Perceptions versus reality: changing attitudes towards pets in medieval and post-medieval England
Just Skin and Bones? New Perspectives on Human-Animal Relations in the Historic Past, Oxford, (2005)
In 1994 a survey of pet ownership within the European Union revealed that there were a startling 36 million pet dogs, 35 million pet cats and 173 other pet species (chiefly birds, rabbits, rodents, reptiles and fish) (Serpell 1996: 13). A more recent survey has demonstrated that, in the United Kingdom alone, there is an estimated 7.5 million dog owners and only slightly fewer cat owners (anon, 2001a). Numerous charities and organisations exist to protect the rights of these animals and we pride ourselves on being an ‘animal-loving’ nation. Indeed, pet- keeping is, as Mann (1975: 1) notes, “a major leisure activity bringing pleasure, companionship and often a sense of security to a very large number of people”. Yet, while our perception is that we live in a society that treats animals with respect and dignity, the reality appears to be somewhat different. For example, a recent study has concluded that “cruelty to animals is deep-rooted in UK society”, with reported incidents including shooting and kicking cats, and tying fireworks to their tails (anon, 2001b).
In this paper the perceptions and realities of keeping animals as pets in medieval and post-medieval period England will be explored using a combination of contemporary literary and artistic evidence in conjunction with zooarchaeological data.
As Noske (1989: 45) notes, medieval attitudes regarding humanity, and nature in general, were strongly influenced by the Church. Only man (not animals) was created in God’s own image and he was given dominion over all other living creatures (Genesis 1:26, 28). The medieval Church sought to maintain this division, particularly in trying to disassociate itself with the Classical pagan viewpoint, in which animals and humans were often interchangeable. Consequently, representations of the devil in this period often appear as a mixture of human and animal (Noske, 1989: 46; Russell, 1984: 209) and, “the practice of keeping animals for companionship was officially frowned upon” (Serpell and Paul, 1994: 133). Later prejudice towards keeping pets also reflected a reaction against bestiality and the witch-hunts of the sixteenth century, where the possession of an “animal familiar was sufficient to arouse suspicions of witchcraft” (Serpell and Paul, 1994: 133).