Animal Characters: Nonhuman Beings in Early Modern Literature

Animal Characters: Nonhuman Beings in Early Modern Literature

Animal Characters: Nonhuman Beings in Early Modern Literature

Animal Characters: Nonhuman Beings in Early Modern Literature

Synopsis

During the Renaissance, horses--long considered the privileged, even sentient companions of knights-errant--gradually lost their special place on the field of battle and, with it, their distinctive status in the world of chivalric heroism. Parrots, once the miraculous, articulate companions of popes and emperors, declined into figures of mindless mimicry. Cats, which were tortured by Catholics in the Middle Ages, were tortured in the Reformation as part of the Protestant attack on Catholicism. And sheep, the model for Agnus Dei imagery, underwent transformations at once legal, material, and spiritual as a result of their changing role in Europe's growing manufacturing and trade economies. While in the Middle Ages these nonhumans were endowed with privileged social associations, personal agency, even the ability to reason and speak, in the early modern period they lost these qualities at the very same time that a new emphasis on, and understanding of, human character was developing in European literature.

In Animal Characters Bruce Thomas Boehrer follows five species--the horse, the parrot, the cat, the turkey, and the sheep--through their appearances in an eclectic mix of texts, from romances and poetry to cookbooks and natural histories. He shows how dramatic changes in animal character types between 1400 and 1700 relate to the emerging economy and culture of the European Renaissance. In early modern European culture, animals not only served humans as sources of labor, companionship, clothing, and food; these nonhuman creatures helped to form an understanding of personhood. Incorporating readings of Shakespeare's plays, Milton's Paradise Lost, Margaret Cavendish's Blazing World, and other works, Boehrer's series of animal character studies illuminates a fascinating period of change in interspecies relationships.

Excerpt

In February 1944, having just completed the manuscript of Animal Farm, George Orwell submitted to one of the most melancholy rituals to darken any professional writer’s life: finding a publisher for his newly finished book. While making the usual rounds, he had the misfortune to send his novel to the American offices of Dial, whose response he recalled two years later in a letter to his agent, Leonard Moore: “I am not sure whether one can count on the American public grasping what [Animal Farm] is about. You may remember that the Dial Press had been asking me for some years for a manuscript, but when I sent the MS of AF in 1944 they returned it, saying shortly that ‘it was impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.’ Just recently they wrote saying that ‘there had been some mistake’ and that they would like to make another offer for the book. I rather gather they had at first taken it for a bona fide animal story” (Orwell 4:110). For Orwell (who never had much use for the United States), this incident reflects on the obtuseness of the American reading public; for me, it says more about the failures of the literary profession. In addition, it says something about the uncomfortable relationship between nonhuman animals and modern notions of literary character.

This book deals with a period of literary history—the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries—that substantially predates Animal Farm. Still, one way to understand Orwell’s novel is to place it within the European tradition of beast fable, poetry, and prose narrative that stretches back to Aesop and encompasses works directly germane to the present study: for example, the Roman de Renart (twelfth and thirteenth centuries), Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale (1396–1400), Skelton’s “Speke, Parrot” (c. 1525), and the fables of La . . .

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