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Medieval Attitudes to Animals


Article by Dr Sara Warneke

Medieval 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.

It 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 their work.

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 have expected).

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 than dogs.

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.

Please also visit Old London Maps on the web as many of the maps
and views available there have plans and depictions of gardens from
the medieval period through to the late nineteenth century.

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