The World of the Bulls: An Anthropologist’s Gold Mine

At the beginning of October, in a blog article about a bullfight in Corella, Navarra, taurine photographers and bloggers Gorka Azpilicueta and Arsenio Ramírez suggested that for an anthropologist like myself the world of the bulls represents a gold mine for analysis. Over the years  many commentators from the anglophone North have descended into the land of tauromaquia to extract exotica to be consumed by armchair enthusiasts or critics at home. This is a form of cultural pillage if there ever was one, but many such commentators have also brought their own brands of appreciation to the taurine world, some more academic than others. You have the well-read, articulate commentators such as the much over-cited Hemingway and more recently Fiske-Harrison, who have produced very readable, dramatic and popular accounts of the bulls. Though Fiske-Harrison has taken his appreciation of the bulls a step further and actually put himself in front of the animals. Then you have the academics, including anthropologists such as Pitt-Rivers, Carrie Douglass and Garry Marvin who have produced works on the bulls from varying theoretical perspectives and of varying readability for the general public. Of course there are also many English-speaking fans of tauromaquia who have chosen not to write about their experiences, some of whom choose to appreciate the art as spectators and some of whom choose to train as bullfighters such as the Irishman David White, whose career is going from strength to strength. There is something particular about the bulls that attracts commentary: they really do represent a gold mine as they form part of an incredibly rich and varied set of traditions with much history.

Since Gorka and Arsenio’s comment, I’ve experienced five intense weeks that have served to condense and recapitulate the themes that have emerged in my fieldwork this year. My notes have suffered a lot due to the non-stop succession of events, but fortunately my camera has not stopped working. Through the following photos and captions you’ll hopefully get a good idea of how the world of the bulls or my particular corner of the world of bulls really do constitute a gold mine for analysis. If I keep going at this rate the final product of my PhD thesis is going to be full of  interesting characters, beautiful landscapes and above all very beautiful and unique animals. The photos also capture the array of interrelated topics that will form my thesis.

For those that are interested, here is the link to Gorka and Arsenio’s report on the September bullfight in Corella that starred the Partido de Resina bulls: “Los Chatos de Partido de Resina en Corella”. If you skip the first photo of some Scottish anthropologist or other, there are some excellent photos of the bulls as seen through the eyes of a native fan.

Given that the fate of bulls as a breed is closely linked with bullfighting as an art,  what goes on in the arena was always going to have a significant place in my thesis and no doubt in the more specialist articles I’ll be writing as well. The next few photos underscore the importance of this side of the taurine world for me. I’ve been to a lot of bullfights this year, but obviously the ones that involve the Partido de Resina bulls mean the most to me. It’s one thing to go to any old bullfight, it’s another to go to one with bulls that you’ve gotten to know in the countryside.

The entrance of the bull. The foreman can only watch intently from his barrier as the bull passes through the various stages of the performance.

The entrance of the bull. The foreman can only watch intently from his barrier as the bull passes through the various stages of the performance. Part of what I’m trying to involves getting a feel for not only the details of a bullfight, but how people appreciate such events from different perspectives. For example, the young foreman, the ranch vet and representative, and the family of the owner of the ranch are all invested in the bulls but from very different positions in terms of class.

The morning of the bullfight, the bulls are reviewed in the corrals by vets and representatives of the arena. At this point any bulls that are not in perfect condition will be rejected, which is why the breeding ranches tend to send a couple of extra bulls in case of injuries or great loss of weight during the journey to the arena.

The morning of the bullfight, the bulls are reviewed in the corrals by vets and representatives of the arena. At this point any bulls that are not in perfect condition will be rejected, which is why the breeding ranches tend to send a couple of extra bulls in case of injuries or great loss of weight during the journey to the arena.

The sorting of the bulls, each bullfighter gets allocated a pair of bulls by the drawing of lots from the foreman's hat. You can tell that we were in Navarra by the presence of the red beret on top of the foreman's traditional wide-rimmed hat.

The sorting of the bulls, each bullfighter gets allocated a pair of bulls by the drawing of lots from the foreman’s hat. You can tell that we were in Navarra by the presence of the red beret on top of the foreman’s traditional wide-rimmed hat.

Behind the bull in the arena there is, of course, the bull in the countryside, as well as the cows, the stud bulls and the youngstock. After a year spent on the Partido de Resina estate, this is the place where I feel most at ease in the bullfighting world. It is also the place where my appreciation for the beauty of the bulls was born. They say that once the bull-breeding estates were very private places, but nowadays there is a lot of pressure for them to open up a bit. There is a public that wants to get to know the “king of the countryside” at home and what is more, there is also a perceived need to publicise the relatively good life that fighting stock lead so as to counter critics who focus on the death of the bulls in the plaza.

The king of the countryside in the morning fog.

The king of the countryside in the morning fog.

And the queen... an elegant example of a fighting cow looking up at observers.

And the queen… an elegant example of a fighting cow looking up at observers.

How can the public get to know the bull in the countryside? Taurine tourism is one way to meet the fighting bull in his natural habitat. “Natural” having a particular meaning here (as always): invoking ideas of biodiversity and spaces free of human interference in particular.  Artetur is a tour company that offer day trips that involve bulls, gastronomy and flamenco on Partido de Resina and other bull-breeding estates. Another way to see the bulls in the countryside is to get access to more private events on the ranches. The testing of young animals for example. This is trickier though; you have to either be a professional or know a professional sufficiently well to get in. Fortunately for those interested there is a whole class of professional photographers and journalists who dedicate themselves to bring the bull in the countryside to the public. All three of these public aspects of the bull are interesting to me as an anthropologist. How are images of the bull-breeding estates managed? Who can get access? When and how? What do taurine journalists look for in terms of photos and stories? What are the recurring themes of the bull in the countryside?

Me

A crew from the program “Paisaje Herrado” (literally “branded landscape”) visited Partido de Resina the other week to film the separation of the three year old bulls into separate lots and to interview the foreman and representative. I also got asked a few questions as even in a flat cap and plaid shirt I stick out somewhat among the other staff. A foreigner interested in the bulls is generally deemed a good thing, particularly if they come from somewhere where bullfighting is not much appreciated.

A friend and practical fan of the bulls takes part in an event held on the ranch to celebrate Spains national day. Antonio is one of my neighbours in Villamanrique de la Condesa, just a few minutes down the road from the estate.

A friend and practical fan of the bulls takes part in an event held on the ranch to celebrate Spain’s national day. Antonio is one of my neighbours in Villamanrique de la Condesa, just a few minutes down the road from the estate.

Despite technically being inside the limits of the muncipality of Aznalcázar, Partido de Resina is more connected with the towns of Villamanrique and Sanlucar la Mayor. The former because it is the closest town and the latter because the previous owners of the estate had another ranch near Sanlucar. A bull-breeding estate doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it forms a part of the wider life of the local area, so my projects extends well beyond the boundary fences of the ranch and the walls of the arena. I’m also attempted to get to grips with life in the countryside and small towns in this area in general. As always I can only achieve this through the people I meet here; the experiences and histories of local people are vital for my project given my goal of describing a small corner of the world of the bulls in its social, historical and geographical context.

A poster

A poster announcing a series of events to conmemorate the birth of Pascual Marquez “El Manriqueño” in Villamanrique de la Condesa. The bulls have deep roots in the area. In fact, the foreman of the ranch counts Pascual Marquez among his ancestors. Pascual Marquez died a particularly tragic death from a goring suffered in the arena in Madrid. The young bullfighter Juan Solis now bears both the name and the taurine promise of the town.

For me, the event that most highlights the place of Partido de Resina in the local community is the branding of the yearlings. On this day people of all ages are allowed to come onto the ranch and assist with the branding and first vaccination of the young animals - supervised by an external vet and the police.

For me, the event that most highlights the place of Partido de Resina in the local community is the branding of the yearlings. On this day people of all ages are allowed to come onto the ranch and assist with the branding and first vaccination of the young animals – supervised by an external vet and the police.

A pair of yearlings explore their new field after being weaned from their mothers a week or so before the branding day.

A pair of yearlings explore their new field after being weaned from their mothers a week or so before the branding day.

The males receive their brands and vaccinations in the stocks, but the females are done the old way: restrained on the ground in the middle of a corral. The event brings together friends, family and fans of the bull-breeding estate and involves some particularly symbolic moments such as the blooding of first time assistants. A little bit of blood on the forehead means a lot. Well, I say a little but depending on the person doing the initiating the quantity of blood and other stuff from under the tail can be quite generous. There is an injection site on the underside of the tail.

The males receive their brands and vaccinations in the stocks, but the females are done the old way: restrained on the ground in the middle of a corral. The event brings together friends, family and fans of the bull-breeding estate and involves some particularly symbolic moments such as the blooding of first time assistants. A little bit of blood on the forehead holds a lot of meaning. Well, I say a little but depending on the person doing the initiating the quantity of blood and other “stuff” from under the tail can be quite generous. There is an injection site on the underside of the tail.

Partido de Resina is situated very close to the pilgrimage road to El Rocío and indeed the town of Villamanrique is considered the gateway to the pilgrimage site which hosts a famous image of the Virgin. Aside from the fact that there are many fans of the bulls among pilgrims, your average fan and pilgrim have a lot in common: particularly an appreciation for flamenco tradition, art and also forms of training and being with animals. Perhaps most importantly they share an attitude of pride and faith in a twenty-first century world perceived to be at once full of both difficulties and little miracles. It’s fair to say my project will therefore be injected with a good dose of pilgrimage spirit.

Joaquin and José nearing a site called the Kings' Palace on the pilgrimage road to El Rocio. Locally, doing the pilgrimage (~22km) is not only seen as a good way to spend a weekend with friends, but also represents something very personal between the pilgrim and the Virgin. There are some questions even the most interprid anthropologist cannot ask.

Joaquin and José nearing a site called the Kings’ Palace on the pilgrimage road to El Rocio. Locally, doing the pilgrimage (~22km) is not only seen as a good way to spend a weekend with friends, but also represents something very personal between the pilgrim and the Virgin. There are some questions even the most interprid anthropologist cannot ask.

The other king of the countryside: a stag encountered on the road to El Rocio. The surrounding landscape and how it is divvied up legally and in terms of exploitation is also of interest to me.

The other king of the countryside: a stag encountered on the road to El Rocio, which goes through a National Park. The surrounding landscape and how it is divvied up legally and in terms of exploitation is also of interest to me.

A very atmospheric landscape near Partido de Resina.

A very atmospheric landscape near Partido de Resina.

Despite all the themes I’ve drawn out above, the core of my interest centres on the dynamic relationships between bulls, horses and humans in the countryside: how the foreman and his staff manage the bulls – always potentially aggressive – from horseback.

Waiting for the foreman, who was moving tentatively into a corner to draw out an injured bull with the help of steers. Working in such conditions requires much patience, as well as a constant state of alertness because when the action comes it is always potentially explosive.

Waiting for the foreman, who was moving tentatively into a corner to draw out an injured bull with the help of steers. Working in such conditions requires much patience, as well as a constant state of alertness because when the action comes it is always potentially explosive.

It's a great honour to ride and learn alongside people who work with the bulls for pleasure more than anything else. Joaquin and José above all have made me into a very practical anthropologist: less books, more horse.

It’s a great honour to ride and learn alongside people who work with the bulls for pleasure more than anything else. Joaquin and José above all have made me into a very practical anthropologist: less books, more horse.

Bulls

Beyond the dynamics between horses, humans and bulls there are also the dynamics between the bulls themselves, who are intensely social and intelligent (in their own way) animals. Fights take place on all kinds of levels: from full on disputes to gentle sparring between long time companions. The bulls are not only aggressive and have an array of complict avoidance strategies as well as forms of companionship among herdmates. In some ways there are very sensitive, reacting immediately to changes in their environment, but in other ways they are incredibly tough, weathering sun, rain, heat and cold very well. They’re the stars of the taurine world, so evidently they’ll have to be the stars of my thesis.

As always, I hope you’ve enjoyed this piece – feel free to ask questions and share all you like.

Robin

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One Response to The World of the Bulls: An Anthropologist’s Gold Mine

  1. henryjtaylor says:

    A most interesting and enjoyable read which can only increase our envy. Branding inflicts more intense and prolonged pain than anything which may happen during a bull fight but we are not allowed to mention this as it is also applied to the millions of beef cattle on their way to become our hamburgers. The size of the brands does not indicate an interest in the welfare of the bulls and I think it strange that it should be considered a time to party.

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