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The History of Human-Animal Relations (August 2017): Contemporary Historical Studies

By J. Wendel Cox

Contemporary Historical Studies

Continuing themes from Keith Thomas’s work, early historical studies of animals were often concerned with the conception and representation of the animal and animality and its role as a mirror and maker of how people have conceived of humanity, rationality, and nature throughout the early modern and modern eras. Historians of human-animal relations have continued to examine these relationships for what they reveal about us. Harriet Ritvo’s The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age explores animal taxonomy as a reflection of Victorian concerns with status and social dominance, and how it influenced behavior and legislation. An invaluable collection of Ritvo’s essays, Noble Cows and Hybrid Zebras: Essays on Animals and History, brings together decades of her work.

The early modern era, with its break with a medieval past, is often presented as a span of inquiry for changing human-animal relations. Lucinda Cole’s Imperfect Creatures: Vermin, Literature, and the Sciences of Life, 1600–1740, speaks to the changing definition of “vermin” across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and to one of the most powerful and consequential instances of animality ascribed to human or non-human animals alike. Erica Fudge’s Brutal Reasoning: Animals, Rationality, and Humanity in Early Modern England explores the concern with the question of animal rationality among early modern thinkers and scientists, and the variety and complexity of their notions, which bely easy depictions of pervasive anthropocentrism.

Similarly, the Victorian era has been especially fertile for the exploration of the intersections between animals and race, class, and gender. Sarah Amato’s Beastly Possessions is noteworthy for its examination of how different Victorian social classes made animals part of their respective daily lives. Jennifer Mason’s Civilized Creatures: Urban Animals, Sentimental Culture, and American Literature, 1850–1900 points to American cities as the context for new sentiments about animals, which waxed with encounters with animals in urban settings rather than waning with the ongoing remove of many Americans from rural life. Michael Lundblad’s The Birth of a Jungle: Animality in Progressive-Era U.S. Literature and Culture explores the intersection of race, class, gender, and animality, demonstrating the power of representation and the animal to shape lived experiences. A contemporary counterpart and complement to The Birth of the Jungle is Claire Jean Kim’s Dangerous Crossings: Race, Species, and Nature in a Multicultural Age, an account of three recent cross-species controversies: San Francisco’s live animal market; the Makah revival of whaling; and the trial and conviction of football player Michael Vick on charges arising from his involvement in dog fighting.