Tag Archives: law

Animal Emotion: An Interview with Barbara King

This month,  Performing Humanity has the exciting opportunity to feature our editor’s conversation with Dr. Barbara King, author of The Dynamic Dance: Nonvocal Communication in African Great Apes (2004),  Being With Animals: Why We Are Obsessed With the Furry, Scaly, Feathered Creatures Who Populate Our World (2010) and the recently released How Animals Grieve (2013).   The topic du jour? Animals, emotions, and how sentient beings grieve.Screen Shot 2013-06-12 at 12.07.22 AM

Miranda Nesler: Your recently released book has received attention from both academic and non-specialist communities, and we’re  thrilled to be able to provide the blog readers with a  insight into its creation. Looking backward, when and where did your interest in animal emotion originate?

Barbara King:  For years, I studied communication and cognition in monkeys and apes by observing the day-to-day primate encounters that unfolded before my eyes. With the great apes especially—chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans—I couldn’t help but realize that I was seeing not only savvy strategists, but also sentient beings who very much felt their lives. Gradually, the more I read and became focused also on issues of animal welfare, the more I realized that it’s not just our closest living relatives but also many mammals and birds who feel and express emotions. I was hooked.

MN: Among the vast emotions you observed, what led you to focus ultimately on grief and mourning?

BK:  I think there are two quite different answers here. For my previous two books, my research included investigations into the evolution of human burial practices. In digesting archaeological material, I began to notice reports of humans buried right alongside animals—for example, as long ago as 8000 years, a man was interred with a lamb in Turkey. From there, because I am used to thinking in an evolutionary framework, the next question emerged naturally: How do nonhuman animals grieve and mourn? I know already about elephants’ emotional responses to death, but once I began the research, I was stunned at how much additional information I found.

There’s a more personal answer, too. Like many people around my age, I’m involved with caring for an elderly parent with physical troubles and some degree of dementia. Though by no means unusual, this tilting of the world wherein one becomes parent to the parent generates an experience ripe for a sort of anticipatory mourning. That very entangled mix of love and sadness is, I think, the core subject of my book.

MN: It’s interesting that, as scholars, we’re encouraged at times to deny the subjective emotions that lead us to our work.  And yet, as in this case, it’s what leads us to crucial ethical and existential contributions. It’s almost as though “emotion” makes us more animal—less “rational human”—something I hope we can discuss more!  On the academic side of your work, what forms of research and field-work go into a project like this one?

BK: My primary sources were the peer-reviewed scientific literature; interviews with people who are acute observers of animals, whether in the wild, sanctuaries, zoos, farms, or homes; and my own observations of animals ranging from primates to our household’s (many) rescued housecats. For several years, I concentrated on primary research and academic writing, and I have now taken a turn, a well-loved and exciting turn, towards writing about animals and anthropology for general audiences rather than academic ones. I do hope, though, there is overlap.

MN: It’s an issue so relevant to both audiences. But this approach is also potentially more overtly personal than work targeted to traditionally academic or specialized readers. When taking this approach to writing and when dealing directly in research with human and animal subjects, does it ever become difficult to maintain objectivity or avoid emotional involvement in the study? To what degree is objectivity an aim or something that actually undercuts the project?

BK: When working on the book, I kept in mind what I tell my students: If you have a favored hypothesis, or a bias toward some phenomenon you may expect to find during research, redouble your efforts to scrutinize critically how you handle and interpret the evidence you gather. For me, this meant working hard on each case as it came up and trying to think up and assess alternative explanations for animal grief and mourning. And sometimes I do embrace those alternative explanations. I wanted to use definitions and criteria that allow me to walk a line: rigorously applying standards to candidate examples of animal grief and mourning while recognizing what (some) animals themselves convey to us: that they feel their lives deeply and express their emotions accordingly. So, while I never wanted to avoid emotional involvement with the material—I love and respect animals too much for that to be either possible or desirable—I did want to be rigorous.

In today’s animal-behavior science, part of being rigorous is to understand the degree of individual variation within animal species. In the first place, I would be surprised if beetles, snakes, and frogs—they are animals too!—are capable of mourning. But in the second place, in species where animals may show significant mourning, ranging from elephants and dolphins to dogs and ducks, it’s a matter of personality, individual social history, and the relationship of the survivor to the one who has died. Some animals are only curious, or indifferent, when a companion dies.

MN: It’s interesting to consider the range of intensity or expression that can occur not only among species but within them. What significant overlaps or distinctions do you see in the way that human grief compares to domesticated and non-domesticated animals, respectively?  And could you say a bit more about what differences you observe between those animal groups?

BK:  One chapter in my book is called “Writing Grief.” In it, I explore some grief memoirs I’ve read, none of which affected me more deeply than C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (1961). In acute anguish, Lewis describes the process by which his beloved memories of his wife gradually begin to dim after her death. As I write in that chapter, “In grief’s grasp, he relentlessly revisits the past and anticipates the future.” I know that sometimes, nonhuman animals do revisit the past and anticipate the future, but we humans do this in grief to an unparalleled extent. Our keen awareness of the fact that those we love, and we ourselves, will die, is a novel evolutionary development, I think.

Human grief is at times global. We have all found ourselves struck through with sorrow at a stranger’s death, or the loss of strangers in large numbers. We may learn of lives lost through the media or feel the impact most fully while visiting a mass memorial in Berlin, Hiroshima, or Manhattan.

Still, there are some overlaps—and many unknowns—even with these distinctions. I fiercely feel that we should not head too far in the direction of avowed human uniqueness. The study of animal grief is nascent, and we have more questions than answers. This includes our knowledge about animal memory and generalized animal mourning. Some questions may be answered in the future with keen observation, whereas others may be unanswerable within the bounds of science. Elephant babies who witnessed the death of their families at the hands of poachers suffer distressed sleep and sometimes nightmares. Are they dreaming memories of their loved ones? Wild elephants may gently manipulate and caress the bleached bones of other elephants. Sometimes the bones are of kin, but not always. Do elephants mourn strangers?

One area that interests me is that with domesticated species such as horses, dogs, and cats, there seems a heightened opportunity for cross-species mourning: animals who mourn us, just as we mourn them. While I am out in Yellowstone National Park observing the majestic bison, I don’t hold any illusion that the bison care much about me or would have any emotion for me—which is as it should be! They are wild animals concerned with their own lives.

Screen Shot 2013-06-12 at 12.12.44 AM

  MN: Do you see important social or ethical implications emerging from such comparisons?

  BK: The very point of writing this book for me is to ask all of us collectively to think hard about the choices we make when it comes to treatment of other animals. I’ve been an animal lover forever and a long-time advocate for primates such as chimpanzees who are confined in unspeakable conditions in biomedical laboratories; but to be honest, it’s only been in the last 5-10 years that I’ve educated myself fully about the effects on so many animals of our willingness to use them egregiously for our own purposes. Five or so years ago, I would’ve gone to Sea World to watch captive, performing marine mammals without a second thought; and back then I was eating chickens and turkeys (though not cows, pigs, and lambs).

Dolphins may grieve their losses, including when they are separated from their loved ones; cow moms may grieve when their calves are taken away for slaughter. To me, the knowledge that so many animals love and grieve brings more urgency to issues of animal welfare. Admittedly, at the same time, animals who don’t love and grieve also need our attention.

MN: This is an issue of debate across history—and something that Performing Humanity has tried to emphasize by connecting past and present debates. To what degree do you see historical artistic, literary, or legal representations of animals acknowledging or denying their ability to grieve?  Did any such texts shape your study?

BK: To Marc Bekoff, I send extreme credit and respect. Marc is an animal behaviorist and author of books including The Emotional Lives of Animals (2008) and (with Jessica Pierce) Wild Justice (2010). His writings illuminate the lives of animals. He cuts through inflated claims of human cognitive and emotional uniqueness and, just as we discussed above, does so with a primary goal of working for animals and their welfare, of awakening our responsibility to do this now and not later. Marc’s work has significantly influenced my own writing and activism.

I could mention many other works—in anthropology, the writings of Tim Ingold and Eduardo Kohn; the entire Animal Series (2004-2012) from Reaktion Books, ranging from Ape to Frog to Mosquito, all of which I have reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement; and books like Andrew Westoll’s The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary (2011). It’s not so much that these volumes dwell on grief per se, as that they open up a wide space to think openly about animals, animal lives, and what animal lives mean in their own right apart from human concerns.

MN: Earlier, we discussed that your work (like so much quality scholarship) is also personal. Is there any particularly important moment that occurred during the project that you can share with readers to illustrate this?

BK:  Six weeks after the book came out, a bolt out of the blue hit my family and me. I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of uterine cancer. After a 6-hour surgery done in May, and 6 months yet to come of chemotherapy and radiation, my prognosis should be good. This sudden entry into a serious medical situation has left me thinking about people around the world who face similar calamities with far fewer medical and financial resources available than I have.

What does all this have to do with animal grief? At some visceral level, I feel the answer is… everything. How Animals Grieve is about what it is to be alive, thinking, feeling, and loving. So many of us animals, human and nonhuman, do those things, and we as a result may also grieve. Somehow, and I very much recognize how lucky I am in my loving family and friends, the resources available to me, and indeed my prognosis, all this made me feel even more connected to the animal stories in the book.

MN: Barbara, I can’t say how glad I am we had the chance to talk. Thank you for taking the time to share with me and the readers.


Recent Discussion of Dr. King’s Work also appears at  NPR, the NY Post, and TIME Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @bjkingape.

“An Animal”: Human Behavior, Labels, and Governance

In December of 2012, a lone gun-man walked into an elementary school at Newtown, CT and killed a group of over twenty people that included the school principle, several teachers, and a range of students under the age of 10. As news coverage informed Americans of the tragedy in their midst, pundits, politicians, and activists also began dealing with two large, weighted questions:

What role did gun control play in this event?

Is it too soon to consider the role of gun control in relation to this event?

Representatives from the NRA released several statements, with vice president Wayne LaPierre asserting that the organization stands by its beliefs: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Meanwhile, gun-attack victim Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) visited with the families of victims in order to share communal stories of pain and loss, and several gun-shows in the region were canceled out of respect for survivors in the community.

Students of the humanities will recognize that the debates surrounding both the Newtown shooting specifically and the issue of gun control more generally tap into larger, more long-term vocabularies that questions the foundations of humanity and, in connection, the levels of need for human governance.

Emerging from the bloodshed of the English Civil War, Thomas Hobbes composed The Leviathan as a credo on humanity and its governance.  According to Hobbes, human beings struggle with a need for a social contract that will bring them out of a State of Nature and into a cooperative order.  Such order is constructed and can only exist with enforcement because humans are by nature selfish and violent, they share a common tendency to war with others in order to achieve individual survival. In such a situation, life becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Clearly cooperative order is more desirable; the problem is that the social contract can only function when all behave according to its law.  So how do you effectively urge such violent creatures to trust one another and to avoid breaking rules when it suits their individual desires?  For Hobbes, the answer is the Leviathan: a singular tyrant whose absolute power coerces the masses into performing the social contract together.

While Hobbes’ approach to human nature and political governance echoes in our own lives (one need only listen to recent debates regarding gun control, for example), he is one of myriad philosophers whose work shapes attitudes toward human nature. Writing 38 years after Hobbes, John Locke posited in his Two Treatises on Human Government that human beings were devoid of violent survival instincts because they were born tabula rosa: blank slates.  Together in the State of Nature, individuals could live in “perfect equality.” Screen Shot 2013-01-05 at 11.19.53 PMThrough socialization and education, humans learn how to generate individual and collective identities; and, for this reason, a humanistic education can teach human beings to create balanced, free societies wherein each individual’s rights count.  Much like Hobbes’ views, Locke’s persist.  Students of American history and politics undoubtedly hear his voice in the Constitution’s assertion of the inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

When we consider contemporary political and legal discussions in our own country and worldwide, what does it mean that two such drastic approaches to humanness exist?  In what ways can they be used to triangulate as we navigate our own humanity?  And to what degree might these debates also signal our role as animals?

After all, humans are not unique in their squabbles, feuds, and power struggles. Animal communities across species experience the same challenges. Wild and domesticated horses turn to the leadership of an alpha-female, who is powerful enough to provide direction and protective strategies and gentle enough to care for weaker omega horses at the lower ends of the herd.  Wolf packs and lion prides, meanwhile, function under the governance of alpha-males who can protect from attacks, lead aggressive strikes against intruders, organize breeding, and direct members toward good hunting. Amidst these groups, leadership is never stable. As documentaries such as Meerkat Manor remind us, even in the animal kingdom there is the odd coup d’etat and a variety of allegiances surrounding them.

Performing Humanity invites submissions from philosophers, cultural theorists, anthropologists, sociologists, and scientists with interest in further discussion of these issues.


Dr. Miranda Nesler is the editor of Performing Humanity and is an assistant professor of Early Modern & Medieval Literature at Ball State University in Indiana.


Image: Shannon Hicks, The Newton Bee (via The Atlantic Wire, http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2012/12/newtown-connecticut-school-shooting/59999/)


Katy Steinmetz, “The NRA Responds to Newtown.” Time: Swampland (http://swampland.time.com/2012/12/21/the-nra-responds-to-newtown-america-needs-more-good-guys-with-guns/)

John Christoffersen, “Gabrielle Giffords’ Newtown Visit.” The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/05/gabrielle-giffords-newtown-visit_n_2415720.html)

Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan (London, 1651).

John Locke, The Two Treatises on Human Government (London, 1689).

What is Modernity for Animals and Us?

By Dr. Susan Nance

When did animals become modern? When did humanness, defined in relationship to animals, become equally modern?

Here is perhaps one moment in the transition. While people in the Western world were living through the transformation to modernity—through integration into globalized industrial and trade networks, mature nationhood, a cultural emphasis on consumption and personality, the birth of cinema, streamlined architecture or what-have-you—for many, being a modern individual included an ethos of caring about the experiences of captive wild animals (Burt 2002: 35-36; Kean 1998: 31; Lippit 2002). To be fully modern and human was to be humane toward species that many people had long perceived as enemies. It was to see wild animals as sentient and subject to the advancements of modernity—just as people were.

Enter the “scientific” wild animal trainer. Emerging in circuses, animal parks, and carnival shows beginning in the 1880s, he was an outspoken reformer and also showman, self-promoter,and brash exploiter of exotic animals. Especially in Europe and Britain, trainers like Frank Bostock, Carl Hagenbeck, and August Kober would insist that “we have no need of any society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, because the circus or menagerie animal is just as much a comrade as the human performer” (Kober 1931: 18). So would Carl Hagenbeck claim he could “educate” lions, bears, cougars, tigers, and elephants because he employed patient repetition and positive reinforcement in training. He also claimed—and Scientific American magazine praised him for it—not to require his trainees to perform any movement that was not “natural” to them (Shiestone 1902).

These men had limited understandings of the breadth or function of species-typical behaviors for their animals because, at the time, most wild animals had yet to be systematically observed in the wild. Nonetheless, they had a point in that the “old” mode of animal training (still widely practiced then and today with large exotics) was a stick-then-carrot approach that involved harsh physical punishment of animals followed by food rewards for successfully following direction. As the argument went, 19th century animal wranglers who boasted of thus using “brutality” in dominance training with elephants, tigers, or bears were subjective, inefficient, and unmanly relics of the dark past. Their animal trainees became belligerent and maddened not because inherently imperfect (as many argued about exotic wild animals at the time), but because imperfectly educated.

The animal trainer who relied on “science” and “kindness” was a superior human and man: rational, systematically observant, and patient in his manipulations of animal behavior. He was, in short, modern. Still, many traditional animal trainers complained that “kindness” trainers admitted  nonetheless to using force “in cases of gross disobedience,” striking and tying down animal “pupils” as a demonstration to them of “trainer’s firmness” (Bostock 1913: 233; Joys 1983: 19). In fact, the change to the “new” training was a matter of degree not kind in the use of physical coercion of captive animals, and its and our modernity is still hotly debated.


Dr. Susan Nance is Associate Professor of History and affiliated faculty with the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph.


Image 1: “Bostock’s Trained Animals—An Affectionate Bear,” 1903. LC-USZ62-15899, Photographs and Prints Division, Library of Congress.

Image 2: “Bostock’s Trained Lions,” Hall photographer, 1903. LC-USZ62-15898, Photographs and Prints Division, Library of Congress.


Bostock, Frank Chares. The Training of Wild Animals. New York: Century Company, 1913.

Burt, Jonathan. Animals in Film. London: Reaktion Books, 2002.

Joys, Joanne Carol. The Wild Animal Trainer in America. Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing, 1983.

Kean, Hilda. Animal Rights: Political and Social Change in Britain since 1800. London: Reaktion Books, 1998.

Kober, August Heinrich. Circus Nights and Circus Days: Extracts from the Diary of a Circus Man. New York: W. Morrow Co., 1931.

Lippit, Akira Mizuta. “The Death of an Animal.” Film Quarterly 56, no. 1 (December 2002): 9-22.

Shiestone, Harold J. “The Scientific Training of Wild Animals” Scientific American. (October 1902): 260.

Reproduction and Hybridity


By Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler

As Americans prepare to vote this week, a number of issues relevant to this blog have come to the forefront of public debate.  Among them are reproductive rights: women and men’s protected legal access to contraception, sex education, and abortive measures.  Among the organizations rallying in favor of these rights is the Center for Reproductive Rights, which asserts in its mission that:

“We envision a world where every woman is free to decide whether and when to have children; where every woman has access to the best reproductive healthcare available; where every woman can exercise her choices without coercion or discrimination. More simply put, we envision a world where every woman participates with full dignity as an equal member of society.”

Counter-organizations such as Pro-Life.com argue, on the other hand, that governments and religions should above all protect the embryo and fetus, which constitute human life from conception.  With the election nearing, the rhetoric on both sides increasingly engages tropes of humanness and seeks to promote a specific being’s right to human protection and dignity.

What becomes clear in terms of this site is the persistence of language seeking to animalize women.  As previous posts have discussed, during the Renaissance women inhabited a liminal legal category in which their “imperfect” genitalia and their limited access to public discourse helped the law to define them as subhuman and therefore incapable of owning property, claiming rape, or bringing cases to court on their own behalf.  Much of today’s debates emerge out of preexisting concerns.


Dr. Miranda Nesler is the editor of Performing Humanity and is an Assistant Professor of Early Modern Literature.


Image: Draw the Line. Campaign for Reproductive Rights: http://mashable.com/2012/10/09/draw-the-line/


Silence and the Human Animal

By Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler

In 2008, I wrote a post titled “Silence and the Scold’s Bridle.”  As a graduate student in the throes of dissertating, I had become enthralled by both the ideological and material methods through which early modern culture sought to silence women—and from this interest emerged both my dissertation, and my current book manuscript on women’s disruptive use of silence in drama. 

But it’s no longer 2008.  And in addition to finalizing Disruptive Compliance: Silent Women in Stuart Drama, I’ve also begun realizing that new projects are possible and will likely tackle similar questions from different angles.  Returning to these images in 2012, I’m struck that implements such as the scold’s bridle not only seek violently to silence women—an attempt which highlights their dangerous expressive power—but that these tools also attempt to dehumanize women.  Such dehumanization not only emerges out of the bodily control that bridles offered to oppressive husbands and fathers, who guided women’s movements with the use of the bit.  It also results from the sheer act of silencing itself.  As Erica Fudge has pointed out in her recent work, the early modern legal system struggled to define humanness as either based in an individual’s physical appearance or in his ability to produce rational discourse.  Given that Galenic theory and the single-sex model positioned women’s bodies as imperfect and incomplete—their penises tucked inside a result of improperly cool consummation—the former definition barred women’s fully human status.  Yet cases of male birth defects or congenital hypertrichosis problematized physical judgments of humanness and promoted discourse as the measure.  Herein lay the problem: unless you silenced women and prevented them from practicing discourse, they too could gain legal human status that would overturn laws of coverture and male-primogeniture.  Materials like the scold’s bridle, then, treated women’s bodies like animal bodies and created a circular justification.  For, regardless of whether the women had the capacity for rational discourse, their inability to recognizably “produce” it in speech foreclosed recognition of them as humans.  And a man’s ability to prevent such production proved his mastery.  Or did it?  After all, if a woman was in any form a beast, and a man in any way sexually engaged her, then he committed bestiality.  His morality and his heirs’ humanity were at risk.

This blog has and will continue to explore issues like this one, raising questions about how early modern culture defined animals and humans, how it valued speech and language, and what logical tangles emerged.  Even more than that, it also pushes readers and encourages contributors to contemplate the persistence of these logical infelicities, these slippery vocabularies, in the periods following the “Renaissance”—even in our own time.


Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler is an assistant professor of English at Ball State University and is the editor and founder of “Performing Humanity in the Renaissance.”  


Images:  (1) Ralph Gardiner, England’s Grievance Discovered. London, 1655. (Bodleian Library); (2) W.R. Chambers, “Scold’s Bridle or Brank.” The Book of Days. London, 1870.

Erica Fudge, Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern Culture.  Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
Thomas Lacqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Bestial Empowerment: Approaching Polymorphous Nature

By Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler

In a recent PMLA article, early modern scholar Melissa E. Sanchez seeks to “make available a mode of reading that reintegrates some of the foundational work of queer theory […] into understandings of female sexuality” (493).  Examining The Faerie Queene and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sanchez reads against the grain by deemphasizing the moments of masculine power or feminine subservience so often studied within the texts. Rather, she emphasizes moments of “deviant” female sexuality as instances of female empowerment:  Guyon’s intrusion into the Naked Damsels’ sado-masochistic bath, Hellenore’s decision to perform orgiastic sex with satyrs rather than go home to her impotent husband, and Helena’s self-figuration as an animal desirous of men and women’s violent sexual advances. Such instances trouble hetero-normative gender assumptions that male-female sex always disempowers women; they further unveil and disrupt problematic gender assumptions that homoerotic female couplings are necessarily egalitarian, emotional, or companionate.  For Sanchez, these moments urge us to perform readings of early modern texts that break free from rigid modern categories to instead embrace the polymorphous nature of Renaissance sexuality.  By extension, such reading urges us to perform more truly “queer” analysis that defies binarism.

By drawing attention to bestiality as one empowering mode of deviant sexuality for female literary characters, Sanchez’s research taps into issues at the heart of “Performing Humanity.”  Questions of bestiality enter into and complicate women’s roles as social, legal, and sexual subjects during the Renaissance.  Previous posts by Brittany S.Marc K., and myself have discussed how conduct literature, art, science, law, and religion represented women as unstable hybrids.  Women were considered part human, part animal, wholly dangerous, wholly helpless, and always in need of masculine containment.  Yet when bestiality becomes a site of empowerment, it becomes what I call “disruptive compliance”–an act through which an individual’s compliance with social expectation disrupts rather than reaffirms the dominant social order.  If women were, in fact, animals as law/religion/science posited, then it would be only natural for them to couple with other beasts.  Female literary characters’ participation in bestiality, however, causes uproar and as a result draws attention to three problematic possibilities: 1) That women are human despite social traditions’ assertion, and therefore are treated unfairly under law,  2) That women are beasts and implicate human men in bestiality when marital or non-marital erotic couplings occur.  A third possibility arises in cases like Hellenore’s, when sexual activity takes place between a women and a man-beast hybrid such as a satyr or centaur.  Such instances draw attention to the fact that just as women might be animal-human hybrids, so too might men regardless of their socially vaunted physical and rational capacities.  From the perspective of “Performing Humanity,” Sanchez’s work does double duty.  Not only does it remind us that Renaissance sexuality was polymorphous, but that human status was as well.


Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler is the editor of “Performing Humanity” and is an assistant professor of early modern and medieval literature at Ball State University in Indiana.  Her current book project, Disruptive Compliance: Silent Women in Stuart Drama, argues that through the strategic use of silence, women were able to generate space for dramatic authorship and acting in the Renaissance.


Image: Piero di Cosimo, “A Satyr Mourning Over a Nymph.” (Italy, c. 1495).

Sanchez, Melissa E. “‘Use Me But as Your Spaniel’: Feminism, Queer Theory, and Early Modern Sexualities.” PMLA 127:3 (May 2012), 493-511.

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.

Ownership & Honor: The Rights and Rape of Women

By Brittany S.

femme fatale

Prior to the 1550s, the term “rape” referred to theft. While sexual assault was included under this title, the concerns surrounding sexual violence dealt with infringement on the rights of property owners, not on the trauma experienced by the victim. Those females categorized as femme covert were the property of their male relatives. As such, these women were legally dead and unable to levy charges against their rapists (Finn 704-705). Men were the only individuals able to file charges and testify in court (Baines 70). As a result of these legal structures, rape cases that were brought to court often resulted in acquittal because of the debate regarding feminine consent. However, the rape of a proven virgin typically had consequences for the rapist because the chaste female body was of such value commercially . Male relatives were more apt to avenge the wrong, not for the female’s sake, but to gain recompense for the ruination of a valuable trade commodity and reproductive vessel. The loss of virginity devalued the female and threatened the power of her male owners.

Regardless of virgin status, having a female become a “victim” of rape brought inescapable shame on the family name for the failure to adequately control her movements. When rape, or unapproved sexual behavior, was acknowledged, punishing the female and finding the perpetrator was a means of affirming male dominance. If the rapist was found, the female could be forced to wed her victimizer in an effort to ward off social stigma. This was especially true if the victim’s claim of rape was called into question. A rapist could answer a charge of sexual assault by vowing his victim had willingly given herself and consented to the act. This further complicated issues surrounding female agency and human status because of the acknowledgement that a woman could make choices without male support or direction.

Today, rape is still a common form of asserting male dominance. In the Bosnian-Herzegovinian conflict, “rape [was…] a policy of men posturing to gain advantage and ground over other men” (MacKinnon 187). In the United States alone, 300,000 women report instances of rape each year, more than half of which occur before the female’s 18th birthday (Parrot & Cummings 103). However, it is estimated that only one in five women actually report rape to law enforcement (Parrot & Cummings 103). This is largely based on an idea perpetuated during the Renaissance and persisting today that women who are raped “ask for it,” consent to the act, or otherwise motivate their victimization. This leads to
stigmatization of the individual, which results in lower instances of actual reporting of crime. In still other cases, becoming the victim of a rape can mean a death sentence. Women and girls are encouraged to commit suicide or are killed by family members to restore the family honor (Parrot & Cummings 174). These violent responses are encouraged because the female is seen as the property of male family members. The ability to control her movements is considered evidence of masculinity. Though the Renaissance has long been over, today’s society still grapples with and perpetuates negative ideas regarding women’s place in the world. Throughout each news story, debate, and statistic, the question still remains, are women human?


Image: Snyder, Brittany. Femme Fatale. 2012.

Baines, Barbara J. “Effacing Rape in Early Modern Representation.” ELH 65.1 (1998): 69-98.

Finn, Margot. “Women, Consumption and Coverture in England, c. 1760-1860.” The Historical Journal 39.3 (1996): 703-722.

MacKinnon, Catharine A. Are women human? and other international dialogues. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Parrot, Andrea and Nina Cummings. Forsaken Females: Global Brutalization of Women . Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, Inc., 2006.



Bestiality and Sexual Deviance: Crimes which Threaten the Human/Animal Divide

By Marc K.

Sexuality and sexual deviance are integral to understanding how early modern Europe defined what was human and what was animal. In particular, the crime of bestiality and how it was perceived in relation to legal and religious institutions is insightful. During this time period, the definition of bestiality was not limited to having sex with animals, but, as scholar Courtney Thomas points, “[it] was a part of the larger discourse of sodomy in the period and, consequently, the terms ‘sodomy’ and ‘buggery’ are frequently used interchangeably to describe both homosexual contacts and those which crossed the species border” (154). It is interesting that bestiality was a term which referenced a multitude of sexual deviances, for it emphasizes the early modern idea that those who act outside of the prescribed social and legal standards somehow become less human and more bestial, or animal-like.

Critic Christie Davies further explores this idea, noting that “the ways in which these sexual offences are linked together and described make it clear that the enactors of the new laws are obsessed with the urge to preserve boundaries of all kinds” (1046). It is this fear of transgressing the species boundary that made bestiality such a heinous crime. Not only does one perform an unnatural sexual act, which in itself begins to dissemble the definition of humanity by disregarding the established norms, but one performs it with an animal, further erasing the line between human and beast. Bestiality was so feared and considered so detestable that it was a crime punishable by death, whereas other forms of sexual deviance such as masturbation and homosexuality were not treated as harshly (although homosexuality would eventually also be punishable by death) (Thomas 158). Despite homosexuality and bestiality both being punishable by death, there were still differences in how these crimes were portrayed. As Caroline Bingham discusses, “bestiality was condemned as ‘confusion’ (i.e., confusion of the natural order), and homosexuality as ‘abomination’ ” (447). While homosexuality was simply seen as disgusting and wrong, bestiality posed a special threat in that in endangered the established natural hierarchy between man and animal.

It is also interesting to consider that bestiality, a supposedly “victimless crime,” was still punishable by death (Thomas 150). To many, this seems like a rather draconian penalty. In attempting to protect the strict social hierarchy and punishing those who transgress the species divide, we become more animal ourselves. As Christie Davies says, “The sexual behavior of the sodomists which was perceived as transgressing natural boundaries, was savagely suppressed because it was a reminder and a metaphor of the threatened identity and integrity of the group itself” (1043). While the laws and religious customs used to justify these harsh punishments is a vital aspect of what makes us human, they also seem to bring out the worst in our nature, causing us to be cruel and inhumane. We are then forced to wonder what, if anything, truly separates from the world of animals?


Image: Coulthart, John. ” Feuilleton .” Liceti’s Monsters. WordPress, 3 Aug. 2010. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

Bingham, Caroline. “Seventeenth-Century Attitudes Toward Deviant Sex.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 1.3 (1971): 447-68.
Davies, Christie. “Sexual Taboos and Social Boundaries.” American Journal of Sociology 87.5 (1982): 1032-1063.
Thomas, Courtney. “‘Not Having God Before His Eyes’: Bestiality in Early Modern England.” Seventeenth Century 26.1 (2011): 149-73.

Animal Trials

By Jenn C.

Animal trials are a fascinating, albeit perplexing, part of history. While the idea of putting an animal on trial in a court of law for the crime of murder may seem outrageous today, it was not uncommon during the Renaissance. Why did these trials occur? What does the act of bringing a non-human before a human court tell us about the culture of the Renaissance?

Animal trials took place predominantly between the 14th and 17th century all over Europe, although they were most prevalent in France, Switzerland, Tyrol, Germany, the Netherlands, and the southern Slavonic countries (Dinzelbacher 406). Animals were tried for a range of infractions, mostly for crimes that resulted in death or harm to human beings. When animals were brought to trial, the action was taken just as seriously as bringing a human to trial. Judges, lawyers, and jurists all took part in the trials and received their fees accordingly. Jailers were paid for the housing of the offending animal before and during the trial. Careful legal records were kept of the trials. Executions, often the sentence in instances where animals had killed humans, were conducted in public by the same professionals who performed human executions (Dinzelbacher 406-7).

Why, then, would people who were rational in the following of the law do something as outrageous as put an animal on trial? One theory is that the trials were “nothing more than a manifestation of the primitive lex talionis,” or the law of retaliation (Hyde 721). If animals took the life (or the means of sustaining life in the case of rats and weevils who were often tried for destroying drops) of human beings, then their own lives became forfeit. According to this theory, when people got mad, they had to take revenge no matter who the offender.

Another explanation for animal trials was the desire to rid society of the evil that accompanied an act like murder or the destruction of crops, regardless of the perpetrator of the crime. Italian canonist Gratian believed “that [animals] were killed not on account of their crimes but in order that the hateful act might be forgotten” (Hyde 718). For those who had lost loved ones to a loose pig or a rampaging bull, removing the animal from their society would free them from the constant visual reminder of the horrors of the death. For those who saw animal criminality as a demonic attack, ridding society of the offending animal, and thus the means through which evil had harmed humanity, was a cleansing act.

What can all of these theories tell us about Renaissance culture? As Peter Dinzelbacher explains, “animal trials took place only under extremely unusual circumstances in order to help the local community cope with an otherwise recalcitrant threat—not because they were proven to work but because they created the impression that the authorities were assiduously maintaining law and order in a cooperative and decided manner.” While there are several theories as to why animals were put on trial, the one theme tying them together is the need for the human being to assert their dominance over the animal and to maintain their status as the supreme being in the natural world. These trials represented “a mentality that placed man above animal in the hierarchy of creation” (Cohen 17).


Image: Chambers, R. The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities. Philadelphia: W & R Chambers, Lippincott, 1862.

Cohen, Esther. “Law, Folklore and Animal Lore.” Past and Present 110 (1986): 6-37.

Dinzelbacher, Peter. “Animal Trials: A Multidisciplinary Approach.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.3 (2012): 405-21.

Hyde, Walter Woodburn. “The Persecution and Punishment of Animals and Lifeless Things in the Middle Ages and Modern Times.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 64.7 (1916): 696-730.

%d bloggers like this: