Looking at animals in human history

Looking at animals in human history

By Linda Kalof

London: Reaktion Books, 2007


1) Prehistory, before 5000 BC

New Relationships

2) Antiquity, 5000 BC–AD 500

Untamed Nature, Cities and War – Domestication – Hunting – Slaughter as Spectacle – Menageries and the Exotic

3) The Middle Ages, 500–1400

Changing Relationships – Animals, Morality and Sex – Animals and Devalued Humans – Domestication – Animals, Humans and the Plague – Hunting – Fear – Public Processions and Rituals – Animal Trials – Entertainment – Medieval Menageries


4) The Renaissance, 1400–1600

Death, Disease and Dead Animals – Hunting – Social Disorder and Animal Massacres – Animal-baiting – Cultural Analyses of Animal-baiting – Ceremony and Ritual – Horns, Masculinity and Honour – Looking Toward Animal Welfare

5) The Enlightenment, 1600–1800

Dead Animal Portraiture – Live Animal Portraiture – Animal Massacres as Ritual – Exhibition as Entertainment – Exotics and Pets – Dogs and Rabies – Exhibition as Education – Growing Opposition to Cruelty – Looking at Cruelty


6) Modernity, 1800–2000

Dogcarts, Rabies and Sex – Natural History and Hunting – Spectacles of Game Hunting – Zoo Spectacles – Theme Park Spectacles – Bullfighting as Ritual – Looking at the Postmodern Animal

Excerpt: Agricultural and technological innovations in the Middle Ages also brought about a substantial shift in attitudes toward nature. According to Lynn White, humans were part of nature when they were limited to scratch ploughs and square fields and working just enough land to sustain a family unit (subsistence farming). With the development of the heavy plough in northern Europe, medieval peasants pooled animals and ploughed together, creating a cooperative plough-team. Land was now distributed according to a peasant’s contribution to the team, and cooperative ploughing encouraged the distribution of land according to the ability to till the soil rather than the subsistence needs of a family. White argues that attitudes toward the natural world were also changed by the religious fervour of Christianity, which dismantled the assumption that nature was spiritual and encouraged humans to exploit the natural world.

By the late Middle Ages, the relationship between people and animals in Europe had changed radically. As more and more land came under cultivation, the wilderness receded, the size of a forest was no longer estimated according to the number of pigs it could support, the enclosure replaced the open land of the countryside and animals were kept close to the villages. Animals were also being heavily exploited for their skin, wool and flesh and under these exploitative conditions sheep became particularly important. The price of wool is believed to have driven the widespread conversion from plough land to meadow because one or two men could easily herd hundreds of sheep. Before being slaughtered for food, sheep could give years of high-quality wool, billions of pounds of which was exported, and by the mid-fourteenth century 5 per cent of the Crown’s income was derived from the export tax on wool.

While horsemeat provided a substantial part of the European’s diet throughout the Middle Ages, particularly in France, eating horses was unpopular with the English. Horses were too expensive to raise for food, the flesh of old worn-out horses was tough and suitable only for the peasant’s table (and the peasants resented food spurned by the wealthy), but most importantly, the horse was noble and considered too close to humans to eat. Further, the prohibition on eating horses applied to clerics and nobles, not peasants, a difference that was a reflection of the different attitudes toward the riding horse and the farm horse. Riding horseback brings humans into close body contact with the animal, an intimacy that is not experienced by the farmer and his working animal; the horse was often anthropomorphized and regarded as more ‘human’ than pigs or oxen, animals that were often slaughtered for food.


Medieval animals in general were often anthropomorphized and even endowed with spiritual characteristics. For example, in Bavaria it was common to hold a mass for horses, and the French celebrated the Feast of the Donkey by parading a donkey first through the Church and then through the town. Peasants attempted to cure sick horses with holy water, and as a contraceptive measure women exposed their genitals to the smoke of a burning hoof from the sterile mule.

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