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Pia F. Cuneo (ed.), Animals and Early Modern Identity (Ashgate, 2014)

Pia F. Cuneo (ed.), Animals and Early Modern Identity (Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2014). ISBN 9781409457435, 410 pp. £75.00.

Reviewed by Annick MacAskill


[1] This handsome volume, edited by Pia F. Cuneo, Professor of Art History at the University of Arizona, brings together essays exploring the significance of animals in different aspects of early modern life and culture, uniting historians, art historians, and specialists of literature. Contributing to the burgeoning academic field of animal studies, these articles address a lacuna in the state of the matter, considering nonhuman animals and their representation in pre-Romantic Europe and its empires.

[2] Cuneo’s introduction provides some preliminary remarks on animal studies, a relatively new interdisciplinary sub-discipline. Using the example of a contemporary news anecdote as a starting place, she presents the relationship between human and nonhuman animals as one of exploitation, whereby humans project values onto nonhuman animals:

We literally freight their bodies with messages about ourselves, encrypted in our social and cultural codes, meant to be read and understood by other humans. We use all kinds of animals as homing “devices,” to tell ourselves and others who we are, where we are, and where we are going. We use animals to orient ourselves, to fix our position in mutually inflected physical, social, economic, political, cultural, moral, philosophical, even spiritual and confessional systems of identity and epistemology. (p. 2)

Nonhuman animals, as depicted in the paintings, engravings, manuals, and historical testimonies examined in this volume, serve to inform our understanding of early modern identities, lived and self-fashioned: ‘Engaging in physical practices and/or the reception of textual/visual representations of them, early modern people used animals – their appearances, their behaviors, as well as symbolic and metaphorical associations with them – to define, to contest, and to transcend boundaries of identity’ (p. 14). This passage elaborates on the theme suggested in the title: the essays in this volume consider nonhuman animals and their representations not as a way of illuminating our understanding of the animals themselves, but rather for what they teach us about early modern human identity. That being said, Cuneo’s introduction – which foreshadows certain passages in some of the contributors’ essays – somewhat surprisingly ends with a kind of call to action, suggesting the possibility, it would seem, for the convergence of study and action in regards to our relationships with nonhuman animals, perhaps even a praxis of animal studies:

Although some of those interactions between animals and humans might look somewhat different now than they did five hundred years ago, we are still using animals to perform identity work. Thus we need to think about our role in the “real” postmodern world is as we think about and interact with animals. What are the physical and ethical consequences of our interactions? (p. 15)

In general, the historical and literary artefacts studied by scholars working on nonhuman animals in the early modern period rarely reveal any true curiosity in nonhuman animals themselves. Cuneo organizes the essays that follow into three parts around the notion of identity: ‘Part I: Defending the Boundaries of Identity’ (pp. 17-148); ‘Part II: Contesting the Boundaries of Identity’ (pp. 149-267); and ‘Part III: Transcending the Boundaries of Identity’ (pp. 269-389).

[3] The essays in Part I consider depictions of nonhuman animals which reinforce conventional notions of human animal behaviour, whether positive or negative. In the first essay, Alison G. Stewart examines the role of dogs and pigs as represented in sixteenth-century literature and art, focusing on woodcuts and moralizing texts from the city of Nuremberg. She finds that both dogs and pigs became emblematic of undesirable human behaviour, namely drunkenness and gluttony. In the next chapter, Susan Maxwell looks at the representation of animals in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century German art, arguing that rulers were increasingly interested in artistic depictions of animals because of the growing influence of the natural sciences and emblematic art. Particular to this situation is the representation of nonhuman animals accompanying Orpheus and responding to his music, for these images reveal an acknowledgment of nonhuman cognizance.

[4] Moving away from Germany, the next essay, ‘Where the Sun Don’t Shine: Animals and Animality in Louis XIV’s Royal Labyrinth of Versailles (1668-74)’ by Peter Sahlins, considers animal sculptures from one of the earliest additions to Versailles under Louis XIV, a labyrinth that was destroyed sixty years after his death. According to contemporary testimonies, the nonhuman animal figures in the labyrinth provided an expression of violent animality rooted in zoological knowledge, very different from the more graceful and fantastical depictions of animals throughout the rest of Versailles’ gardens. Sahlins argues that the ferocious nature of the labyrinth’s nonhuman animals reflected a conception of humanity, which would in turn justify Louis XIV’s absolutist reign. Despite this generally negative depiction of nonhuman animals in the labyrinth, echoing Descartes’ contemporary writings on animals, Sahlins points out that in its ‘symbolic attribution of speech and passion to animals,’ the labyrinth actually went against the notion of animal mechanism advanced by Descartes.

[5] Organized over the end of Part I and the beginning of Part II, chapters four through eight all consider horses. This extended focus is not surprising given the horse’s status as the most noble of nonhuman animals in pre-Romantic Europe. Miriam Hall Kirch’s contribution analyzes the horseraces that took place in Neuberg on the Donau during the sixteenth century. Similarly, Magdelena Beyreuther looks at the practice of horse-breeding in eighteenth-century Prussia, while horsemanship and hunting are at the centre of Peter Edwards’ study of Sir Richard Newdigate. In these three chapters, we see how English and German nobles used horses to reinforce their status as public displays of power and wealth, as well as microcosms of their mastery of the natural world. A less noble representation of horses and horsemanship is found in Cuneo’s contribution to the book. A fascinating analysis of Hans Baldung Grien’s woodcut Bewitched Groom, her chapter presents a new reading of this piece as a potential criticism of man’s overwhelming obsession, both sexual and pecuniary, with horses. In the following chapter, Ingrid Cartwright looks at Maurits of Nassau’s stallion, stolen from the Spanish in war. Rendered as a symbol of Dutch victory in a famous painting by Jacques de Gheyn II, the horse also points to Maurits’ interest in horsemanship, as illustrated in his military reforms, which were informed by the Dutch humanist Justus Lipsius.

[6] In Chapter 9, Karen Raber offers the first literary analysis of the book, reading Shakespeare’s Richard III through the iconography surrounding the boar, who had become his emblem, concluding that this link serves to reinforce Richard’s representation as a violent, excessive monarch. Corine Schleif argues for animal agency in her article on the Geese Book, an early modern liturgical manuscript, examining three groups of animals related to the text – the animals whose bodies make up the material book; the animals who served as models for the animals depicted in the books iconography; and the human animals who saw themselves reflected in the book’s animal imagery. Moving away from Europe, Sandra Swart considers the role domesticated animals played in the relationship between the Dutch East India Company settlers and the Khoisan people of the Cape.

[7] Part III opens with Abel A. Alves’s survey of animals in early modern Spanish culture. In the next chapter, Larry Silver turns to the artistic fascination for exotic animals across Europe. In one of the more nuanced contributions to the book, Louisa Mackenzie uses Bruno Latour’s theories of identity and science to contextualize two sixteenth-century French natural historians, Pierre Belon and Guillaume Rondelet, both of whom consider fantastic, imaginary sea monsters in their books. Drawing on a hotchpotch of sources from seventeenth-century England, Elspeth Graham considers the few instances in which fish are given any attention. Finally, in Juliana Schiesari’s chapter, we return to the subject of horses and their link to nobility. Unlike the previous articles on horses in this book, however, Schiesari considers how dressage unites both man and horse in an idealized, regulated practice.

[8] This volume is an important contribution to the field of animal studies, which is generally lacking in scholarship concerning the early modern world. What becomes obvious in this and other books on the subject – see, for example, Erica Fudge (ed.) Renaissance Beasts: Of Animals, Humans, and Other Wonderful Creatures (University of Illinois Press, 2004) – is that early modern Europeans held only a cursory interest in the lives of nonhuman animals, most often looking to them in order to understand or represent their own identities. Despite some notable exceptions, like the suggestions of animal agency found in the chapters by Maxwell, Sahlins, and Cuneo, the texts and art examined in this volume are indicative of the limits of this perspective, nonhuman animals being featured primarily as details or accessories to human life. Reinforcing human hegemony both in what they represent as well as in the fact that they are passive agents, owned and depicted by humans, nonhuman animals are only rarely of interest in and of themselves.

[9] It might just be the case that concern for nonhuman animals in their own right is a strictly post-Romantic, or even post-Victorian interest, not to be projected on our shared past. Indeed, it is worth noting that while some of the book’s contributors – notably Cuneo, whose introduction is downright political in places, but also Schleif and Graham – make the connection between early modern attitudes towards animals and the attitudes of our contemporary worlds, most of the authors suggest no such thing and, much like their early modern subjects, are more invested in what nonhuman animals reveal about humans than vice versa. This approach is nonetheless illuminating for our understanding of early modern identities, but ultimately, the essays in this book and in similar volumes teach us more about early modern humans than they do about nonhuman animals, past or present.

University of Western Ontario, March 2015 

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