Monday, April 20, 2015

Outside space

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.”[1] Even archaeological evidence shows that animals were, predominately, “means to an economic end.”[2] 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.”[3] 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.”[4] 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.”[5] 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.


[1] Kiser.
[2] Smith.
[3] Kiser.
[4] Walker-Meikle.
[5] Kiser.


  1. In reading this post I wanted to add the point Walter-Meikle makes of small dogs. Their owners were typically women, and these small dogs were frivolous at best. Walter-Meikle observes that these small dogs, in contrast with the hunting hounds, were confined in gardens or interior chambers in the same ways their female owners were restricted. A few impressions can be made from this example: first, as you have written, the small dogs have been separated, literally, from other household animals based on their functionality. In this case, though, it seems that the small dog lacks a function beyond female companionship, and the same observation is made of their female owners who are similarly confined and function-less in relation to their masculine counterparts. As you suggest, the small dog, as it became more companionable and pet-like, reflected the identity of the woman who owned it. However, does this make the dog a member of the woman’s community, or does it remain an object onto which the woman (or historian) projects her status? I agree with you that a separation and distance persists between animals and humans, yet it blurs when the animals are used to display identity or meaning. The difference between country and town animals may be their symbolic functioning. From what we have discussed so far, country animals served an economic purpose, but town animals were entertaining, companionable, and conspicuous. Perhaps he function of town animals was to communicate meaning about their owner, which lessened the social distance between human and animal.

    K. Beach

  2. Lots of good questions here! The question of boundaries is particularly important: what boundaries human beings place between themselves and animals, what boundaries (social, domestic) they allow animals to cross. We talked in class about how the pets participate in their owners' status and about how rulers used collections of animals to enhance their prestige, but we did not in the end come to any satisfying way to understand the differences between the way in which some animals were cherished and others abused. I am not sure that being killed by accident (as with the dog mistaken for a lover) is the same thing as being killed for sport (as with the chickens). Perhaps the category error is ours, for thinking of all the creatures other than humans as "animals," rather than, as medieval philosophers did, including humans among animals ("animated souls") along a continuum. RLFB

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  4. Reading this post probably just got me a little bit too excited- it touches on my thesis work quite a bit, you see.
    I'm particularly interested in your discussion of identification between animals and humans, animals as moral exemplars and social commentary, and animals being incorporated into the moral community- especially since you seem to link all of these together, with which I agree. There are some pretty interesting books on this coming out in animal studies- right now I'm especially thinking of Erica Fudge's Perceiving Animals, which covers, I think, all of these topics in different chapters- though focusing on the early modern period (again, early modernist, apologies)- which you might be interested in checking out. She is largely concerned with how the category of the human was "under threat" in this time period, showing how different displays, discussions, etc. served either to blur distinctions or enforce them. This also brings up some really interesting texts on wild-men, werewolves, etc., wherein the human is no longer necessarily or completely so, making people, as I believe we discussed in part at the beginning of this class, really have to work to decide what exactly it is that defines a human being apart from everything else. Mind? Soul? Body? All?

    Two other notes on this: first, I thought it was incredibly interesting that a saint is essentially being compared to/identified with a cat, simply because cats are just such disreputable and generally symbolic (in mostly negative ways) creatures. The appearance of cats in this sort of painting is therefore a bit startling to me- however, I suppose I have been thinking in symbols for too long, and perhaps there are instances when a cat is allowed to just be a cat (or, in this case, a motherly figure like St. Elizabeth). Second, I wanted to point out the relevance to medieval animal trials when you talk about animals being incorporated into the moral community. Obviously, we haven't gotten to that section of the course yet, but I know a bit about it- and I think this post and topic will be very interesting to think with along with the knowledge that animals were put on trial for murder, bestiality, witchcraft- the first cat was burned alongside his witch in, I believe, the 16th century, so this is sort of a lasting thing, also (although witchcraft is its own can of worms, of course).

  5. I apologize for arriving so late to this conversation; I've been meaning to add some of my thoughts for a while but obviously haven't gotten around to it.
    I'm rather interested in your claim that "Animals attained...attributes of the people to whom they belonged...Representations and repercussions are grafted onto the animals." You're correct in asserting that certain animals gained the social status of the humans who possessed them, and therefore became symbols of the characteristics of certain humans or groups of humans. But I wonder if the act of grafting representations and attributes was less of a one-way street than you seem to imply. I keep thinking of Kiser's descriptions of Florentine leopards and lions used "to symbolize the city's dominance over its neighbors" and the so-called "civic lion" of Amsterdam. (105-106) By keeping such creatures in city menageries, were the leaders of places like Florence and Amsterdam trying to apply the attributes of lions or leopards to their own diplomacy and leadership? True, these animals are different from, say, the lapdogs of noblewomen, who needed to be possessed first before becoming symbols of upper-class women; the fierce nature of a lion was recognized before it ever became part of a civic menagerie. But when a lion came to Amsterdam or Florence, it brought with it that symbolic fierceness that proclaimed the city as a source of fear and power. Representations, then, weren't just grafted by humans onto animals; it could sometimes go from animals to humans as well.
    Unrelated to this, I too, like Katie, am interested in how the confinement of small dogs represents the confinement of women, and what possessing a small dog projects about her social status and gender role. But she said most everything I wanted to say regarding this issue; just wanted to add my voice to that part of the discussion.