemporary writer, and there is no evidence that he was employed by the booksellers to write any of his numerous books. How, or by whom, he was induced to sign the promise does not appear, but it was hardly to be expected that such an enthusiast could thus completely forswear his especial hobby.

    For some years, he spent his energies upon other subjects, but, in his later days, he brought out yet two other small horse books, The Complete Farriar, or the Kings High-way to Horsmanship and Markhams Faithfull Farrier. In sending forth the latter, he utters a note suggestive of the weariness of age, but he shows no abatement of his claim to supremacy in veterinary lore, he has lost nothing of his valiant assurance, and he still does all “for the publick good.”

  • Having [he says] gained experience all my life to these present dayes, wherein I am ready to creepe into the earth, willing now at the important request of my best friends, [I] have yeelded my selfe to lay the glory of my skill in Horsemanship, open to the World: and having kept secret in the Cabinet of my Brest, these Secrets, by which I have gained from many a Noble person, many a fayre pound, I now bestow it upon thee for the value of sixe pence. It may be; some will account me a Foole in Print, for disclosing my Secrets, but I ever regarded the life of the worthy Horse, before the word of a foole.