What Makes a Human, Human ? :Breeding and Bestiality in the Early Modern Period

Whilst reading Erica Fudge’s article Monstrous Acts, it was clear to see, that throughout time the topic of bestiality ,and cross-breeding has been a been an interesting conversation of topic. From Aristotle’s belief that ‘Indian dogs’ are the cross between to tigers and actual dogs, to the Early Modern Period, and  now to modern day (and that not just because I’m going to write a blog post about it !). Technological advances have questioned creations like the proposed Saudi-Arabian born ‘snake baby’, and how factual these creations are! Whether it is factual, or forged, the article explores the wide spectrum of different attitudes towards cross breeding and bestiality, in the Early Modern Period.

The Catholic ‘Monk-Calf’ :Image made to distort the views of catholic.

Image credit : Pitts Theology Library , Emory University

Although Fudge does touch upon this, I aim to evaluate deeper and ask the ‘big’ question: How serious was bestiality taken during the Early Modern Period?

So, Post- Reformation was bestiality taken seriously? The answer is yes, it was taken very seriously. The religious reformation and its publications had taken its toll, and people were starting to evaluate what made a human, human.[1]

An example of this can be found in Luther’s pamphlet, Duttung der czwo grewlichen Figuren Bapstesel czu Rom und Munchkalbs zu Freijberg ijnn Meiisszen funden, published in 1523, a catholic monk was portrayed as a ‘monk-calf’[2]

.With Catholics being portrayed as being cross- breeds, a propaganda method which aimed to show Catholics as their ‘true-selves’ using the tool of religious polemic, there was an excruciating amount of pressure to separate the men from the monsters. Whereas before the reformation, the Early Modern Period being a religious society, did punish because of Levitcus 18.23, Leviticus 20.15 was rarely enforced. After, a clear enforcement of Leviticus 20.15 and Exodus 22:19 was enforced as seen by a case in Scotland, Tom Betteridge explains in his book Sodomy in Early Modern Europe , which happened on the 1702, where two men John Moore and William McAdam, were accused of bestiality and were sentenced to be ‘stranglit at a stake, till they be dead and bodies burnt to ashes’[3]; A penalty which would happen rarely, before the reformation.

‘It is fund be ane assyse that John Moor  and William MacAdam ar guiltie of the crymes of bestialitie contenir in ther severall dittays [indicments], and therefore the commisiooners and I in ther name ordane and adjudge thame to tane upon wodinsday  … there to be stranglit at the stake till hey be dead, and ther bodies burnt to ashes…’[4]

As mentioned in Leviticus 20.15 and Fudge’s article, there was also a reinforcement of how bestiality made the animal somewhat ‘dirty’ and because of this they had to die, especially after the reformation. this was also seen by the calves, of Moore and MacAdams, who were killed on the accusation of their crime[5]. To put this all in perspective, if bestiality made some innocent animals dirty, imagine how it made the human who committed the ‘vyild and fylithie’ crime look, in a time were distinguishing animals and humans were vital? (Hint: In case you didn’t get it, not so good!)

However, before the reformation, and very early in the Early Modern Period, it can be argued that bestiality wasn’t really taken as seriously, definitely less sternly than the post-reformation years. Mentioned by Fudge, bestiality and zoophilic relations was certainly not a new entity. The fact that it was even mentioned in the old testament should tell us this! An example of this is, in Aeliean’s On the Characteristics of Animals, were the relationship between a ‘groom’ and a young mare is shown, and whereby the young mare is in love with the horse, in second century AD[6]. Although, bestiality was a punishable offence as the very early modern century did follow the bible which includes Levitcus 18.23, the penalties compared to the post-reformation could be considered as somewhat unusually lenient. For example, in Fudge’s article it mentions how early penitential manuals found punishments were masturbation or sins with a beast, was only punishable by doing two years of penance. With this, the punishment varied whether the man had a wife or not. This reveals societies not so much acceptance but less concerned attitude when it came to bestiality. One may argue as Joyce Salisbury in The Beast Within (1994), that humans didn’t distinguish themselves from animals as much as they did post-reformation[7]. As an offence looked on by society as particularly disgusting, should surely have a more detrimental punishment, and shouldn’t considers your spouse, especially if its against God in a religious society, right?

Although, there are different levels of seriousness towards bestiality, it can also be noted that some had a completely different approach to the idea of bestiality; ‘a scientific approach’. Fudge lightly touches the topic, as she does discuss how Ambroise Parè in his works tries to derive to some kind of understanding of deformed baby’s origin. Looking deeper into this, I found in his work Des Monstres written in 1573, he does not continue blaming deformed births on a bestiality relationship, but instead on some supernatural elements – ‘Gods glory, Gods wrath or demonic intervention’[8]. This is similar to others such as Thomas Browne, who in 1646 wrote Pseudodoxia epidemica , where he explores the different reasons as to how ignorance and superstition of society has led them to believe the absurd folk tales which come along with the terrible crime of bestiality.[9]

The first page of Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) : source

So, not everyone was dragged into the scientifically impossible tales of real ‘half monks’ it seems. As well as showing a different approach this approach to bestiality could also show the shift to a more modern society, where by folk tales and mystical explanations weren’t the only reasoning’s for different proceedings which occurred.

All in all, it can be said that during the beginning of the Early Modern Period the subject of being a human wasn’t not very relevant, and so the subject of bestiality, although frowned upon wasn’t enforced heavily with harsh punishments. Animals were seen as, voiced by  Salisbury, as being not too far off humans , sharing emotions ,such a ‘anger and jealousy’[10]. Bestiality was generally considered ‘a part of life’[11]. This not only showed that bestiality’s punishments were not enforced by religion, but instead the publications and the new reformation seemed to make a difference in how people saw bestiality, were punished, and how the uses of bible verses like Leviticus  supported this. Although there is the issue of how serious bestiality was taken, it is also clear to see, how others took a completely different approach using bestiality tales to build their case against deformed births, and the folk tales which came along with them. It’s safe to say the different views, are expected as would there be different views explanations on bestiality, and its produce today.


Betteridge, Tom. Sodomy in early modern Europe. Manchester University Press, 2002.

Browne, Thomas. Pseudodoxia epidemica. Vol. 2. University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Fudge, Erica. “Monstrous acts: Bestiality in eary modern England.” History Today 50.8 (2000): 20.

Melanchthon, Philipp. Deuttung der czwo grewliche [n] Figuren Bapstesels czu Rom und Munchkalbs zu Freyberg ynn Meysszen funden. Rau-Grunenberg.

Miletski, Hani. “A history of bestiality.” Anthrozoos-Journal of the International Society for Anthrozoology 18 (2005): 1-22.

Paré, Ambroise. Des monstres et prodiges. No. 115. Librairie Droz, 1971.

Salisbury, Joyce E. The beast within: animals in the Middle Ages. Routledge, 2011.

Scholfield, Alwyn Faber, ed. On the characteristics of animals. Vol. 3. Loeb Classical Library, 1958.


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