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Nouvelles Pod #6 - Kathleen Walker-Meikle - Medieval Animals


Interviewer: Gillian Zhang (GZ); Interviewee: Kathleen Walker-Meikle (KW);

Time: December 20, 2021; Location: Zoom

Interview Transcript 

GZ: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Nouvelles Nouvelles podcast. I am Gillian Zhang. Today we are very pleased to invite Dr. Kathleen Walker-Meikle to have a brief conversation with us. Dr. Walker-Meikle received her PhD from University College London. Her research interests focus on the relationship between animals and humans, particularly in medicine and natural history. She has published a number of books including Medieval Pets (2012), which is the first social and cultural study of companion animals in the late medieval period, and two charming gift books, Medieval Cats and Medieval Dogs. Her research has also included works on medieval toxicology and animal bites, the 11th-and-12th -century pharmacology in the Antidotorium magnum, late medieval magic and cosmology, and most recently, skin diseases and animal skin on the Renaissance Skin Project at King's College London. Early this month [Dec. 3, 2021], Dr. Walker-Meikle gave a fabulous keynote address entitled “Rabies, Scabies, Beast and Man: Animals and Disease in the Medieval and Early Modern Period” in CMRS’s annual symposium. Recently, she has started at the Science Museum Group in London as Research Grant Manager. With that, Dr. Walker-Meikle, thank you for joining us today. 

KW: Thank you very much. And thanks very much for inviting me to your podcast. 

GZ: When did you start getting interested in the whole idea of studying the Medieval and Renaissance period, and what brought your attention to animals? 

KW: Well, I started off as an undergraduate actually very interested in the ancient world. By the time I started postgraduate study, I thought, I'll stay in Late Antiquity, and then I found myself slowly getting drawn to the early Middle Ages, high Middle Ages, and then late Middle Ages. I think why I love the Medieval period is that it always defies stereotypes and common assumptions. To me, that is wonderful that I'm working in a period in which people just have such really strong stereotypes of what it was like and then discovering something new every day. I also love working in a field in which you really have to work hands-on with your sources. You might be reading manuscripts that nobody has perhaps really studied in depth for hundreds of years. You are moving parchment pages, which are basically preserved animal skins, and looking at words written on them. So to me, that's part of the love for the Middle Ages. For animals, I started actually quite early on. When I wasn’t getting interested in the Middle Ages, I started by seeing animals and bestiaries, these wonderful medieval didactic religious texts, in which model tales are told through animals, and they're often superbly illustrated. Then I began to think, well, animals are interesting and started there. And from there, I've really never stopped. I've tried to go when in with any other field I've looked at whether it's medicine or science, there's always an animal angle, whether it's looking at animals that are diseased, or looking at the diseases that animals give us, more looking at pets. 

GZ: I see. I think your early research focused on the animals like as pets. Did you have a pet, or what primary sources led you to study the animals that were a companion to humans? 

KW: This was my PhD on medieval pet keeping. And I didn't originally start looking at pets. I originally was looking at animals in medicine and medical texts. And my PhD supervisor, the wonderful Professor David d’Avray, asked me one day, I think on about the second week, “Did they keep pets in Middle Ages?” And I looked at him and I said, “I don't really know.” And he said, “Well, come back next week when you know the answer.” So I went off to the British Library, which fortunately – being University College London, there's only about five minutes walk away – and spent the next week looking around, and all of a sudden finding, they were keeping tons of pets. And nobody really had done much work on this. And I was particularly interested in certain aspects of how animals are gendered. What are suitable animals for men, for women, for clerics, for people in different walks of life. And so I then went back to him and said, “Well, I'm changing my PhD topic, I'm now going to be doing pets.” And it's through the entire PhD, almost the first question at any conference paper would be, “Do you have a pet?” Because I think people had this idea that I either had half a dozen Dachshunds or was a crazy cat lady, and that couldn't explain this mania. I have to say that I did not have a pet when I was doing the PhD. At the moment, however, I do have a rescue cat, called Tommy. I often would be very firm and tried to make a distinction that this is an academic study of pets. This is very serious. It is possibly because Animal Studies is a lot more respected in academia [now] than it was. Several years ago, I remember, when I started, it was seen as slightly flippant and not real history. When I would be at a conference, and somebody would be saying like, “I’m working on this particular aspect of literacy and nuns,” and someone else was saying, “Well, I'm doing Norwegian kingship.” And I would say, “Well, I'm doing late medieval pets,” and you could almost see the giggles among everyone [thinking] that's not serious history. I would be saying that it is. To me, it is an entire interesting aspect of social and cultural history. It is just as important as knowing, what were people eating? What did people wear? How would they live their lives? Particularly, I find animals could help me to ask very interesting questions, because we've always had this very nebulous connection to them. What are we, as humans, if not another animal? I always found in my work, for example, clerics and scholars writing Latin elegies about, “I hope my little dog goes to heaven.” You think at the same time, illogically, this really shouldn't be working, but they are cheerfully writing, and there are just so many sources. Partially, I think I was so free, because I was working at that time in a field, where I was practically just the one person. I just looked at anything I could. I would go through all accounts and see if I could find references to feeding dogs, or pet animal accessories, like collars for cats, or parrot cages. A lot of [this required] a huge amount of work, because materials usually would be poorly indexed or not indexed at all. I would just go down rabbit holes, and I would just assume things like, let's go through all the tax records for Paris in the thirteenth century and see if we can find references to people selling pets, or making items for pets like cages and dog baskets. Actually, in the end, it was very rich.  

GZ: I think that's a wonderful story, that you realized not many people focused on medieval pets. And you were doing this groundbreaking research. You mentioned that the British Library is not far away from UCL, so you must benefit a lot from the resources collected there. I also noticed that your first two gift books, Medieval Cats and Medieval Dogs, used the manuscripts from the British Library. Is it because you went there a lot that you have this collaboration with them? 

KW: It was the case that the British Library is always fabulous, and was very useful. And during my PhD, I used a huge amount of rare book libraries and archives, including the British Library, Bodleian [Library at Oxford University], several Oxford and Cambridge college libraries, [and] material in France. I also looked at a huge amount of material in Italy. Particularly, I think in a chapter I wrote about animals of court, which were involved a lot in archives in Mantua, but also looking at material in Venice. Actually, not long after my PhD, I was approached by British Library Publishing, and they asked me, “Would you like to write some little books about medieval dogs or medieval cats that highlight the animals in our collection?” For reference, they have been recently published under different titles. It's now Cats in Medieval Manuscripts and Dogs in Medieval Manuscripts, because the previous titles are out of print. [. . .] the little books they have a selection on each page of a medieval source about a dog or cat, and then an illustration. To give the disproportionate nature of medieval illuminations of cats versus dogs, the volume on cats, Cats in Medieval Manuscripts, has cats from both the British Library and the Bodleian Library in Oxford, because I needed about 60 images. Meanwhile, for the one on Dogs in Medieval Manuscripts, because dogs overtake cats by about 1:20 in medieval illuminations, that whole book has purely got dogs from the British Library because there were just so many. It was a case where I really chose which ones I wanted. Meanwhile, with cats, it was a case of if I can find a cat in this manuscript, it's going in. 

GZ: Okay, I see. I know you explored tons of manuscripts and looked at the images and literature of animals or medieval pets. Were there animals that were kept as pets in the medieval period, but would it be hard to imagine having one as a pet in the present time? 

KW: That's a very good question. A hugely popular pet in the Middle Ages is the red squirrel. They used to keep these squirrels on little leashes. They often had little collars. People would take the squirrel out for little walks, or you would go walking with the squirrel on your shoulder. It was just very popular, appearing in illuminations. I found references to squirrel collars in aristocratic and royal accounts. In literary sources, they talked and laughed about people spoiling their pet squirrels. It is an animal that now seems really unpopular, even though I did find a very close parallel in 18th-century colonial America, when there was an entire fad for gray squirrels, because you don't have red squirrels in America. For gray squirrels, they were kept as pets. I found a nice selection of paintings of people keeping animals as pets. I have to say that if I was doing the research nowadays, I probably could have even more access to imagery than I had then, because just in the past fifteen years alone, the amount of digitized material that is now available is huge. I mean, you know, I have an entire Twitter account, Medieval_Badger, for reference, which mainly concentrates on just animal imagery. There's just so much now available online that just wasn't there. I think of other unusual pets is that there's a late-15th-early-16th-century Italian artist Giovanni Bazzi, known as Il Sodoma, who kept pet badgers. I was rather delighted when visiting a monastery in Tuscany, Monte Oliveto Maggiore, where he painted the frescoes of the life of Saint Benedict in the cloisters, and there was a self-portrait of Giovanni Bazzi with his pet badgers, and they have little weird collars. Possibly again on unusual animals, … [the] French King Charles VIII – I found a record in his accounts to pet marmots. The marmot is like a groundhog. They had little jackets that were made out of velvet that were made out of both red and tan little squares. His little marmots were wearing jackets! There are two aspects I have found very entertaining: (1) references to the animals wearing very over-the-top accessories, things like squirrels with collars covered in pearls, or marmots with little velvet jackets; (2) and the other one that always entertained me was references to pets that were too fat. 

GZ: I see, because people liked to feed them. 

KW: And actually, it was a good thing to look for, because you found lots of criticism, particularly for example of preachers would complain about why do people just keep their pets so fat, and not give that money to poor people? It was actually a good thing to look for in sermons of preachers complaining about fat pets, but I was always very fond of fat pets and pets wearing lots of bling. 

GZ: Yeah, those are all very interesting stories. How could we know they were pets or they were just animals in nature? And you mentioned, for example, sometimes they were too fat, or sometimes they wear collars or a jacket, so in that way, they are kind of similar to human beings, because we wear clothes, but usually the animals in nature don't wear anything, right? 

KW: No. I found it was actually a very helpful thing when I was trying to define what I should call a pet. I realized very early on, I could not just stick with an animal that you have a strong emotional connection to, because if I did that, then I would have people [with] strong emotional connections to horses, or farm animals. I didn't want to have the entire PhD filled with donkeys, so I specified that that it had to be an animal mostly kept for companionship. And it had to be an animal that you often have indoors or in your internal space. It's not kept outside in kennels or doesn't live outside. I was also interested in things, for example, animals that [you] can give names to, or animals that you especially feed, rather than just let them try to find their own food. However, the two things I particularly looked for were companionship and being kept inside. This of course then led me to all these wonderful references of people complaining about dogs on the table, cats on chairs, and pets on beds. There were lots of references to pets on beds. I was always delighted because to me that made a very clear distinction. A pet is an artificial category of animal. It's a human construct. To me that was very helpful when trying to identify what these animals were. 

GZ: Okay, I see. So yeah, they were usually staying in the interiors. I think later on you switched your research direction to skin disease and animal bites from pets. When did you switch the research direction? 

KW: As soon as I finished my PhD, I got a grant to be a fellow at the Wellcome Trust Center for the History of Medicine at UCL for a year, working on medieval medicine and animals, which was my remit. There were always animals, but I began to get very interested in, for example, animals in pharmacological products, the use of an animal’s body parts. Often the kind of things that people laugh about in medieval medicine such as you know, putting burnt hedgehogs on your head to cure baldness. All those kinds of recipes I was very interested in. Why were certain animals [used]? Why would you use them? Where were they getting this material from? I then received a Wellcome Trust grant with the University of York on animal bites. And in many ways, I call this almost the opposite of pets. That was when animals were nice, and then I was very interested in animals biting you. ... When I started with pets, people used to tell me that you can't do a PhD on that; there's no sources. I would say “No, I have too many sources.” And similarly with bites, I could write an entire book just on one species of snake biting people in the Middle Ages, because there was so much material. I got very interested in toxicology, and rabies, and ... on to ideas of animal diseases and animal skin. Even with the animal diseases, I'm very interested in zoonotic diseases, which is very actually apt in our current age of COVID-19. The ideas of diseases that are shared between both humans and animals are ones in which there’s transmission between animals and humans, and vice versa. I started this when I was looking at rabies, and then looking at skin diseases in which you're sharing the same mites. Actually, one of my latest projects at this very moment is working with a team of ancient DNA specialists in Switzerland. We're trying to basically identify leprosy and plague in rodents in the Middle Ages. They are looking at bones of squirrels, bones of rats, to see what strain of disease these animals had. I joined the project because they emailed me and they said, “We're looking for somebody who knows something about medieval squirrels. Would this be you?” I did feel like saying, “Well, it's probably JUST me.” This has started an entire fascinating avenue of work, in which I'm now looking at the fact that not only were they keeping squirrels as pets, but it's the number one fur in the late Middle Ages … They were using hundreds of thousands of squirrel bellies to line all these clothes. And it's very much connected because it's believed that leprosy in the Middle Ages was a zoonotic disease going between squirrels and humans. That's the squirrel connection. So yes, I have to say, I don't think I'll ever leave animals because there's just so many avenues and it's just such a rich vein to [pursue].  

GZ: When I read your paper or your book, I realize there are so many footnotes. That surprised me because you provide us so many resources that we just didn't pay enough attention to. As you mentioned, you're studying toxicology in the medieval period, and it's related to science history and natural history. It is definitely an interdisciplinary project. It bridges humanities and science. So, during this process, what's the most difficult thing for your research?  

KW: I wouldn't say it's difficult, but I would say the challenge is that, from the very start, I had to be very interdisciplinary. Right from the start, I was reading zooarchaeological reports. I was getting quite obsessive. I would go and look through any report on animals dug up in the Middle Ages to see what type of animals these could be. You'd be looking at literary sources, looking at everything from letters to poetry, historical sources. You're going through everything from sermons to chronicles. It's a challenge, I enjoy it, but I would say it's just a huge amount of material. Even, for example, medical material – you mentioned toxicology. I'd be looking for snakebite, and I’d find this in surgical texts; you then go and find this perhaps in texts on medieval pharmacy, and in different genres, so you have to be very adaptable. This does mean having to read a lot of secondary literature, and trying to keep up with finding so much material. Yes, I do like footnotes. I have to say that for the Medieval Pets book, I must thank my editor at Boydell and Brewer, Caroline Palmer, for making me make those endnotes much smaller. I have to confess that I am one of those academics that enjoy a nice, long footnote, and she really wisely steered me into making them a little bit more concise, and so that they were not, you know, taking up half a page per footnote. Recently I've got an article coming out on an Arabic text that was translated in the 11th-12th century on animals. It's all about using the body parts of animals from medicine and magic. To me, it's just a perfect example that this field is just so rich.  

GZ: Yes, I think based on your research, I can see there are so many directions and [so much] potential to study human-animal relationships. I still have another question. Because I'm studying art history and visual culture, I noticed that you always paid attention to the iconography of animals in your research, so I'm very curious about whether there is an example in which the image contrasts with the literary descriptions in the textual material. 

KW: Not a case of contrast, but it was often the case that it was actually strengthened. For example, I might find in sermon literature preachers complaining about fat dogs, and then I would see Books of Hours for female owners, in which they are accompanied by very clearly rotund little fat dogs. These are drawn in quite a noted fashion, different from sleek hunting hounds. They're very clearly fat [Labrador] dogs. Getting back to squirrels, I first saw that in a Hans Holbein’s Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling. She is holding a squirrel with a little chain and a collar. At the time, I thought that's unusual, but did they actually have them with collars in squirrels, or is it just a little artistic affectation? I was delighted to see accounts, going through poetry references to know it isn’t [just an affectation limited to paintings]. They are putting little collars on their squirrel. I think iconography can really strengthen [textual evidence] … Sometimes when I see a lot of animals, particularly Medieval and Renaissance iconography, I am quite obsessive about it. I will go to an art gallery, and it will be a case of “there's a dog,” “there's a cat,” and “there's a pet that you want.” If you're next to me as I go to any collection that sort of pre-1800, you are warned that that's me throughout. However, I've always thought that so often the imagery of animals gets reduced to pure symbolism, so that people would say, “It's a dog, symbol of fidelity. That's why they're carrying it,” or “That's a cat. It's evil. That's why it's there.” Because these were animals that I'd done a lot of work on, seeing that they're very ordinary pets, sometimes their inclusion there was quite basic. They're there because they're kept as pets. It's normal that you'd expect to see them. At the foot of an aristocratic lady, yes, you would expect to see a dog, as you expect to see her in beautiful clothes. She has a dog that's almost an automatic accessory. Similarly, for example, in religious paintings, paintings of the Last Supper in the Renaissance, it's very common at the middle of the Last Supper that there will be a dog and a cat fighting, or there will be a dog and a cat eating table scraps. Sometimes I found that this would be overly interpreted. Is the cat Judas? What does the dog represent? Rather than just a symbol, I think it's more like a symbol of domesticity. Dogs and cats are at dinner. Having a dog and a cat at a place next to a table, chairs, and food is not iconographically that strange. They would be seen as something completely normal when you were eating. 

GZ: I totally agree. Sometimes they probably don’t have any specific symbolic meaning, but just a common motif there.  

KW: Well, for the symbolism to work, it means that the animals still have to signify something. For example, when you see a hound at the foot of a knight, it can mean that the dog has very positive virtue of fidelity and faithfulness, but it also works on the fact that he is a knight and it has a strong connection of medieval hunting culture. Having a hound is not unusual, so it works both ways. I don’t think it’s an either/or. By the way, I do recommend this to anybody if you are looking at any Medieval or Renaissance art: do look out for the animals. Because once you start looking, you just can’t stop thinking “Oh my goodness, is this the age of animals?”  You would be seeing a courtly scene, then at the corner there would be a monkey on the head of a dog, and you would be saying, “Come on!” 

GZ: Haha, okay. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I don’t want to take too much of your time. I know you’re really busy, so maybe we will stop here. Thank you for spending the time with us. I wish you a relaxing holiday, since the holiday is approaching. 

KW: Thank you very much! I’ll probably be spending a lot of the time working on some articles that are due and some chapters that I have to finish, as most scholars sadly do, if they have got any spare time. Thank you so much for inviting me. It was delightful to talk, and I hope I’ve encouraged listeners to start looking at the [manuscript] pages and looking for animals. 

GZ: Thank you very much! 

KW: Thank you.