The sidesaddle, designed with stirrups on one side so that women could ride in relative safety without sitting astride, didn’t come along until around the sixteenth century. How did women ride before then? A few hand-painted tarocchi (tarot) cards, dating from circa 1440 Milan, offer clues.
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The card now called “Princess of Swords” shows a woman sitting sideways on a seatlike saddle. Her feet, hidden by the skirts, rest not in stirrups but on a step fastened by straps to the seat. The horse would likely have been guided by someone else. The princess can’t easily see where she’s going, and the lack of stability dictates a pace no more rapid than an easy amble. Clearly, the sword is decorative.
The “Princess of Coins” sits astride; her more up-to-date coiffure indicates she is younger than her swords sister.
Suggested music: Medieval Harp: Four Italian Dances
Illustrations: Cary-Yale Visconti-Sforza tarocch, collection of the Beinecke Library, Yale University.