Monday, November 22, 2010

Making a Mockery out of Ourselves with Animal Symbolism

               The class discussion on using animals to say awful or wonderful things was definitely helpful in thinking about my post. Yes, there is discomfort when discussing the unfortunate use of animal imagery in the history of persecution against Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The discussion in class ended with a concern for placing an article, manuscript, and any account of animal symbolism (positive or negative) within its greater context. The way in which Sara Lipton uses one animal, the cat, and investigates one manuscript, the Bible moralisee, we decided was the best example of context needed to understand what the symbolism of the cat means (including all the relevant and irrelevant interpretations).[i]  Lipton works from the specific outwards showing a larger development of the cat through the manuscript and how the cat can be symbolic for a few things even within one text as well as the things in which it is not. 

               During class I found myself thinking, “it would be great to go back in time and watch a bar fight about to happen. There might be a guy who trips and knocks into some other guy’s girlfriend, she drops her drink and before you know it someone just called someone else a sloppy baby eating pig! The boyfriend calls the drunk an ass (the donkey type) or an ox and then the entire crowd goes silent…that was low!” Okay so maybe barn animals are not that insulting now, we might just laugh it off but those kinds of insults made sense in their context! How can a barn animal insult be more clear to a modern reader? What do we have that compares today? I had a thought, political cartoons. Two political parties who are constantly making fun of and trying to degrade the other through the use animal references. Here’s the thing, as Cuffel illustrates, often the side given the animal adopts it and twists it into a positive and throws back more animal references the other way. For example, Ibn Sahula and the Arabic fable of the lion who ravishes his kingdom and then the ox and ass who become the heroes.[ii] The lion (Christianity) was supposed to be the great leader and the barn animals (Muslims) as subservient beasts. Both sides are identifying with animals yet calling each other animals in a way meant to degrade the other. Here are a few examples of modern day equivalents

Look at the following quote:
“All these uses of animals, to mark the other as irrational, unclean, violent, feminine, or masculine but in an undesirable way, point to a profound anxiety on the part of each of the communities regarding clear boundary definitions; confusion about the boundaries between human and animal, male and female, or good and bad masculinity all serve as metaphors to express concerns about the violation of religious borders.”[iii]

Now change “religious” to political or even physical, change “religious borders” to views on marriage or how about concerns about the economy. The degradation of animals as well as people through the use of political cartoons mirrors the insults that flew around Medieval towns a century ago…with the obvious differences (including: less barn animals, indoor plumbing, and the invention of the iPad). There are some things that we cannot just “Google.”[iv] The context of the animal symbolism needs to be examined. Calling someone a cat clearly did not mean they were “fulfilld of furrinesse.”[v] Understanding the evolution of animal symbolism brings us through a discussion of the hierarchy of the universe from God to plants, animals as tools for learning spirituality, animal husbandry, the medieval economy and hunting practices, and all the other class/blog discussions we have had thus far. As with the animal trials there is more to be studied, I guess we call that job security for historians. 

I’d also like to ask my colleagues to come up with a list of animals that are only found in positive symbolic ways. Then we can use those safely when referring to each other without the fear of being confused for a fearless noble lion or a blood thirsty leader lion. I had bee as a “hard worker” but then someone said that could be possible a “mindless drone” so I had to take it off my list. I also thought of complimenting someone on their quick reflexes like an “eagle” but then who wants to be compared to a bird. Maybe the point is (unless you prove me wrong) that like people, animals can have positive and negative traits too. Maybe comparing people to animals is problematic far beyond the confusion it can cause.

all political cartoons were found at:

[i] Lipton, Sara. “Jews, heretics, and the sign of the cat in the Bible moralisee,” Word and Image 8.4 (1992)
[ii] Cuffel, Alexandra. Gendering Disgust in Medieval Religious Polemic. Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. p 205
[iii] Cuffel, p 200
[iv] Google,
[v] Newman, Barbara. “The Cattes Tale: A Chaucer Apocryphon,” The Chaucer Review. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University: 1992. p 411

-R. Pal 


  1. I would question if there are ANY animals that can only be used positively, even if we limit ourselves to one time period. After all, almost any trait is a double-edged sword. We might take someone being 'clever' and a compliment but 'cunning' or 'tricky' are not. To compound it, animals often have multiple traits attached to them. The donkey (ass) is often stubborn, but is also often loyal. So one might be a 'stubborn ass' or a 'lovably loyal ass', depending on your feelings on that person.

    There's also the issue of tone, which I think was widely missing from our discussion (probably because we were so focused on insulting other groups or religions instead of people). One might angrily call a boyfriend an ass, but the insulter might laughingly say "don't be such an ass" when a friend says something mean about the boyfriend to cheer us up. I'm sure medieval people also sometimes used animal insults in a joking or affectionate manner to acknowledge some aspect or action of a person without meaning to hurt or demean the person.

  2. I myself was frustrated by our conversation about insults because I felt like we had barely scratched the surface of the question, but I wasn't quite sure how to get beyond the contextual. I am glad that you brought up political cartoons: can they help us understand better the medieval use of animals to insult one's opponents or enemies? Other than the prominence of domesticated animals in the medieval stories, I suspect the most important difference in the valence of the insults depends, as we did talk about in class, on how we think about the relationship between human beings and animals, whether along a hierarchy from angels to insects or as the products of evolution. That said, I think you are right that we still use animal imagery to point to sites of great anxiety (views on marriage, concerns about the economy). The question is whether we have diagnosed the power of animal imagery to insult correctly. In the political cartoons you cite, the animals are clearly intended to be symbolic. They are allegorical stand-ins, not so much personifications as heraldic abstractions. In her analysis, Cuffel seemed to be suggesting that the animals in the medieval stories were doing something else: not just making visible an idea, but actually intended to apply to particular types of human being. To my mind, it is hard from our perspective to sense how viscerally insulting medieval readers would have found these stories when most of us do not take being compared to an animal as such as particularly upsetting. So was Cuffel exaggerating or are we just not getting the force of the imagery? I'm still not sure.