Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Spurs for Cockfighting, c. 1765-1800

Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Isabella reporting:

While my historical romances (like my latest, When the Duke Found Love) are firmly set in 18th c. London, I'll freely admit that there are aspects of that place and time that don't turn up in my books. Romances are meant to be fine escapist fare where love conquers all with a happy ending, not grim reminders of the darker sides of the past. It's not that I'm squeamish or prudish – remember, I subjected the heroine in my historical novel The French Mistress to mercury-bath treatments for the venereal disease she'd contracted from her royal lover – but there are certain places I'm just not going to take my romance characters.

All of which is why none of my romance heroes will be attending that favorite 18th c. pastime, the cockfight. Today cockfighting is illegal in America, but most Georgian-era males (and more than a few females) would have regarded the fights and the accompanying drinking and betting as a good night's entertainment, equal to watching Monday Night Football with friends.

But the cockfighting spurs like the 18th c. examples, left, show the brutality of the "sport." The natural spurs on the roosters' legs were cut away, and replaced with the exaggerated and more lethal metal spurs. Whether the spurs were made of leather bands and iron like these, or sterling silver like the ones favored by gentlemen, they were still designed to maim, blind, and kill. A pair of game cocks was released into the ring, bets were made on favorites amidst loud cheers of encouragement and oath-filled threats, and the two birds fought until one was unable to continue.

A night of cockfighting inevitably left a pile of dead and dying roosters, including many of the so-called winners. As William Hogarth observed in his engraving, right, the blood-lust fury wasn't confined to the birds, either – though those wagering on the fights (usually) survived.

Just don't look for my heroes in the crowd.

Left: Box, made by Samuel Toulmin, London, England, 1765-83. Wood, shagreen. Inscribed under the lid: "Samuel Toulmin/Silver Cockspur Maker/Successor to Smith & Gatesfield/at the Deal & Crown in Burleigh Street/near Exeter Change in the Strand/LONDON." 
Cockfighting Spurs, Made in England, 1765-1800, iron and leather. Winterthur Museum.
Right: Royal sport pit ticket design'd and engrav'd by Willm. Hogarth, by William Hogarth, 1759, London. Lewis Walpole Digital Museum, Yale University.


Isobel Carr said...

I find myself torn about this kind of thing. It was soooo common. So I usually mention it in passing as something someone else was doing (often the villain).

I lucked into a copy of The Complete Dog-Fancier’s Companion; describing the Nature, Habits, Properties &c. of Sporting, Fancy, and other Dogs from 1819 a few years ago and found it fascinating that it contains a denunciation about the evils of blood sports that ends with: For the sake of humanity, it is to be hoped, that the cruelty exercised on the animal, had- been repented of by his master, the greater brute of the two [emphasis in original], and that there are none at present who could be guilty of a similar outrage.

nightsmusic said...

I must admit, a hero who participated in any bloodsport like that would be an instant non-read for me. No matter how skillfully the author thought she could redeem him. Because in my heart, he'd never be redeemed.

Anonymous said...

Interesting take on it. I love Georgette Heyer who does often show cockfights, just in passing. I admit I would get bored of details. I must pick up your novels. Love Georgian romances!

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