Bruce Thomas Boehrer


On his book Animal Characters: Nonhuman Beings in Early Modern Literature

Cover Interview of June 27, 2010

In a nutshell

Animal Characters studies the place of nonhuman animals in Renaissance writing.

Between 1400 and 1700, written and visual records tell us, Europeans began to experience the animal world in new ways.  Animal Characters uses these records to describe the changing fortunes of five breeds of animal—horses, parrots, cats, turkeys, and sheep—as they lived, died, and were written about in the early modern period.

My book follows the fate of these beasts through the work of the age’s greatest authors—Shakespeare, Milton, Cervantes, Ariosto, Rabelais, and more—as well as through husbandry manuals and exploration narratives, paintings and cookbooks, public processions and private menageries.  In the process, it recounts how these breeds of animal changed, both literally and figuratively, at the dawn of the modern age.

When it comes to social roles and associations, the animals I’ve chosen to study appear against different historical backgrounds and for different reasons.  Exotic and expensive, parrots serve as high-prestige commodities in the early modern period’s growing luxury trade, and as such they were either kept in private zoological collections or as rare companion animals.  Cats, on the other hand, figure in common households, where they serve as vermin-catchers before they gain acceptance as pets.  The turkey starts out as an exotic and expensive food animal that is gradually domesticated across Europe over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  The sheep, valued both for its wool and its flesh, gains additional symbolic status through its association with Christian sacrifice.  The horse, prized for various reasons and bred with various purposes in mind, gradually loses its supreme importance as an instrument of warfare.

But whether the beasts in question are associated with privilege or poverty, and whether they are used for food or clothing or companionship or haulage, they all develop over the course of the Renaissance, changing their meaning, their uses, and more generally their character in the process.