Animals in Medieval Human History


The seemingly now-separate categories of person and animal have never been stable, but medieval people lived in a shifty world of monsters, manifestations and muscaliets.

A law-breaking dog ‘confesses without torture’ and is hanged to deter other dogs from crime, a glacier is warned to desist its landslip activity and when it doesn’t is anathemized by the bishop, and a werewolf is arraigned but only in its human form.

Medieval people were commonly magical thinkers or, if you prefer, they lived within unstable cultural signs. They slipped easily between mental categories. For them a rose was not necessarily a rose even when its rose-ness seemed unarguable. Looking like a rose, smelling like a rose and behaving like a rose wasn’t enough. Roses did not merely stand in for other things, such as ‘love’ or ‘England’,—but could become other things.

This notion was bad news for animals, especially domesticated species that lived intimately alongside human beings.

Pagans and the Animal Kingdom

Pre-Christian people totemized animals as group emblems. European tribes worshipped their own particular animal gods among all the nature-spirits, and the transmigrated souls of their ancestors walked the earth in the form of animals. Dressed in animal skins, including the head and face, their shamans shape-shifted and conversed with animals as a matter of course.

The Christian church spent centuries trying to destroy pagan practice, and it was most successful in its transformation of old nature- and animal-spirits into the new army of Satan. By the Middle Ages all the old animal-spirits had been swallowed by Christianity and spat out as agents of evil. The triple-conflated man/goat/god Pan provided their leading image of the Christian devil. He still does.

Newly Christianized Europe’s ready access to older pagan symbols, however, meant that people were easily terrified by this new use of the symbol. Now animals weren’t always animals, or even ancestors; now they could be demons in animal form, or animal bodies possessed by one of the hellish horde. They could even be Satan himself.

Do Animals Have Souls?

The Latin word ‘anima’ means soul, and is the root of such words as animated, and anima-tronic— and animal. Medieval Christianity was profoundly preoccupied with spiritual hierarchy, and the matter of souls was central to understanding their God-ordered cosmos. Who had a soul? Who didn’t? Who had the best kind of soul?

  • Saint Francis of Assissi thought that we were all, people and animals, ‘of God’ and endowed with immortal souls.
  • Saint Thomas Aquinas thought animals contained the same invisible life-stuff that people did and he called it a soul, although he thought it merely earthy and sensual. It was not ‘of God’ and not immortal.
  • Descartes thought animals soulless. For him they were as instinctive machines, containing no feeling parts.

Medieval Animal Trials

One strange result of the confusion between people, gods, devils and animals were the medieval animal trials. Offending animals were not just whacked on the head as they would be later, or given a lethal injection as they might be nowadays, but were given vigilant trials and executions. Documents show that:

  • Animal offenders were kept in the same prison cells as people
  • Cost of food and board, the same
  • Language in legal documents, the same
  • Punishments, the same; hanging, stoning, internment, pillory etc.
  • Execution arrangements were the same including equal pay for those officiating.

Animals in Gothic Art & Literature

Illuminated manuscripts and medieval bestiaries coiled and stamped with human-animal hybrids. Gothic buildings could barely contain all their spitting gargoyles. Aesop’s Fables was one of the first books to be printed in the 1400s and it inspired more such allegorical literature in which moral as well as physical mergings of human and animal occur. Some animals that were unluckily profiled were:

  • Cats—sly, independent, satanic
  • Pigs—dirty, cursed
  • Snakes—satanic

Bees and dogs were luckier. The former were thought to have a well organised society, admirably grouped around their ‘king’. The latter were emblems of faithfulness and honesty.

Conflation of animals and humans has been with us from ancient times, but underwent a change of moral direction in the Middle Ages. The more holistic European pagan culture assimilated the strict duality of good and evil that arrived with Christianity. Animals went from the soul of the group, or spirit-guide, or faithful companion—to agent of Satan.