Monday, October 4, 2010

Modern and Medieval Approaches to Animals

“Marge, don’t discourage the boy. Weaseling out of things is important to learn. It’s what separates us from the animals! Except the weasel.”

Devoted fans of The Simpsons might recognize the above quote and have a good chuckle. But hidden in that quote is a cultural norm that seems to permeate modern consciousness: the idea that we are more advanced, and thus, separate from “the animals.” Most of us accept the idea that we are different than every other species that walks, flies or swims on this planet, and most of us accept without question that humanity is the very pinnacle of evolution. Animals serve as a form of downward social comparison for us, however much we might laud their individual features.
Indeed, part of the joy of having a pet for many people is watching the seemingly illogical things they do: my grandmother’s dog is terrified of vacuums, and a particularly odd acquaintance of mine once demonstrated to me that if one places a sock over the head of a cat, it will continuously walk backwards, perhaps thinking it is in a tunnel. These displays of what would be considered subhuman intelligence are endearing to pet owners, similar to how it never ceases to amuse us that infants really think we can’t see them if they cover their own eyes. Of course this is not the only way we derive enjoyment out of pet owning. We are often impressed by animals’ sensory perceptions, and there are plenty of incredible animal stories, wherein an animal, often a pet, performs some feat of bravery, which, if a human had performed it, would earn him/her a medal and the key to the city. Pets have called 911 for their owners, they have rushed into burning buildings and rescued children, and they have travelled incredible distances just to get back to their owners. Also, the loyalty and dependence that pets display create emotional attachments and a feeling of connection. Pets are often “part of the family.” Animals not held as pets have their attractions too: wild animals are often described as noble or majestic. People will pull their cars over to the side of the road just to take a picture of a moose or a deer.
However, these by no means take away from the feeling of superiority that humans feel over animals. Pets are most definitely less important than children in a family, and if a family pet dies, it is very likely that, following a brief grieving period, there will be a new one. Similarly, however majestic deer might be considered by the general public, this does not prevent people from hunting them and hanging their severed heads on their walls. Nobody knows when exactly this feeling of superiority started among humans, but the rationale behind it varies among cultures, time periods, and even between any two average, modern Americans. The general consensus has always seemed to be that humans are higher up on the food chain (literally and figuratively) than every other creature, but where and why people draw the lines are interesting areas for speculation. There is a very easily discernable divide between medieval ideas about animals and modern ones, especially with regards to the role animals play in each period’s respective contemporary discourse.
Let us take, for example, a text that straddles early modern and late modern Europe: Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. I happened to be reading excerpts of this text for a different course, and ran into something I didn’t necessarily expect or remember from previous readings of the text: the use of animals to prove a point. Having just read large portions of a Medieval Bestiary, the language and style were fresh in my mind, and a comparison unintentionally worked its way into my reading. Smith describes how two greyhounds, in chasing the same hare, “have sometimes the appearance of acting in some sort of concert,” but in reality, it is “not the effect of any contract, but of the accidental concurrence of their passions in the same object at that particular time.”[1] Smith wants to ensure the reader that there is no possible way that the animals can be in contract with each other because trade is exclusive to humanity. This separates us from them.
He goes onto to make his point clearer by stating, “nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.”[2] Animals rather, are, once they reach adulthood, fully independent and need no support from other animals, except for pets, which use fawning and begging as a means of obtaining what they want from their owners. Forgetting the fact that this concept does not entirely ring true (many animals engage in pack-hunting, and many form “families” wherein one member does all the hunting while the other stays in, caring for young), the tone Smith is using to describe animal vs. human tactics is fairly clear. To be a human, that is, to be a non-animal, is to be a far more complex, more intelligent creature, capable of creating economic phenomena such as the division of labor, which is what Smith is writing about with such passion. Under this model, animals are not something to look up to. They are not models and they are certainly not reflections of the divine. Many of us share this idea wholeheartedly; we may think it would be terrific to have the keen sense of smell that a dog possesses, but with the exception of some animal lovers who have given this deep thought already, we generally see nothing in our pets or in wild animals that might bring us closer to the divine or make us more morally upright. They offer the pleasure of their company and emotional fulfillment on some level (or the thrill of the hunt or a delicious meal in some cases), but we need not learn any lesson from them other than that of the responsibility of caring for them.
Medieval bestiaries were very far from this idea. Animals were not only useful for food, work, clothing, medicine, and transportation – their actions were part of God’s plan and when contemplated could lead to better morality. A bestiary was like a map through the mystery of nature. It was the key to unlock God’s earthly kingdom and gain insight about His plan. Take for example the passage on the dog. In this passage, the reader sees acts immediately recognizable as having temporal importance, such as the dog who caught the murderer of his master or the dog who, when his master was taken captive, gathered a posse of dogs two hundred strong and rescued the master.[3] In addition to this, the author also provides a rich allegorical description of dogs, describing how Priests are like watchdogs, and how the lick of a dog’s tongue cures wounds, representing the cleansing of sins in confession, and how a dog’s habit of returning to its vomit is symbolic of humanity’s willingness to return to sin.[4] Seeing as the bestiaries were incredibly popular and very widely distributed, one can assume that these descriptions were taken to heart by the learned people reading them, leading to a much higher degree of respect toward animals on the whole than we see today.
This is not, of course, to say that Medieval people did not recognize humanity as different and above every other creature. It was the common belief that God created humanity in His own image, and gave it the ability to rule over all other creations. Scholars from Albertus Magnus to Thomas Aquinas had addressed the difference between humanity and faunae as well as the overall superiority of humanity. The tone, however, is one of reverent superiority. If Medieval people were to believe the bestiaries, and they would have no real cause not to, having had very little exposure to many of the animals listed therein, they must have understood there to be a divine plan in effect, considering all the allegories worked into the very makeup of the creatures. Humans looked up to animals (or the symbolic representation of these animals as presented in bestiaries) as each possessing a separate lesson to be learned straight from God Himself.
And so we come to the divide between modern and medieval understandings of animals. In short, it would appear as if, at least in the Western world, moderns revel in the company of animals for companionship and the occasional anomalous feat of courage. However, humans have a tendency to reaffirm their intelligence and humanity by contrasting themselves favorably with animals. Medieval people, on the other hand, saw animals as a reflection of God’s plan, fraught with lessons to be learned about morality.
These are of course very abstract ideas, which leave out much of the nuance that exists within both the modern and medieval spheres, but a blog seems an appropriate place for a thought experiment. There are certainly people in the modern world who derive the same kind of allegorical lessons from animals, but I would argue they are the exception that proves the rule. Or maybe I just haven’t met enough animal lovers.


[1] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1996 [first published 1776]), 17.
[2] Smith, 17.
[3] T.H. White, The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts (1954; reprint Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002), online at, pp 62-66.
[4] White, pp 66-67.

1 comment:

  1. A very nice reflection with which to begin our blog discussion about the way in which people thought about and interacted with animals in the Middle Ages! You do a good job of moving us from our present concerns (not behaving like animals while at the same time using their behavior as a way of making sense of ours; keeping animals as part of our family; hunting animals whom we otherwise consider majestic--which, by the by, hunters do, too) through Adam Smith's insistence that behavior cannot be taken as an indication of rational intentionality to the bestiaries' conviction that animals could (and should) serve not only as economic resources but also as objects of contemplation for the purposes of understanding God's purposes for us. I'm not sure that it is accurate to say, however, that medieval people necessarily respected animals more than people do today; rather, they respected animals for different reasons while at the same time making use of them (as you point out) for food, clothing, medicine and transportation. Perhaps the real difference is in the degree of "Otherness" which we now attribute to animals: on the one hand, we think of ourselves (as did medieval Christians) as animals, but on the other, except for our pets, we don't really experience or treat them as part of our everyday life. I myself am struggling with how exactly to characterize the difference, however. Medieval people looked to animals for lessons in morality because they believed that, as creatures of God, animals must reflect something about God. Modern people look to animals for insights into our own "animal" behaviors because we believe that we share certain biological systems with them (hindbrain, limbic system, and the like), understanding which will help us understand why we behave the way that we do. There is an expectation of shared behaviors (emotions, sociability) in both pre-Englightenment and post-Enlightenment thinking (with Adam Smith in the middle insisting that animals can't possibly be teaching us anything about our behavior), but a gulf between why we look for the answers that we do in animals. Perhaps this is why it is so hard for us to see what the bestiaries are doing clearly: it is like and yet unlike the kinds of questions we ask of animals now, as Homer so beautifully shows!