Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Spanish Bull-Fight

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 3
Spanish Bull-Fight

by Ramón Ruiz Amado


Neither the English term nor the German (Stiergefecht) used to designate this popular diversion of the Spaniards, can be said to express adequately the essential idea of the Spanish corrida de toros.

Great has been the discussion as to the origin of this spectacle. Some attribute it to the Roman Circus, where men contended with wild beasts, among them wild bulls; others-Doñ Nicolás de Moratin, for example-to the customs of the ancient Celtiberians. As Spain was infested by wild bulls, first necessity and afterwards sport led to this personal combat. In this opinion, indeed, is to be found what might be called the philosophic origin of the bull-fight. Man, surrounded by wild natural conditions, saw himself obliged to struggle with wild beasts in order to protect himself from them; and as the peoples naturally acclaimed as heroes those who slew in single combat these ferocious animals, so, when the necessity of protecting life had ceased, brave men still sought glory in these struggles. (In this connection the killing of the Calydonian boar by the Ætolians, as related by Homer, the legend of Hercules and the Nemean lion, the Catalonian legend of Wilfrid slaying the Tarasque, and the Swiss legend preserved by Schiller in his "William Tell", with many others of a like nature, suggest themselves as examples.) But if, putting aside these a priori considerations, we turn our attention to historical facts, we shall find that the Spanish bull-fight originated in a Moorish custom.

To understand this better it will be necessary to distinguish between three kinds of bull-fights: (1) caballerescas, (2) populares, and (3) gladiatorias.


(1) Corridas Caballerescas

The corridas caballerescas had their origin, without a doubt, in the usages of the Arabo-Spanish jinetes (cavaliers or mounted men-at-arms) who, to accustom themselves to the activities of war, occupied themselves in time of peace with exercises in the use of arms, among which exercises were fights with wild bulls; the Moorish cavaliers fought on horseback, killing the bulls with spears, thus combining courage with knightly address. From historical sources we know that the Cid Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar was the first Christian to vie with the Arab knights in the sport of killing fierce bulls, spearing several from his horse in the year 1040, to the enthusiastic admiration of Ferdinand I of Castile. The lawyer Francisco de Cepeda, in his "Resumpta Historial de España", assures us that in 1100 there were bull-fights for the public, and that in Leon there was a bull-fight on the occasion of the marriage of Doña Urraca, daughter of Alfonso VIII, to the King Doñ Garcia of Navarre. These corridas caballerescas reached the highest degree of splendour in the reign of John II, when plazas began to be built, as we see by a story of the Marques de Villena. The marriage of John II to Doña María de Aragon (20 October, 1418) was celebrated by corridas in Medina del Campo. In the last epoch of the reconquest, the intercourse, frequent in times of peace, between the Spaniards and the Moors of Granada-where bull-fights were held until the time of Boabdil-resulted in an increase of valour among the Christian cavaliers, and a desire to demonstrate it in this dangerous sport.


(2) Corridas Populares

From this time the bull-fight developed into a popular amusement, and became so rooted in the affections of the Spanish people that neither Isabella the Catholic, who wished to suppress it, nor Philip II, nor Charles III, dared issue an order that would prohibit it absolutely. The Emperor Charles V, although he had not been educated in Spain, killed a bull during the festivities held in Valladolid to celebrate the birth of his son Philip. The first Bourbons were educated in France and naturally did not display much fondness for the popular corridas de toros. The corridas populares, heritage of the Mohammedan population, more especially in Valencia and Andalusia, differ from the caballerescas in their democratic character. Bulls not quite so ferocious are selected and are fought on foot, sometimes in an enclosure formed of wagons and planks, sometimes through the streets, in which case the bull is generally tied to a long rope. In these corridas populares the bull is not killed, but after the populace has amused itself with the bull, provoking him, and then fleeing from his attack, a tame cow is let loose and the bull follows her quietly to the pen. Generally the bull is taken to the slaughter-house and the meat used for the feasts that follow.


(3) Corridas Gladiatorias

The corridas gladiatorias are those in which the participants are professionals, and these are the ones which have given rise among foreigners to so much criticism of this popular diversion of the Spaniards. Francisco Romero, a native of Ronda, about the middle of the eighteenth century, sets forth in the "Arte Taurino" (Tauromaquia) the rules which are the guiding principle of these contests. Romero invented the muleta, a scarlet cloth laid over a stick, used to attract the attention of the bull, and he was the first to kill a bull on foot and face to face. His skill was inherited by his son Juan, and his grandsons, Pedro, José, and Antonio. After this the different skilful manoeuvres (suertes) that give variety to the bull-fight were evolved. Juan Romero was the first to organize a cuadrilla de toreros (band, or company, of bullfighters).


THE MODERN BULL-FIGHT

The modern bull-fight begins with the entrance of the toreros into the plaza (ring), marching to music, and dressed in richest satin, embroidered in silk or gold thread. The costume consists of tight-fitting satin knee-breeches, a short open Andalusian coat and vest, silk hose, and shoes without heels. The shoulders are decorated with handsome shoulder knots which in reality serve as protection in case of falls, as also the moña, a pad which is worn on the head, and which is covered with a rich cloth cap ornamented with tassels on each side. From the shoulders a short cape of embroidered satin is suspended.

In the centre of the ring they ceremoniously salute the presiding official-the governor, sometimes the king himself-and receive from him the key of the bull pen (toril). Then each one takes his place. At the four equi-distant points of the circumference of the ring the picadores are situated. These are men mounted on old or otherwise incapacitated horses, with cow-boy saddles, very large iron stirrups, and one leg protected against the bull's horns by the espinillera, an apparatus of iron.

The bugle now gives the signal, the door of the pen opens, and the first bull is released. The capeadores attract the bull's attention with their scarlet capes, leading him towards the picadores who ride into the middle of the ring to meet him, and parry his attacks with their spears. If the bull happens to unhorse one of the picadores, or kill his horse, the capeadores rush to the rescue, attracting the bull once more with their scarlet capes, and carrying him off to another part of the ring.

When the picadores have had their turn with the bull, the bugle sounds for banderillas. These are tiny steel points to which are attached many coloured ribbons or papers, which are stuck in the fleshy portion of the bull's neck by the banderilleros, who await his coming in the centre of the ring, facing him with arms extended.

These, and many other tricks, such as el salto de la garrocha, etc., besides giving incident and variety to the spectacle, have as their object to weaken the enormous strength of the bull, so as to render possible and less dangerous the work of the matador-not, as many imagine, to infuriate the bull still more. When the presiding officer gives the signal for the death of the bull, the matador draws near the bull with the muleta in his left hand and the sword in his right hand; he calls the bull to him, or throws himself upon him, and plunges the sword into the neck of the bull. If he strikes him in the nape of the neck, killing him instantly, it is called descabellar, but if the bull is simply wounded the puntillero puts an end to his life with a dagger. The music now strikes up, while two little mules, richly caparisoned, drag out the bull and the dead horses. This is repeated again and again, the number of bulls being usually eight for each corrida.


The Morality of the Bullfight

Bull-fights have occasioned many accusations of barbarity against the Spaniards.


  • The reason for this is, first, an utter ignorance of a game in which man with his reason and dexterity overcomes the brutal strength and ferocity of the bull. Foreigners as a rule think that the Spanish populace go to the bull-fight to witness the shedding of human blood. This is false. Generally there are no casualties; and when an accident does occur, no one derives pleasure from it; on the contrary, all deplore it.
  • Second, the misconception implies a lack of comparison with other spectacles. The risks taken by acrobats, tight-rope dancers, and tamers of wild beasts are no less barbarous than those of the bull-fight, although the performances themselves are less diverting. And prize-fighting is surely much more brutal, seeing that the vanquished is a human being and not a brute.
  • Lastly, the modern theatre is frequently more evil in its effects than bull-fighting, which, whatever else may be said of it, arouses no immoral or anti-social passions.

The authorities of the Catholic Church have often condemned bull-fighting. St. Pius V (1 November, 1567, Const. "De salute") prohibited this form of amusement everywhere, threatening with many penalties the princes who countenanced it, as well as the performers and spectators, especially clergymen and religious. But in Spain to-day these prohibitions are not in force. Gregory XIII (23 August, 1575, "Exponi") moderated the constitution of St. Pius V for Spanish laymen, and Clement VIII (Bull "Suscepti muneris", 12 January, 1597) reduced it to a jus commune, limiting the prohibition to holidays and to the clergy.

Moralists as a rule are of the opinion that bull-fighting as practised in Spain is not forbidden by the natural law, since the skill and dexterity of the athletes precludes immediate danger of death or of serious injury (cf. P.V, Casus conscientiae, Vromant, Brussels, 1895, 3d ed., I, 353, 354; Gury-Ferreres, Comp. Th. mor., Barcelona, 1906, I, n. 45). Even in Spain and Spanish America they have been forbidden to clergymen and religious, by Pius V, as well as by the Plenary Council for Spanish America (n. 650; cf. also C. prov., Vallisol., I, p. 5, tit. 1, n. 11). The Bishop of Ciudad Rodrigo received the same answer from the Penitentiaria (19 September, 1893).

It is false to say that the Spanish clergy encourage these spectacles. Although public festivals are celebrated with religious ceremonies as well as bull-fights, the clergy is in no-wise responsible for this. If both are announced on the same bill poster, the authorities, or particular associations, are responsible for the printing of this, not the clergy.

It is worthy of note that foreigners who have been present at bull-fights are not so harsh in their judgments as those who have formed an opinion from what they have heard about them from the societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals.

RAMÓN RUIZ AMADO