Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Status and Animals: Second Attempt

    In class on Friday, I tried to put forward the idea that in the Middle Ages, human interactions with animals may have varied along the lines of status. In the end, I wasn’t particularly articulate or successful, so, finding myself lacking more world-shattering subject matter for this post, even at the end of several days of refection, I decided to give the idea another try. I am sure you all (this does not apply to you, unknown readers) will forgive the repetitiveness.
I’ll start with the shortest thing we read, which was, incidentally, also the first one I finished. I ended up sending Steve Farrar’s article1 to my mom, whose 4-year old cat just recently died from FIV. I sent it to her because I thought she’d enjoy reading about the similar attachment of owners to pets in the seemingly so different a world as Medieval Europe. We later talked about the article, and she commented that animals (especially cats and dogs) are just so endearing…it’s hard not to get attached. Indeed, that falls along the lines of why I thought this article was so thought-provoking. After all, humans back then could not have been so un-sentimental as to never get attached to the loyal friend that a dog is, or the warm purring thing that is a cat. And for proof of such attachment, we don’t just have my questionable deductive skills, we have literary evidence! The example of abbot Thierry’s of St. Trond verses, written on the death of his dog is quite perfect. Indeed, all the examples in the article point at the same idea: the commonplace of owners becoming attached to and loving their pets is not actually a modern commonplace.
And then I looked at who the people in these examples were. Let’s see: we have nuns, preachers, bishops, humanists, an abbot, and royalty. Would it be correct for us to assume that pets were kept by these upper echelons of society, but not by the commoners?  As any good student of medieval history, I will be the first to say “No! This may just be the by-product of the selectivity of our sources.” After all, who if not these groups produced most of the evidence available to us moderns? But I cannot so easily discount the idea that the keeping of pets (or at least excessive caring for them) may have been more concentrated among the nobility and the monks and nuns (also the nobility, but I’ll make the distinction).
Steve Farrar also mentions that pets could serve as status symbols. In cases where the owners devoted excessive resources to their pets’ well-being, they certainly would have been. Extravagance requires an audience. But was the very fact of keeping a pet something delineated by differences in status? One of the main distinctions between pets and other domestic animals is that they serve no other useful purpose except companionship (if this can in fact be called useful). Based on our readings, the medieval animals that we would most strongly associate with the peasants and other commoners would be oxen, plow-horses, pigs and sheep. Certainly, the commoners kept dogs, which were especially useful for herding. These, however, we would not really consider “pets.” They were work-dogs, or what Catherine Smith calls “proletarian dogs”.2 In class, we discussed the argument that pets would have been a sink of already limited peasant resources, without giving much in return. This would seem to be a clear distinction between nobles and peasants – the latter may not have been able to afford them. Related to this is the distinction of a well-kept animal and not. We might imagine that the nobility cared more for their animals; for example, falcons. But, this may also be a by-product of the fact that animals like falcons needed to be well-taken care of in order to perform their function.
Smith enumerates several types of dogs. She pays a lot of attention to hunting dogs, but she also writes that “there were…present in the medieval period the common-or-garden dogs which have gone almost unrecorded in the literature of the time. However, some are listed in The Boke of St. Albans: butcher’s hound, midden dog, trundle-tail, prick-eared cur and ‘smale ladies popis that beere away the flees’”3. This literary evidence is supported to an extent by the archeological record, and there was even found a clear contender for the lap-dog, such as Isolde may have gotten as a present from Tristan. The lap-dog was so identified not only because of is size, but also because he seemed to be better taken care of. Once so identified, we can only stipulate who may have owned such a dog. The lowest classes can probably be ruled out, but the middle not so easily. So, another question that arises is whether non-aristocratic families that could afford pets kept them and spoiled them? This question can only really be answered with reference to restrictions on animal uses and ownership. The nobility liked to maintain a difference between themselves and the others, and so some ways of interacting with animals were restricted to the nobility, while others the nobility was indirectly barred from.
One of the reasons why Smith focuses extensively on the hunting dog is that more sources survive about these dogs than others, which is also because hunting dogs are a thing of the nobility. Indeed, they were so much of the nobility, that their ownership was even restricted. Here, then, is a clear example of human-animal interaction being divided along status. Hunting dogs, incidentally, also found themselves as the objects of good treatment. So did horses. It would be difficult for me to imagine a peasant glorifying his horse as a noble animal. But the knights of the upper class certainly did so. As Lisa Kiser makes clear in her chapter on entertainment and sports,4 knights were very attached to their horses, and there were rules in place to prevent injury to them in tournaments.
Another sphere in which class was a clear divisor of human-animal interaction is food. For instance, meat was a very rare food for the lower classes, but was a staple of the nobility. At feasts, also, food could serve to reinforce social hierarchies. “At the wedding banquet of the Earl of Devon, 1431, only the high table was served with crane, swan and peacock”5 and the presentation of the dishes was often such that it very obviously declared what the nobility was eating. Seetah also asserts that meat eating, for the middle classes and wealthy merchants, may have been a conceptual means of attaining greater social status.
During the late Middle Ages, different classes of society were already constrained in their behavior by what was considered “acceptable,” since class distinction was an integral part of society. So: a peasant did not go bear-baiting; a noble did not go cat-torturing with the peasants. These different patterns of behavior do not suggest that the nobles and the peasants did not view animals the same way. However, what does seem clear to me is that human interaction with animals was dictated by social convention, just the same as any other behavior. In this sense, class can become key to understanding human-animal interaction in the Middle Ages.


1 Steve Farrar, “Ye Olde Patch, Tweety Pie and Fru Fru,” Times Higher Education 30 September 2005 (http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=198775&sectioncode=26)
2 Catherine Smith, “Dogs, cats and horses in the Scottish medieval town,” Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 128 (1998): 869.
4 Lisa Kiser, “Animals in Medieval Sports, Entertainments and Menageries,” in A Cultural History of Animals, ed. Resl, chapter 4.
5 Krish Seetah, “The Middle Ages on the Block: Animals, Guilds and Meat in the Medieval Period,” in Breaking and Shaping Beastly Bodies: Animals as Material Culture in the Middle Ages, ed. Aleksander Pluskowski (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2007), pp. 24.


  1. You definitely summed up what I got from the readings quite effectively. I wasn't in class for Friday's discussion to hear your first shot at this but I do agree that class distinction significantly impacted the way people interacted with animals. However, like you said, this doesn't mean that commoners who couldn't afford to keep pets didn't become emotionally attached to their (work) animals. The animals' value to them was first and foremost economic.

    Speaking of emotional attachment, do you guys think animals can "love"? I was reading the chapter in Resl about royalties keeping lions in their manageries to display their status and dominion when I came across this video of Christian the Lion again. Take a look if you haven't seen it already. I wonder what the reactions of medieval kings would be to this little love story.


  2. I too wasn't in class, but I think you're spot-on with the idea that the class of an animal owner may dictate not only what animals they have, but also how they "categorize" and treat said animals in public. I do think, however, it might help if we modify your statement to say that class dictates public action towards animals, rather than all interactions.

    Although "pet" may be a category reserved for rich people, I have no doubt average owners (and their children) would have had emotional attachments to their animals. For a modern example, E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web" comes to mind as an instance in which a "work" animal became a "pet" animal for a child who was too young to be restrained by social conventions.

    Many owners probably felt similar affection for their work animals (or wanted to act like high society as much as possible), but didn't express it in public because they felt it wasn't appropriate.

  3. I already mentioned this in class, but what occurred to me reading your post is how easily we forget that there were others taking care of the animals pampered by the nobility: warreners and fish managers, falconers and huntsmen, grooms and stable boys, and on, and on. Just as Queen Elizabeth now may hand-feed her corgis, so she is not the only one who takes them for walks, grooms and cares for them. The question then becomes, how attached did their caregivers and trainers become to these animals? Myself, I am not convinced that all those who use animals are necessarily less likely than those who keep them as pets to form close attachments to them. That said, I well remember being shocked at seeing the guard dogs in Crete spending their days tied up outside in the heat and not (apparently) cared for or coddled at all. Perhaps, as we touched on in our discussion, there is more to the problem than just social class, but it is difficult not to be tempted to see pets as Veblen described them, as simply examples of conspicuous consumption on the part of the rich.