Public Law & Perceptions of Bestiality

By Emily C.

Prior to the Buggery Act of 1533, the church and its courts handled cases of bestiality, or sexual relations between humans and animals. As Susan Amussen notes regarding English law, “Ordinary law enforcement was local, not national; most punishments were imposed by the quarter sessions and assizes” (11). Therefore, punishments for any criminal activity varied according to location, severity of the crime, and other situational factors. In terms of bestiality, English attitudes were ambiguous at best. Erica Fudge suggests that unwed young men were often the perpetrators of this crime, although there recorded cases against women do exist (22). The church expected young men to wait until marriage to have sexual intercourse. In reaction to the strong body policing, men turned to the only other available option within their rural communities: farm animals.

The Buggery Act of 1533 changed the relatively laid back public perception of bestiality. It made bestiality “a felony without benefit of clergy, and anyone convicted of the offence would ‘suffer such pains of death and losses and penalties of their goods, chattels, debtors, lands, tenements, and hereditaments’’’ (Fudge 20). The law revealed the many anxieties regarding bestiality and the potential half-animal, half-human offspring such relations could produce. Such anxieties were largely religious in nature. But religious officials were not so much concerned with the safety and well-being of the animals (as they did not think that animals had souls at all) as they were with policing human bodies. Many in early modern England considered bestiality a “species pollution” (Thomas 150). In a colonial world, lines between animal and human became sufficiently blurred. As Fudge notes, “The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a time when many of the previously held assumptions about humanity were coming under threat. Colonists were bringing back stories of monstrous races which appeared to confirm medieval ideas, and which upset many of the establish perceptions about the final work of the Creation” (22). For the first time, English people had access to the unknown, and they brought back stories of the odd places, often misconstrued and inaccurate narratives. That fed into anxieties about bestiality and the product of animal-human relations, many of Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 6.32.44 PMwhich were the stars of the stories in question. Would a human still be human if he mated with an animal? These anxieties accelerated the criminalization and strong public stance of bestiality, though it was not actually that common. As Courtney Thomas remarked, there was “… [a] discrepancy between the low number of people actually prosecuted for the crime and the comparatively high number of printed materials decrying bestiality as an oft-committed violence” (151). There were several cases of bestiality documented, but not as many as the religious extremist pamphlets would lead one to assume.
As a result of these churning times, the English regarded bestiality as the ultimate sin; unable to comprehend how humans could blur the human-animal divide. Throughout my research, I have returned to this question: did this shift in public perception and opinion happen because bestiality, being a hideous sin, created such a strong negative reaction (along with other sexual crimes like sodomy and masturbation)? Or because religious influences, motivated by extreme anxiety about the growing world, forced the issue? If religion had not been present in policing sexuality (i.e. not allowing church members to engage in masturbation, sodomy, and bestiality), some of the people persecuted for bestiality perhaps would not have done so. After all, it was an extreme form of deviance that happened in situations where there was no sexual reprieve for young unwed men. The church, by policing bodies and sexuality, encouraged what they aimed to destroy.
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Emily  is an English literature student at Ball State University. She hopes to go onto graduate school to pursue being a librarian.

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Image: “Half Dog, Half Human.” n.d. “Monstrous Acts: Bestiality in Early Modern England.” Jstor.org, Aug. 2000. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.

 

Amussen, Susan. “Punishment, Discipline, and Power: The Social Meanings of Violence in Early Modern England.” Journal of British Studies 34 (1995): 1-34.

 

Fudge, Erica. “Monstrous Acts: Bestiality in Early Modern England.” History Today 50.8 (2000): 20-25.

 

Thomas, Courtney. “‘Not Having God Before His Eyes’: Bestiality in Early Modern England.” Seventeenth Century 26.1 (2011): 149-73.

 

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About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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