Introducing Wild Things: Animals in early modern life and culture

title page
Edward Topsell. The historie of foure-footed beastes. 1607. Title page. Folger STC 24123 Copy 2

How many animals have you encountered today, and in what forms? From pets and urban species such as squirrels and sparrows, to meat products and leather, the number may surprise you. Even for those of us who live in human-built spaces, like cities and suburbs, animals and animal bodies are still everyday aspects of human life. But they would have been even more so for early modern people, who worked and lived with animals in far more visible ways than most people living today do. This is especially true of laboring animals and animals raised for consumption.

While many of us have close relationships with cats and dogs, we have much less contact, if any, with animals used for labor or food. Cars and tractors have replaced the horses once used for transportation and hauling, and most of us first encounter meat and dairy products on sterile grocery store shelves, far away from the animals and environments that produced them. For most early modern people, sheep, cows, pigs, chickens, and laboring horses were daily facts of both urban and rural life. 

David Loggan’s etchings of Oxford and Cambridge (published in 1675 and 1690, respectively) convey how commonplace animals were in early modern life. In his drawings, which contain both detailed architectural renderings and a sense of everyday life, oxen stand outside the Oriel College gate, horses stride up and down college streets, and sheep graze just outside of town. Dogs even fight inside King’s College Chapel, under the watchful eyes of dozens of carved greyhounds (the emblem of the family of Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort).

Oxen outside Oriel College, Oxford
Oxen outside Oriel College, Oxford. Oxonia Illustrata. Folger L2838 Bd.w. L2837
Dogs inside King’s College Chapel, Cambridge
Dogs inside King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. Cantabrigia Illustrata. Folger L2837

Besides these everyday animals, early modern Europeans were also fascinated with exotic beasts, both real and fantastic. Illustrated natural histories such as Edward Topsell’s Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (first published in 1607), were wildly popular, as were Aesop’s fables. Emblematic animals representing saints, royal houses, and personality traits were everywhere in art and literature. And of course, as scholar Laurie Shannon points out,

If we tried to number all the species Shakespeare mentions—the winter lion, Hyrcanian tiger, and baited bear; the little shrew and the necessary cat; bottled spiders and horned toads; brave harts and gentle hinds; the forward horse and preposterous ass; the temple-haunting martlet, morning lark, nightly owl, and winging crow; the nibbling sheep and hunger-starved wolves; the chafed boar, princely palfrey, fat oxen, and spotted leopards; stranger curs, mastiffs, hellhounds—we would be, as the saying goes, herding cats.

Then, as now, people had conflicting relationships with animals. To paraphrase the title of a book by Jonathan Franzen, early modern people loved some animals, hated some animals, and ate some animals, just as we do. “Wild Things” is a new series that will explore these relationships as they appear in Shakespeare and early modern life. Because this is such a huge topic, I thought we’d begin with pests, a category of animals that could take up a lot of an early modern person’s time and attention. We’ll start next month with what are possibly the most hated pests of all: rats.

The City Mouse and the Country Mouse
Aesop’s fables with his life: in English, French and Latin. 1687. Folger A703

In the meantime, let us know: what kinds of animals are you interested in knowing more about?


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