Thursday, April 16, 2015

Rational Animals

On Tuesday we examined animal husbandry in medieval England through a very economic lens. The care and exploitation of animals is today an obviously economic activity, as it certainly was in medieval times as well. Yet the economy of medieval England and practices of livelihood also differ markedly from modern capitalism and agriculture. In this post I want to consider the relevance of applying rational choice economic theory to pastoralism in medieval England, which was, at the very least, less market-oriented than contemporary animal husbandry. Did the village livestock owners and/or landlords of manorial estates share our notions of utility, profit-maximization, etc.?
            Most of the information we have for animal husbandry in medieval England is for manorial estates, in the form of ledgers, tax records, husbandry manuals, and from the archaeological record. Information on the human-animal relations of the peasantry is scarcer, but can be gleaned from their interactions with the manorial record as well as taxation and archaeological records.
            Contrary to environmental explanations for the low wool weights and high mortality rates for sheep after the Black Death, Stone argues that the records are, in fact, evidence of rational economic choices made by estate officials in response to a poor market. While Stone does not venture an explanation as to why the market for one of England’s major industrial products was so depressed at the time, it was suggested in class that it likely had something to do with the fact that England was at war with France for much of this period, a situation hardly cooperative for exports. Indeed, Sir Walter of Henley’s manual seems to leave little room for doubt that husbandry practices on manorial estates were guided foremost by a drive for profit. Whether couched in the language of God’s gift or not, Sir Walter’s focus is on those practices of employment, farming, and the care and use of animals that will maximize productivity.
            Biddick’s analysis of the complex husbandry networks of Peterborough Abbey depict a monastic community that selectively participated in—and subjected itself to the forces of—the markets for animals and their products. The monks of Peterborough Abbey maintained their herds at levels their own subsistence needs and the market dictated. While the Abbey kept much of their cattle herd insulated from the market, the size of their sheep flocks—which were raised primarily for the selling of their wool—was determined by the market and the financial needs of the Abbey (p.115). As the pigs were raised for consumption within the Abbey, their numbers were determined by the (large) appetites of the monastic community (p.124-125). I think it is worth noting, as Biddick points out, that the Abbey’s husbandry was not guided by a logic of maximization (p.98). The Abbey’s animals were a major source and form of wealth—an “endowment,” as Biddick refers to it—that provided much of the food and other animal products needed within the Abbey’s large network of manors, but, as was done with their oxen, could be turned into cash when needed (ibid.). I wonder how much the Christian view of land and animals as “[t]he wealth that God lends you” (Walter p.5) motivated, or at least supported, the exploitation of those resources.
            I want to pause for a moment on this notion of animals as wealth. Our readings and discussion for Tuesday, with their strong economic bent, did not really question the view of animals in medieval husbandry as any more than edible, self-reproducing machines with a market-determined value. There seems to be a consensus among the authors we read that medieval Englanders were rational economic actors, but I wonder how much either arguing for this premise or taking it as an assumption obscures human-animal relations. We are still a few centuries before Descartes, but the economic analyses would lead one to believe that livestock were thought of as little more than automatons, live-stock, in medieval England. Moreover, the reduction of animals to economics means a complete reduction to human terms. Not only were the size of animal populations determined by human population and demand, but on this analysis the very existence of these animals is a function of their productive value.
Stone’s argument against environmental determinism reflects the fact that even the status of humans as historical actors can be muted. On the one hand, Stone appears to restore their voice. But on the other hand, I find economic analyses unsatisfying because I have a difficult time empathizing with the images of scheming penny-pinchers that they paint in my head, but maybe that’s my own problem. Really, while Stone opposes the portrayal of demesne officials as “adrift on an ecological sea” (p.3), doesn’t he just set them down on a different ocean, with its own waves?
            Perhaps it’s obvious at this point that I have a poor understanding of economics. I do know, though, that even when people are acting out of self-interest it is often not in the simple interest of their wealth. Whether we find Langdon’s argument that horses were not in fact as expensive relative to oxen as Walter of Henley made them out to be convincing or not, I suspect that the comparison of owning a horse or an ox could be illuminated by considerations that go beyond the expenses and productive capacities of each. It’s well accepted that people without much to spend tend not to spend as frugally as their ideally rational counterparts. As budgets shrink, luxury goods and sporting events stick around as expenses for longer than they ‘ought’ to. Perhaps the economic explanation is sufficient to account for the fact that peasants had so many horses, but it certainly does not tell the whole story. What did it mean for a peasant to own a horse, or an ox—to himself, to the community? Was owning a horse—or any animal for that matter—like having a car? Was animal ownership a matter of social capital? Did it tie into the owner’s sense of self-worth? Also, we should not lose sight of the possibility that a relationship with animals could be good in of itself.
            Lastly, while many of the readings discussed how domestic animal populations fluctuated in accordance with the rhythms of the market, I would like to point out that humans, when committing to a pastoral relationship with animals, have to adapt themselves to the seasonal and daily rhythms of the animals they care for as well.



  1. I agree: I tend to find wholly "economic" (in the sense of "rational actor") arguments relatively unsatisfying, for many of the reasons you suggest. It may be rational (in the sense of "make sense") for someone to have a horse even when it is not economically ideal because having a horse means having something other than just a way to pull your cart or plough. I suppose the question becomes, how do we recognize the calculations that medieval estate managers clearly made about the productivity of their flocks and herds with what authors like Walter of Henley occasionally say about the need for caring for the animals' emotional well-being? The stereotypical Descartian understanding of animals as machines simply did not apply in the Middle Ages, and it is curious that it ever took hold in modernity to the extent that it did, especially given what we have read, e.g. in Albert the Great, about how medieval Europeans thought about the abilities of animals to learn and to feel. RLFB

  2. That should be "reconcile," not "recognize." RLFB