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Animal Characters

Nonhuman Beings in Early Modern Literature

By Bruce Thomas Boehrer

Publication Year: 2010

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.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Haney Foundation Series

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. v

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Introduction: Animal Studies and the Problem of Character

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pp. 1-27

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, ...

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Chapter 1. Baiardo’s Legacy

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pp. 28-73

Lodovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1516) begins with an encounter arranged by a horse. Having lost her protector to an onslaught of heathen warriors, the princess Angelica escapes the fray on her palfrey and falls into the company of the horseless Sacripante, King of Circassia, who has loved her long and unrequitedly. ...

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Chapter 2. The Cardinal’s Parrot

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pp. 74-106

Michael Randall has recently remarked that symbolic animals, like real ones, “must adapt to their environment or die” (126). This melancholy principle is well illustrated by the history of the European Reformation, whose cultural climate changes proved sudden and drastic enough to endanger even the most resilient of symbolic species. ...

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Chapter 3. Ecce Feles

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pp. 107-132

Sometime between 1553 and 1563 the students of Christ’s College, Cambridge, entertained themselves with the comedy now called Gammer Gurton’s Needle, “Made by Mr. S. Mr. of Art” (title page). The author’s M.A., like the play’s university setting, now seems in some ways incongruous. Gammer Gurton is a work of ...

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Chapter 4. The People’s Peacock

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pp. 133-163

Rounding the coast of Tierra del Fuego in late 1520, Ferdinand Magellan’s sailors encountered a new kind of bird, the penguin. In his account of Magellan’s voyage, Antonio Pigafetta identifies these new creatures as “geese” and goes on to describe the crew’s predictable treatment of them: “Truly, the great number of those ...

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Chapter 5. “Vulgar Sheepe”

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pp. 164-190

By the 1500s England’s sheep grazed placidly behind a thick fog of classical and ecclesiastical metaphor. The effect was most baneful, of course, for people of literary temperament, many of whom seemed unable to distinguish the flesh-and-blood beasts from their figurative counterparts. For instance, the sheep ...

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Conclusion: O Blazing World

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pp. 191-202

During their years of Interregnum exile, Margaret and William Cavendish, then marquis and marchioness of Newcastle, maintained a circle of acquaintance extending to the foremost Anglo-French intellectuals of the day, among them Thomas Hobbes, Pierre Gassendi, and René Descartes.1 Later, in her Philosophical Letters of 1664, ...


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pp. 203-208

Works Cited

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pp. 209-228


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pp. 229-236

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pp. 237-238

Among those who have contributed their time, effort, and expertise to the completion of this project, my first and deepest thanks go to Jerry Singerman, humanities editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, with whom I have now had the privilege to work repeatedly, and ever more rewardingly, over a period ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812201369
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812242492

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Haney Foundation Series