Christianity had a huge impact on how some parts of the world saw animals. The teaches claimed that God had given man the right to rule over animals, that they were made for us and each animal had a specific purpose. The bestiaries of the middle ages encompass this way of thinking. Animals were used to teach religious principles and morality through illustrated lessons.
In medieval times, we have people living alongside their animals, often farmers sharing their home with their stock. This meant they knew each animal individually and valued them because of their contribution. This type of relationship had been the case for thousands of years before but would soon be changed.
When the black plague hit Europe, animals were looked at with suspicion. Scapegoats were needed to quell the panic and try and set the world back in order. In particular, wild and potentially diseased animals were seen as dangerous and were often killed as a way of cleansing the community. It was around this time that we saw animals being put on trial for crimes, in a serious way, just as humans were.
Renaissance thinking brought a more scientific way of looking at the world and with it, nature became something to be investigated, to be put under a microscope. Again this was looking at animals as something that were here for us, as instruments, a world view that kept humans in the centre of the universe.
In the 1600s, Descartes presented animals as equipment, as mechanical objects that don’t feel pain and this was another way of rationalising poor treatment.
Moving forward, we find the Enlightenment playing host to conversations and debates about animals as philosophical and ethical subjects. This was fuelled by urbanisation and commodification of animals, the increase of print media and the popularity of vivisection in science. Around the same time, farmers began moving animals out of their home, putting distance between man and beast which would of course have an impact on how animals were viewed. The urbanisation and industrialisation of England would take the urban rural divide and amp it up. The gulf between human and animals would grow and animals would increasingly be seen as commodities and would thus be treated badly.
By the 18th century, controlled breeding was happening which would change the very species themselves, more so than domestication had, into the most efficient object for our use. Animals were being turned into the food machines that Descartes saw them as. Around this time, it was also being argued that domestication was good for animals – they were protected from predators, given a reliable and regular source of food and butchering them was an act of kindness that prevented suffering.
“Farm animals became statistics rather than individuals, which took into account their marketability, the level of meat production, and the density of customer populations. By the end of the eighteenth century, farm animals were mathematized.”
– Brian Fagan
Up until this point in time, animals determined how humans lived, now humans were determining how animals lived, and even how they grew. The depersonalisation of animals was increasing at a pace as rapid as industrialisation.
Darwin’s work on evolution, whilst it took a long time to take hold, also changed how we looked at animals. For some people, it confirmed that (western) humans are the highest evolutionary point, for others it connected us to (some) animals.
During the 1700s and 1800s, pet keeping was becoming more common. But class mattered. At first pet keeping was for the upper classes whilst the animals of lower classes were looked down upon. By the 19th century, pets were much more widespread and this brought with it another change in how we see animals. It started to be accepted that animals, at least pets, had personalities and were individuals that should be treated well. Juxtaposed against this increase in pet keeping was an increase in big game hunting which would symbolise dominating nature, conquering the wild and imperialism.
The reputation of Britain also changed over the last few hundred years. In the 1700s we were perceived as being cruel to animals, as having an indifference towards the suffering of animals and generally thought to be harsh towards them. By the end of the 1800s, treating animals well had become part of what it meant to be British. For a while, during the wars, animal kindness took a bit of a backseat but would be revived in the 1960s and 70s.
Today we seem to care about animals as individuals, as status symbols – such as #animalselfie – and sometimes from a conservation perspective. However, we also still very much see a divide between humans and other animals, with humans being the superior side of this. This is having, and will continue to have, devastating impacts on the world we live in. Unless we change how we see non-human animals and nature, sustainable change will not be made.