The Beast Within
Animals in the Middle Ages
New Books in Arts & LettersNew Books in European StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Literary StudiesNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network January 21, 2011 Marshall Poe
I have three cats. They have names (Fatty, Mini, and Koshka). They live in my house. I feed them, take them to the vet, and love them. When they die, I’ll be really sad. After having read Joyce Salisbury’s eye-opening The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages (Routledge, 2011), I know now how weird all that is.
People in the Middle Ages did not, so far as we know, love their animals. As Joyce points out, they used them, ate them, and even had sex with them. But they do not seem to have loved them, any of them. They did, or at least some of them, think about animals rather deeply. They wanted to know what animals were, really. They knew animals were God’s creatures. But there were nettlesome questions, like whether animals had souls. Well, probably not. Some of them, however, like lambs, were put forward as models for holy behavior (“the Lamb of God”). So do lambs, unlike all other animals, have souls? Another question: Could you eat animals? If they didn’t have souls, then you certainly could. But which ones? Not clear. The Christian Bible–unlike the Hebrew Bible–is rather short on dietary regulations. Yet another question: Could you have sex with animals? They were, after all, only things, and it didn’t really matter what you did with things (though “spilling your seed” in any case was a no-no). That said, having sex with an animal is rather unseemly. Still another question: If an animal killed someone, was it “guilty.” Aristotle said animals didn’t have reason, so that would suggest that animals couldn’t be “guilty” or “innocent.” Fine, but some animals were awfully smart, like the sly fox that everyone heard about in folk tales. So if some animals have some reason and are therefore human-like, are there some humans who are a touch bestial and therefore animal-like? Where exactly was the line between humans and animals? Thinkers of the Middle Ages had some interesting things to say about all these questions, many of which still have resonance today. Read Joyce’s fine book and learn all about it.
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