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The History of Human-Animal Relations (August 2017): Home

By J. Wendel Cox


This bibliographic essay originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Choice (volume 54 | number 12). 


Animals are everywhere. Whether as pets, pests, sources of food, fuel, or materials for manufacture, means of traction or source of motive power, or objects of veneration, fear, and wonder, animals have been our counterparts throughout human history. Only in recent years has a historical literature developed about animals and human relationships with them. This literature has been part of a larger so-called “animal turn” in the humanities, offering insights into peoples’ myriad and changing relationships with non-human animals and challenging convictions about humanity and the humanist endeavor. How we understand animals, what we understand them to be, what we understand ourselves to be, and how we have related to each other across the span of human history have become the focus of a large, growing, and engaging literature.

This bibliographic essay on the history of human-animal relations offers an opportunity to bring a challenging, accessible, and provocative scholarship to today’s college libraries. It supports curriculum and research on issues in human history such as race, class, gender, and sexuality; the environment and humanity’s relationships with other life on Earth; and the very nature and bounds of the human experience. Students–and faculty–find animals enormously engaging, and they are often surprised, enchanted, and intrigued by historical perspectives on what heretofore struck them as natural and timeless circumstances. Moreover, the interdisciplinary nature of much of this scholarship speaks to a wide range of disciplinary interests and contexts. Many titles discussed below are suitable for first-year seminars, interdisciplinary courses, honors classes, and foundational courses in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.

This essay describes a small selection of works from this burgeoning literature. While there is no claim that this is a definitive list, choices were made to support collection development in college libraries. Along with literary studies, history is today’s most active humanities discipline concerned with human-animal relations. Although some works associated with other disciplines, such as philosophy, cognitive studies, and ethology, or the study of animal behavior, appear below for context, most of what follows are the work of historians or those writing within a recognizable historical tradition. Length and focus concerns for the essay have dictated topical and chronological limits, but the selected titles reflect something of the origin and development of today’s literature. Specifically, this essay addresses human-animal relations of the early modern and modern eras in western Europe and North America. There is a vast, rich, and growing historical literature on human-animal relations in the ancient and medieval periods, as well as a literature relevant to Indigenous peoples of North America. Each ought to occasion future bibliographic essays; indeed, the intersection of human-animal relations in the context of western European states, their colonial societies, and the project of settler colonialism is a theme in several works that follow. Ultimately, this essay aspires to be a brief orientation to a segment of scholarship that has appeared, mostly, in the last three decades, and likely will only continue to grow for the foreseeable future.

J. Wendel Cox is librarian for English and history at Dartmouth College Library.