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Shakespeare & Beyond

Riding double: Women on horseback and early modern courtship rituals

Travel (travel on horseback, in particular) played a crucial role in the making of early modern marriages, which required an incessant series of trips including amorous advances, retreats, and returns, various errands, momentous departures, meaningful reunions, and the young wife’s all-important journey from father’s home to husband’s household. This last move might be said to be the quintessential journey in the lives of early modern women.

Travel in the early modern period was widely understood as antithetical to virtue for women. So great were the risks of travel that many authors of ars apodemica (art of travel) treatises stated unequivocally that women should not travel under any circumstances. But how were these restrictions on women’s travel on horseback eased or evaded in order to facilitate marriages?

The pictorial and textual record of the time reveals a fascination with images and descriptions of couples riding double, and romantic episodes (both licit and illicit) involving riding. I spent some time at the National Sporting Library and Museum in order to examine the representation of women on horseback (especially as relates to their role in courtship rituals) in early modern printed texts on horsemanship such as Caualarice, or The English horseman (1617), The Experienced Farrier (1720), and A new method…to dress horses (1667) and in other illustrated works where the archetypal image of a man and woman on horseback appear.

a man and a woman riding horseback together

Detail from Jacob Cats, Proteus ofte Minne-beelden verandert in Sinne-beelden door, 1627, Folger Shakespeare Library STC 4863.5

In images such as this one probably intended for inclusion in an album amicorum (Royal, military and court costumes of the time of James I Folger ART Vol. c91 no.7c), and this emblem from Jacob Cats’s Proteus ofte Minne-beelden verandert in Sinne-beelden door (1627 Folger STC 4863.5), a man and woman are depicted riding on the same horse, “riding double.” The term and the image are suggestive of romantic and sexual intimacy, as well as marriage or pending nuptials, and ultimately symbolic of procreation.

In theory, while early modern men were encouraged to travel for education, for their occupations, and to acquire wives, women were to stay at home. Yet, as these texts reveal, this was an unrealistic model of masculine movement and feminine immobility. Upon examination it becomes clear that women’s journeys in miniature (to market and back, to the homes of friends, to accompany suitors and husbands) are just as necessary to the success of marriage making and the larger socio-economic success of the household as are those of suitors and husbands. Thus, the movements of women in these texts signify disproportionately to the distances they traveled.


Patricia Akhimie shares more about this topic in a 2021 video from the National Sporting Library & Museum in Middleburg, VA.