We have spoken about how animals were not only functional—how they served as companions, as creatures with feelings, as things that not only shape their environment, but are themselves shaped by it. To contemporaries in the Middle Ages, animals were good for “food, service, humility and mirth.” Even archaeological evidence shows that animals were, predominately, “means to an economic end.” Previously, we have seen discussions of these first two categories and in these readings, we see the ladder two. There must be more to the picture than this, however. As we focus on animals in towns, and specifically on pets, we strengthen our imaginations of animals as not purely functional. Smith, Walker-Meikle and Kisler help us in this endeavor with species-specific descriptions.
What stood out to me, however, about these readings was how animals became an extension of the person themselves. Animals attained class connotations and attributes of the people to whom they belonged. This puts the animals in a perplexing position—possessions, yes, but meaningful and valuable enough in and of themselves that they would need to be regulated. If animals were not viewed as valuable, little supervision or regulation would be necessarily. This left animals in a place apart—not necessarily part of the community humans belonged to, but just on the outskirts.
I’ll start with the transferring of class connotations. Our reading describes the mutilation of the legs of dogs belonging to members of the lower classes in England and Scotland so that these lower class dogs, even if they were to participate in the hunt, would not be able to run as fast as the dogs belonging to those of the upper class, and would not be able to catch the hunted animals. Menageries, too, served to distance upper class from lower class—they were a symbol. The animals themselves reflected their owners’ wealth and status. Finally, the different types of games used with animals were distinct along class lines. Kiser says, “specific cultural practices of play were deeply tied to the medieval class-based social organization.” Class status is grafted onto animals. While jousts were a favorite of the aristocracy, bull fighting, originally, was looked down upon.
Next, animals became symbolic of the person themselves and of people in general. There was comfort with pets, which can be seen in their ubiquitous nature in depictions from the dining hall the university. Pets were allowed close proximity—they were companions. Occasionally, this closeness bridges into merging. Often, in religious iconography, pets were substituted for people. In a depiction of the birth of John the Baptist, “a mother cat [leans] protectively over its kitten [and] imitates the pose of St Elizabeth in bed with the infant.” This demonstrates that the pets, the animals were meant to mimic the pose of this sacred occurrence. There were a mirror, a small example of what was occurring on a broader scale in the scene as a whole.
This was not all positive, however. Pets, and animals in general, also suffered on behalf of those to whom they belong. Walker-Meikle describes pets, sleeping in their masters’ beds, killed due to a case of mistaken identity. A knight stabs his wife when he sees a shape under the covers next to her. This shape turns out to be her dog. When a joust is lost, the loser must forfeit his horse and armor to the winner.
It seems, then, that animals could take on the characteristics of people. They could be used as allegories, as a mirror on human society. There was always a buffer, however, a wall of functionality that separated animals from humans. But how permeable was this separation? Based on the examples furnished by our three authors, it seems that the answer is fairly.
Finally, the question of morality. Animals’ place just outside of the human community included their place outside of the moral community. Animals were abused as I have outlined previously, but also in games that pitted animals against one another. This inter-animal aggression was most often incited by the humans—they were the ones creating the spectacle, inspiring the animals to flare their nostrils, to charge. After a particularly difficult to read passage on small-time, fowl-based games, Kiser remarks, “We can conclude that, in the medieval period, common wild animals found around the rural habitations did not form part of the moral community of humans living near them, a fact that perhaps we too readily think distinguishes medieval and early modern culture from our own.” This reinforces the earlier statement that animals occupied a place apart, despite their interconnectedness into society.
Additionally, this sentiment inspires in me several questions. Do animals in towns form part of some moral community? It seems, based on what we have read, that the moral community may be slightly expanded in the towns, but the class-based trapping of medieval society are thrown into stark contrast in the city. This is readily visible in how animals were treated in those spaces. What does this inclusion into a moral community imply for how animals are depicted as imitating humans, in secular and religious contexts? As animals increasingly grow more attached to humans, as they become pets and companions, they seem to be identified with more and more. Still, there is a distance. What does this distance made of? Is it simply the functionality that separates?
It seems that I have returned to where I began. Animals serve an economic purpose, absolutely. They are growing closer to humans, however. They are becoming likened to them. Representations and repercussions are grafted onto the animals. Is this a consequence of the closer quarters? How are physical and moral proximity intertwined? Does all of this simply go to show how intertwined notions of class are in society that these notions affect all members of society, even animals? It seems as though, even so close, there is a separation between humans and animals.