Unmögliche Geschenke: Spanisch-mesoamerikanische Zirkulationsirritationen um 1500

This paper discusses the problem of impossible gifts: It introduces presents that defied established modes of exchange because they simply did not work as gifts. Throughout Eurasia and supra-Saharan Africa, horses represent a particularly interesting case in point when it comes to diplomatic gifting. Cultural historians have paid major attention to the equine diplomatic gift both because of its dominant position in historical accounts of gift-exchange, and because of its significance for understanding performativity. Studying horses as gifts provides insights into social symbolism such as superiority, nobility or elegance.

Yet, exchanging horses between «equestrian cultures» – such as between Spanish and Moorish rulers – has always been far more than a representative approach allows for: The stallions and mares selected as gifts brought with them characteristics and traits that could strongly influence local breeds (e.g. the Andalusian horses) and they also came with riding equipment and necessities that affected equestrian practices at the new court. In that sense, breeding with gift horses could initiate long-lasting transformations in and beyond equine «bloodlines» and promise value for generations to come.

If diplomatic gift-exchange practices relied heavily on a shared notion of convention, appropriateness and value, what happened when the Spanish, whose horse breeds were desired all over Europe, were confronted with non-equestrian Taíno elites, Tlaxcalan officials or Mexica dignitaries, who had no previous use for horses? The paper addresses the tension between circulation and disconnection in the field of equine gift-giving. It thereby challenges explanations dominated by more or less explicit forms of «cultural-clashism» and offers a value-oriented reading of gift-exchange practices connected to a specific human-equine relationship.