How Bullfighting Works

Bullfighting's Beginnings

The exact beginning of bullfighting is hard to pin down, though evidence of rituals involving bulls is found in many ancient cultures dating from at least 1500 B.C. [source: Conrad].

During the Visigoth rule of the Iberian Peninsula, from 415 to 711, spectacles involving men on horseback fighting bulls became popular. This evolved into mounted bullfighting, called rejoneo, still practiced in Portugal today. Rejoneo differs from traditional Spanish bullfighting in two important ways:


  • Fighters work on horseback, rather than on foot.
  • The bull is weakened in the ring, but killed after the fight, out of sight of spectators.

Bullfighting tournaments held in city squares or plazas had become popular by the end of the 11th century and continue today. The most famous of these festivals is the Fiesta de San Fermín, which features the running of the bulls in Pamplona. El Cid, the popular Spanish military leader and national hero of the mid-11th century, is thought to have been among the first to participate in bullfighting in an arena, the beginning of the corridas we know today [source: Conrad].

By the 15th century, bullfighting had become entrenched in Spanish culture as the sport of aristocracy. But bullfighting went underground during the reign of Queen Isabella, who opposed it. And in 1567, Pope Pius V banned it completely, excommunicating aristocrats who supported the fights and refusing Christian burial to those killed in the ring. The church lifted the ban eight years later, when it became clear the practice wasn't going away.

During the 1600s, Spanish bullfighters left horses behind and began fighting on foot, as they do today. In the 1700s, bullfights moved from the sport of kings to the sport of the masses when King Philip V, who disapproved of bullfighting, rose to power. He refused to allow it at royal events, but the people of Spain adopted the sport.

Bullfighting continues to be the sport of the people, though several of the largest arenas in Spain have royal boxes for those members of the royal family who attend the spectacles.

Next up, what happens in the ring and the story on the elaborate uniforms matadors wear.