Attitudes to Animals
by Dr Sara Warneke
attitudes to animals are very similar to attitudes to the landscape,
especially Christian-influenced attitudes. The Church taught
that God placed animals here on this earth for our use. Of course,
before the fall of man, animals had lived in perfect harmony
with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, but after the fall,
beasts learned to live in fear of man. Many animals became fierce,
others had to be coerced into working for man. New species of
animals appeared after the fall to make man's life uncomfortable
- reptiles, fleas, lice, etc. - all a product of the evil released
into the wasteland of the world by the fall of mankind.
could be summarised then, that medieval people thought of animals
either to be used, or to be feared.
Central to the Church's teaching was that beasts had been provided
by God for man's use. There were several species of beasts that
seemed to more easily remember their duty to man - the horse,
the ox, the donkey, the sheep and so forth. The Church also
taught that it was a specific sign from God that He wished these
animals to serve man by so varying the colours and patterns
of these animals, especially cattle and horses, so that each
man might the more easily be able to recognize his own livestock.
Beasts also proved that man was superior. If one weak man could
herd a herd of strong cows, then did that not prove that God
had made man the superior being? As with the tamed and untamed
landscape in medieval thought - the tamed landscape was good,
the untamed landscape was useless, sterile and therefore bad
and to be disliked at best, feared at worst - so the animal
kingdom can also be roughly divided into tamed and untamed,
and the division also roughly divided into good and bad - although
not quite so neatly as the landscape.
First, there were the animals that formed part of the tamed
landscape. The cow, the horse, the dog, the pig, the sheep,
the various poultry - but also some of the smaller animals that
were not necessarily 'tame' - e.g. bees, the hare and the rabbit.
These were all animals that worked for man and provided for
man in some way. They were not only useful - they were also
very much part of the tamed and ordered landscape - the landscape
of farm and village and field in which medieval man felt most
comfortable. They were also animals that formed a large part
of medieval man and woman's everyday activities - particularly
These were mostly beasts that also lived with people. They shared
their homes, their farmyards, their roads, and village greens.
Medieval people seemed to have a special closeness with these
animals - not only did they share their lives within the tamed
landscape, people also depended on them for the survival of
the family. If you have only one or two cows or pigs, then you
tend to have some affection for them (although more for cows
than pigs) - cows tended to be given names, often clothed with
precious blankets during the winter, and sometimes looked after
even before the children of the family.
The dog was an especially well-regarded (if not loved) member
of the working unit of farm and village. Dogs were man's helpmate,
they were regarded as somehow noble (especially hounds who were
bred especially for the hunt) and they seemed to have achieved
the status of pets long before cats ever did.
Bees were well regarded - after all, they were extremely useful
producing honey. People believed they had to be loving and pleasant
around bees, otherwise they would not produce honey - or if
you really annoyed them, they might sting you. They had to be
treated as members of the family - they even had to be told
the instant there was a death in the family - else they might
take offense and leave. Bees were very much of the ordered landscape
- and could even be compared to the order of human society:
they built their own homes, they had monarchs (for whom they
had much respect), they had armies, and they waged war (which
gives us a good idea of what was important in medieval society).
The bible itself praised bees and said that mankind could do
worse than observe the bee and model human society along the
order of the bees' society.
People expressed their closeness with the animals of the tamed
landscape - typically the farmyard animals and sundry animals
of the field - through their language; the use of expressions
some of which survive today. The language of the ordinary people
expressed their affinity with the farmyard animals - Children
were 'kids', 'cubs', or 'urchins'. A boy apprentice was a 'colt',
a woman expecting a baby was said to have 'got upon the nest.'
A man would address her affectionately as 'duck', or 'hen',
or 'rabbit', or even (if we revert to the tamed vegetable world
for a moment), as 'cabbage'. In our personal favourites, Queen
Elizabeth had a courtier who would sign his letters to her,
'your Majesty's sheep.'
There's a darker side to this name calling - the unpleasant
one. An old woman could be called a 'crone' (an old ewe who
has lost her teeth). That's not too bad ... but what about bitch,
sow, cow, or even dog? These terms of abuse were associated
with tamed animals rather than untamed animals (which you might
There were also black and untamed aspects of many of the farmyard
animals - cats, for example. Dogs may have been highly regarded,
but cats were somehow different. There were many of cats about
(especially in the towns), but they were much less well regarded
then dogs. Cats were kept to kill mice and rats, often not being
fed by the householder especially so that they would be forced
to go out and catch vermin. But cats also suffered, especially
during the witch-crazes of post 1480s, through associated with
the devil and with witches - like a woman who had two sides
(and like nature, good and bad, the tamed and the untamed) cats
were as often more associated with the dark side of nature,
the untamed landscape. Cats were burned as part of the Midsummer
fire festivals in France as late as the 1700s. It was probably
not until the late 1500s that cats often became pets, much later
Then there were the animals that were not well regarded at all
- and, very generally, these were often animals associated with
the untamed landscape, or animals which had no use to man (or
made his life a nuisance), or animals which directly competed
with man. Pests, such as all manner of grubs, rats, mice, lice,
fleas, etc. were put on earth as a result of man's fall
and therefore here to annoy man and make his life uncomfortable
- no one liked pests.
Animals directly in competition with man included foxes, wolves,
even bears and various birds - all these associated with the
untamed world. Wolves were a constant problem in medieval Europe
- wolves were even endemic in Britain until the 15 and 1600s.
They stole lambs, and they could even steal children occasionally.
They ate of dead men - particularly those hanging from road-side
gallows. They carried rabies. They refused to be tamed (and
some effort was made because it was believed that could be excellent
hunting hounds), and it was believed that they had lecherous
sexual habits. Wolves were a threat to every member of the tamed
landscape - they were the untamed literally intruding into the
tamed. Wolves were often seen as evil.
Foxes were regarded as a nuisance - no one liked them and every
effort was made to exterminate them - but they were not regarded
as quite as evil as wolves; foxes were referred to as malicious,
crafty, and villainous ... but not evil. But, if we're
going to look at the most evil member of the untamed landscape,
then it would be the wild boar. Medieval people often regarded
the wild boar as the most evil of creatures - remember slides
of the boar. It looked evil - it was a massive, ugly creature,
black in appearance and character. It was believed to be completely
incapable of feeling pain, and it was perfectly capable of killing,
man, dog, horse and anything else that got in its way.
Don't forget the sundry monsters all associated with the untamed
landscape - especially the monsters of the sea and the forest.
Why do we still want to believe in strange monsters that live
in lakes or mountains/forests?
On the other hand, there were a number of animals from the untamed
landscape which were regarded in good light by medieval people.
I've already mentioned the rabbit and the hare - but the
deer, the hart (usually the male red deer), was regarded as
one of the noblest creatures in creation. First of all, the
hart looked noble. It was believed to be capable of magic (good
magic). Most people believed that the hart lived to at least
100, it was capable of tremendous courage - and it tested the
ability of the huntsman to hunt it down. There was a lot of
symbolism attached to the hunt for the hart - it was regarded
as a quest - sometimes compared to Christ shedding his blood
so that man might follow him to salvation; other times compared
to Christ being pursued by the Jews. The hunt of the hart enabled
man to prove his nobleness.
The bear was often also seen as noble - and sometimes as evil
- and male bears were hunted almost as enthusiastically as the
hart. Female bears often had their cubs slaughtered in front
of them to make them more fierce.
Medieval people did worry about the extermination of species,
but not for any intrinsic worth of the species itself (just
like they did not worry too much about the intrinsic worth of
the landscape). Species were only worth saving for their usefulness
to man. Forests were preserved so that deer could multiply -
but the deer was valued more for the hunt, than any intrinsic
worth it may have had. If an animal was considered useless to
man then it might be hunted to extinction.