Friday, October 07, 2005

Colonial Animals Bring out Witty Historical Writing

When historians plant tongue in cheek, they deserve recognition. This is how Gregory Nobles opens his review ("Bovine Invaders, Porcine Imperialists" HA!) of Virginia DeJohn Anderson's Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America:
Did cattle cause King Philip's War? Might swine give new meaning to the term Bacon's Rebellion? Could dumb brutes exert agency in shaping human history? The answer to all three questions is "Yes—sort of." And yes, there are many more, and probably better, questions to emerge from this smart and fascinating study of the role of farm animals in seventeenth-century American society. With a clear sense of where she's going and how to get there, Virginia DeJohn Anderson skillfully shepherds us through a familiar time and territory that we thought had already been grazed over far too many times, leading us into greener intellectual pastures, which give us plenty of fresh ideas to chew on.
It got my attention and a couple of guffaws along the way. Just as funny (and startling!) was this excerpt from Anderson's book:
Anderson notes that seventeenth-century England, with a human population of just over five million, also contained an estimated four million cattle, twelve million sheep, and two million pigs. Indeed, she also cites a contemporary reckoning that "the ideal husbandman spent far more time each day with his livestock than with his wife and children—as much as 14 of 17 waking hours" (85). Such familiarity could breed something other than contempt, and some farmers "developed sentimental ties with their animals that seemed to match in emotional intensity their connections to relatives and friends" (91). This emotional intensity occasionally led to licentious excess, and bestiality became both a concern and a capital crime on both sides of the Atlantic, especially in Puritan New England, where four men suffered execution between 1640 and 1647.
Like I said, this is the kind of writing that makes history fun.

No comments: