Monthly Archives: August 2012

Defining Animals through the Law

By Sarah N.

In order to better understand the significance of animal trials, we must grapple with what it means to be an “animal” versus a “human.” Does the word animal refer to an entity that is controlled by its human owner? Is an animal a creature without a voice or free will? Is an animal merely a pawn in a relentless struggle for power and dominance?


Despite Christian doctrine that suggested animals lack free will and souls, the law would still convict animals under the assumption that they possessed human characteristics. Religious beliefs complicated the motivations behind animal trials. When animals of the Renaissance were convicted of crimes, it was “both in a moral and a juridical sense—thus implying their free will” (Dinzelbacher 405). In addition to suggesting that animals have free will, the conviction of animals supposed that they were capable of understanding human speech; this was a complete contradiction to the typical Renaissance human’s perception of animal capabilities (Dinzelbacher 405).

The people of the Renaissance also conducted animal trials to assert dominance over animals, while using them as a pawn for power and control (Elvin 531). The main purpose of trials during the Renaissance was to condemn “deviance” or “wrong-doing,” while simultaneously giving animals a voice, implying that animals do indeed have the freewill needed to commit a crime, recognize their action as a crime, and understand the punishment for their discretions (Elvin 535).

Even today, humans are still concerned with defining what it means to be an animal. Modern day laws pertaining to animals suggest that humans are still deeply concerned with asserting superiority over animals, while at the same time attempting to define animals via the use of what would typically be considered “human” characteristics. One specific animal rights law even suggests that animals should have the right to own property because “To be living property is also to have the legal capacity to own other property” (Favre 1068). Within this statement, humans are once again asserting their power by defining animals as “owned property” (Favre 1068).

Throughout my research of animal trials of the Renaissance and modern laws, it is clear that a power struggle between humans and animals exists. The need for humans to assert their dominance over animals has resulted in the instigation of trials and laws pertaining to the definition of an “animal” and what this means for their status within the legal system. As humans of the past and present struggle, to define what the word “animal” truly means, they have and continue to inadvertently give a voice and power to the creatures that they wish to control.


Image: Alciato, Andrea. “Bear, and Forbear.”  Alciato’s Book of Emblems: The Memorial Web Edition in Latin and English (1531). Web. 24 April 2012.

Dinzelbacher, Peter. “Animal Trials: A Multidisciplinary Approach.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.3 (2012): 405-421.

Elvin, Jesse. “Responsibility, ‘Bad Luck’, and Delinquent Animals: Law as a Means of Explaining Tragedy.” Journal of Criminal Law 73.6 (2009): 530-558.

Favre, David. “Living Property: A New Status for Animals within the Legal System.” Marquette LawReview 93.3 (2010): 1021-1171.

CFP-ACMRS Conference: Beasts, Humans and Transhumans in the Middle Ages and Renaissance – Renaissance Society of America


Students, Colleagues, Researchers: A fantastic opportunity to share your animal-human research with the scholarly community!  Please see the CFP link below:

CFP-ACMRS Conference: Beasts, Humans and Transhumans in the Middle Ages and Renaissance – Renaissance Society of America.


Women vs Science

By: Rachel K.

The role of women during the Renaissance is usually viewed within the scope of sexual deviance or purity. There seems to be a failure to see women outside the submissive role of a wife or in the promiscuous role of a whore. This dichotomy  has its place in insuring socially that women are always viewed as less than men. But because of this view women hold a unique place in the development of science.

The rise of dissections and the understanding of the human body owes a debt to women. During the Renaissance there were strict rules against the dissection of human beings. Since the Church saw the body as a sacred temple, it denied the scientific need for dissection. The honor of being dissected was usually  left to those who had garnered sainthood, or those who had the potential to gain sainthood.

However, elite families were able to bypass this illustrious honor by paying private doctors to perform autopsies on their beloved family members. This concept may seem a bit out of place. Who would really want to have an autopsy performed on a family member who, for all intents and purposes, died of natural causes?

It is with that point that women come into play in the progression of science. The autopsies that were performed for the upper echelon occurred in one of two cases. The first case would be if a female, with children, had passed on. It is important to note that she had children because, if she were barren, there was no reason for an autopsy. During the Renaissance it was believed that only women could pass on hereditary diseases. Because of this belief when a wife or mother would die, an autopsy would then be preformed to insure the safety of children, especially the male heirs.

The second reason for an autopsy to be performed would not be for protective measures like in the first. Rather, it happened if a man had died unexpectedly. Many thought that if the untimely demise of a man occurred it was because he had been poisoned. Given the fact that during the renaissance women possessed a great deal of knowledge of housewifery, meaning the knowledge of herbs and their medical usage. It could only be assumed, knowing the fact about women’s knowledge base that if a man died suddenly it was because a woman had killed him. Therefore an autopsy would be performed to insure her guilt.

Both of these reason show that women, while having an effect on medicine and science, were not look on with much respect. If fact the constant supposition that women were the cause of any unnatural deaths or behaviors (in the case of some hereditary diseases) is proof that they were below men and could only cause them strife.


Curth, Louise H. “The Medical Content of English Almanacs 1640-1700.” Journal of

the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 60.3 (2005): 255-82.

De Renzi, Silvia. “Medical Competence, Anatomy and the Polity in Seventeenth-Century Rome.” The Society for Renaissance Studies 21.4 (2007): 551-67.

Park, Katharine. “The Criminals and the Saintly Body: Autopsy and Dissection in

Renaissance Italy.” Renaissance Quarterly 47.1 (1994): 1-33.

Siraisi, Nancy. “Anatomizing the Past: Physicians and History in Renaissance

Culture.” Renaissance Quarterly 53.1 (2000): 1-30.

Pygmalion’s Transformative Influences in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew

By Miranda W.

The transformation of Pygmalion’s beloved statue in Ovid’s Metamorphoses influences transformation in Renaissance literature and drama. One example is Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which draws from this classical myth via Petruchio’s transformation of Kate. Barbara Roche Rico stresses that Shakespeare “uses the myth to expose and to examine the issue of artistic control in its public and private forms.[ …] While Pygmalion carves and pampers his image, Petruchio asserts control over Kate, until she is carved and molded into shape” (288). Both the myth and the play pay particular attention to the treatment of the woman by the man, or to the creation by the artist. Yet Pygmalion praises his statue while Petruchio torments Kate. Petruchio, like Pygmalion, is not satisfied with Nature’s creation of women and therefore seeks to create his own: “Of such proportion, shape, and grace as nature never gave/Nor can to any woman give” (Ovid X. 266-267). Rico shows the relation to the Renaissance, saying that,  “in one sense the Pygmalion myth would seem to embody the ideal of Renaissance poetics, dramatizing both the artist’s wish to move his audience and his desire to create a world more perfect than Nature’s own” (286). Just as paintings often depicted men as fearful of women during the Renaissance, Pygmalion predated their concerns. For this reason Taming was “darkened by its medieval precursors, tales of seduction and idolatry, allegories about the threat of women and of art” (287).

While Pygmalion’s statue transforms into a live woman, Kate’s transformation is more psychological and temperamental. Even so, in each tale a man causes a woman to change one form for another. Lise Pederson says that both The Taming of the Shrew and Pygmalion contain the act of when “a man accepts the task of transforming a woman from one kind of person to another” (33). The differences are in the methods of how the woman is transformed. Pygmalion prays to the goddess Venus to turn his love into a real human being, while Petruchio takes the “taming” of Kate violently into his own hands.

Paul Barolsky brings in the tale of Narcissus to relate to Pygmalion, recognizing both as figures artists: “Although their stories end differently, with Narcissus’s love unrequited and Pygmalion’s realized, this difference should not obscure our understanding that both fables are tales of how the artist falls in love with his own creation, as Ovid metamorphoses one tale into the other” (453). While Pygmalion does not find a woman beautiful enough to satisfy him, and sculpts the woman of his dreams, Kate is a woman that no man wants because of her shrewd ways. Petruchio doesn’t fall in love with Kate the way Pygmalion falls in love with his statue, but both women transform into the women that the men desire.

The comical Taming of the Shrew image (above) shows the man’s power over the woman’s transformation; he hauls her over his shoulder while her mouth is wide open in protest. The bright costumes insist the situation is comical and does not show the “threat of women”. Representations of transformation continue from Ovid, to Shakespeare, to drama and literature today.


Image: “The Taming of the Shrew.” Carmel Shakespeare Festival, October 2003.  Wikimedia Commons (

Barolsky, Paul.  “As in Ovid, so in Renaissance Art.” RSA (summer 1998): 451-74.

Pederson, Lise.  “Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew vs. Shaw’s Pygmalion: Male Chauvinism vs. Women’s Lib?” (UPenn Press, 1974).

Rico, Barbara Roche. “From Speechless Dialect to Prosperous Art: Shakespeare’s Recasting of the Pygmalion Image.” (University of California Press, 1985).


Mermaids and Sirens: Women’s Relationship with Water from Myth to Renaissance

By Elysia S.
 Though Renaissance ideas of the mermaid shape our modern vision of her, we can trace her origins as polymorphous character back to pre-literary visual records. Arguably this is where the mermaid’s power lies–not in her unabashed sexuality, as early modern artists asserted, but rather in her changeability.  This quality ties her with the sea. Women’s symbolic relationship to water has even been referenced as far back as the charter myths of the Assyrians, Mesopotamians, and Sumerians. According to Sumerian reliefs, the world was born as Abizu, the bisexual, primordial sea. Abizu was composed of the male fresh water named Abzu and female salt water named Tiamat. Coincidentally, A. A. Barb notes that Abizu is one of the many names of Hebrew demonic entity, Lilith. We see the name transcending regional and religious mythology, still maintaining however, its original definition: “of the sea” (Barb 7).

The sirens, bird-woman and the first representations of what we now call the mermaid, are usually attributed to the oldest water divinity, Achelous. Their existence is problematic because there are multiple stories describing how the sirens gained or lost wings and came to the water. Meri Lao explains that, in one version of the story, the sirens are banished to the sky by a jealous Aphrodite. In another, their wings are torn off by the Muses after the sirens dared challenge them to a singing contest (Lao 29). Even as creatures of the sky, they drown themselves when they fail to seduce Ulysses.

This return to the sea and its symbolic relationship is also demonstrative of the knowledge possessed by sirens. Lao states, “It is of the marine element, and thus prophetic and secret […] sirens call to man, urging him to abandon what he is…fear of the sirens is the fear of upsetting the established equilibrium, of transforming, of being replaced” (21). Lilith and Tiamat were said to possess similar knowledge: the kind that wreaks fear in the hearts of men. Lao describes said marine knowledge as ambivalent: water can be both a blessing and a curse. She says, “All the vital processes take place in aqueous substance […] in Greek mythology, rivers are the passage to the underworld” (20). Consequently, any woman tied to water or marine instinct should be feared for possessing the capability to dispense both death and immortality.

Before and during the Renaissance, the mermaid existed as a sort of anti-woman. For authors such as Poliziana, Milton, and Calderόn de la Barca, the mermaid’s knowledge or beauty led men from their paths to righteousness. The Catholic Church accepted this imagery, using the mermaid in masonry and carving for nearly 600 years. To Catholic priests, she was the temptress standing, or swimming, between a man and God (Philpotts 50). Michelangelo’s, The Fall of Man and his Expulsion from Paradise, further perpetuates this fear of the sexualized, learned woman. The figure seducing Adam and Eve at the Tree of Knowledge is a woman with a serpentine tail, reminiscent of the mermaid in shape and substance.

The question remains, is the mermaid subhuman because the Catholic Church, among others, depict her as evil? Or is the mermaid a sort of goddess entity, a purveyor of immortality? I suppose the answer lies in whether she has the opportunity to utilize her knowledge. She becomes problematic as a relatively silent figure in mythology—even committing suicide when she is not allowed to share. Perhaps the only truth of the mermaid is that she exists as a paradox. We fear her voice—that it may lull us to death. In this manner, she stays suspended in silence.


Images: Burney Relief. British Museum.

“Odysseus and the Sirens.”

Barb, A. A. “Antaura. The Mermaid and the Devil’s Grandmother: A Lecture.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 29 (1966): 1-23.

Franco-Lao, Meri. Sirens: Symbols of Seduction. Rochester, VT: Park Street, 1998.

Phillpotts, Beatrice. Mermaids. New York: Ballantine, 1980.

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