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.
“As inner life becomes a uniquely human attribute, a whole set of literary forms dealing with animal characters—beast-fable, beast-epic, chivalric romance—disappears from the literary mainstream, replaced by new genres built to display human subjectivity: the novel preeminently, but also lyric poetry and the comedy of manners.”
The treatment of beasts in Renaissance literature tells us something about their evolving place in European culture more generally. It also tells us how early modern society understood the difference between human beings and other beings.
By Shakespeare’s day, writers are well used to giving reason and speech and consciousness—what we call character—to nonhuman animals. Sentient beasts appear in travelogues, bestiaries, tales of the supernatural, allegorical poetry, and more. Moral histories castigate human beings for sinking to the level of beasts, and natural histories credit nonhuman beings with self-awareness, reason, and even speech.
But from the mid-1500s on, these ways of depicting nonhuman life grow more and more subject to ridicule. Cervantes and Shakespeare associate sentient animals with worn-out styles of writing and thinking. Rabelais uses them to lampoon the pope. And by the mid-1600s, Descartes defines human consciousness in a way that denies anything similar to other animals.
In essence, this new understanding of the human/animal divide requires writers to depict human beings in a new way, as the privileged vessels of self-awareness. As a result, the Cartesian definition of the human leads to a new emphasis on inwardness and personality in the depiction of literary character.
As inner life becomes a uniquely human attribute, a whole set of literary forms dealing with animal characters—beast-fable, beast-epic, chivalric romance—disappears from the literary mainstream, replaced by new genres built to display human subjectivity: the novel preeminently, but also lyric poetry and the comedy of manners.
You could even put it this way: the construction of character became central to literature because it had also become central to the philosophy of species difference.
One bit of Animal Characters should interest anyone who has ever wondered about the history of cats and their relationship with human beings. In it I unearth a centuries-long tradition of cat-torture, both on the European continent and in Britain, which evolved out of pagan worship to become part of Catholic calendar festivals and then, still later, of Protestant festivals as well.
The tale of this evolution is both fascinating and grisly, with cats publicly tortured on festival days in ways obscenely reminiscent of Christ’s passion. I trace the story of these animals’ maltreatment through literary works such as William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat (sometimes called the first English novel), the Cambridge University comedy Gammer Gurton’s Needle (the earliest surviving English play to bring a cat onstage), and works by Shakespeare, Cervantes, and others.
The cats I look at are tormented in endless ways, with whips and cudgels and firebrands and more, in fiction and drama and historical records over a span of many centuries. And always, so it seems, the violence occurs in a spiritual context. In pagan religious practice, cats are tortured to effect magic. In Catholicism the cat-torture is assimilated to church calendar festivals such as the feast of Saint John the Baptist. And when England goes Protestant, the cat-torture continues—now as an anti-Catholic insult.
As this story unfolds, the persecuted cats of early modern Europe come to seem more and more like doubles of the suffering Christ himself: the ritually tormented scapegoat on whose sacrifice the system of ritual itself depends.
“The persecuted cats of early modern Europe come to seem more and more like doubles of the suffering Christ himself: the ritually tormented scapegoat on whose sacrifice the system of ritual itself depends.”
Our treatment of nonhuman beings has grown into one of the more worrisome aspects of modern social practice, posing problems on the economic, ecological, dietary, and ethical levels. Destruction of habitat, species persecution, factory farming, zoo-keeping, animal experimentation, animal entertainment: these and related practices have grown markedly—some would say alarmingly—over the past five hundred years.
As a piece of literary and social history, Animal Characters supplies some of the back-story to these issues. One chapter traces the history of the turkey from its domestication by the Aztecs to its appearance on the tables of European diners. Another follows the transformation of the horse from a sentient instrument of warfare into an accouterment of elite sporting activities. Another describes the parrot’s evolution from menagerie marvel to annoying house-pet.
More generally, Animal Characters draws inspiration from the idea that our humanity is nowhere put more clearly on display, for better and for worse, than in our encounters with nonhuman life. To this extent, the book contributes to a broad and ongoing conversation about how we relate to the natural world and its other living creatures.
Bruce Boehrer is Bertram H. Davis Professor of English and 2009-11 Frances Cushing Ervin Professor of English at Florida State University. Besides Animal Characters, featured in his Rorotoko interview, he is also the author of four other books, including Shakespeare among the Animals (Palgrave, 2002) and Parrot Culture (Penn, 2004), and editor of A Cultural History of Animals in the Renaissance (Berg, 2007). From 1999 to 2008 he served as founding Editor and later Co-Editor of the Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies. He lives in Florida with his wife, the environmental artist Linda Hall.