Sunday, 10 January 2016
What is a Pet? A Historical Perspective
Pets are important to me and I can’t imagine life without them. Fortunately, in the modern day pet keeping is accepted and thought of as normal – but this wasn’t always the case.
In medieval times it was the strongly held Christian belief that God created animals for the use of man. Animals had the status of slaves, there to serve, with man as their superior. It was held that a deep affection for a pet was a sin.
Times were tough so you can understand this functional outlook on life. After all if you were a regular man or woman struggling to feed your family, then it could easily be argued it was a sin to put food into the mouth of an animal that didn’t have a use or purpose.
Although people did keep pets in the dark and middle ages, this was largely the preserve of the wealthy. Any self-respecting Lord and his lady kept pets because they had the money to do so and wanted to advertise the fact as a sign of their status and power. Indeed, these pets were often overweight as they were overfed to make it obvious that their owner wanted for nothing.
In medieval times people expected animals to live outdoors and to be functional, so the idea of indoor animals that existed purely for companionship or amusement seemed alien and extravagant.
It took a shift in attitude in the 18th century, for pet-keeping to become more widely accepted. This change took place because of a philosophical argument that taking good care of animals articulated what it was to be a human or “humane”. Keeping a pet was looked on as a sign of moral-care rather than profligacy.
In the 18th century saw the birth of consumerism. More people were living in towns and cities, and so more people were spending more time indoors. The idea of “indoor animals” or pets was truly born. As the British Empire expanded and travelers returned with exotic animals, this coincided perfectly regular people having a modicum of disposable cash and their interest in keeping pets.
But what of the word “pet” itself?
The first reference to a “pet” comes from 1539 and refers to a lamb hand-reared in the house. These two characteristics, being tame and living in the house, formed the basis for the definition of pet but fails to hint at the favoritism with which pets are held.
A modern definition is: “A domestic or tamed animal or bird kept for companionship or pleasure.”
And finally, historian Prof Keith Thomas proposed three defining features of a medieval pet:
· It’s kept in the house
· It’s given a name
· It’s never eaten…
Can’t say fairer than that!