Bestiality – Its impact on Social and religious order

Sexual deviance is crucial if one wants to understand how early modern Europe defined the boundries between human and animal interactions, and the sort of relationship both species could have with each other. Bestiality is a form of sexual taboo and deviance and does not only refer to having sex with animals, it is also a metaphor to sodomy, homosexuality and a whole host of other sexual deviances that were condemned religiously and socially. In todays society engaging in bestiality would be a huge taboo, and it has never once been deemed standard, like other sexual acts that were once condemned such as masturbation. However these attitudes were not always seen as such a big taboo. For example in the second century A.D, records show a significant amount of human- animal relationships. However as time progressed, so did attitudes and opinions, and by the 16th and 17th century it had become a much more monstrous crime, that could pollute the population. In the 17th century Priests of the Irish penitential of Columban, “if anyone practices masturbation or sins with a beast he shall do penance for 2 years”[1]. However we must note that it was less sinful for a single man than a married man. This barbaric behaviour may have been due to a range of reasons. One religious factor being that a married man, by performing bestiality in effect is committing adultery on his wife. But also during this period we must consider that masturbation was seen as a sin,  so a couple during would only have intercourse for the purpose of pro- creation, and for a man to have enjoyed sex would have been considered sinful. Thus bestiality was condemned as a major sin and was depicted as a religious taboo because in many works and illustrations it was portrayed as supernatural and that these creatures being created were a warning from god, to warn us about our evilness, human’s foolishness and recklessness.

Bestiality was not only a religious taboo, but it was also a social taboo. Earlier we mentioned that bestiality, did not only refer to having sex with animals but it also referred to homosexuality. However as much as homosexuality was seen as sinful and disgusting, bestiality on the other hand was seen as a particular threat to the natural order and the natural hierarchy, “Bestiality broke the law of the land, they also broke the law of god and the natural order”[2]. One reason why bestiality broke the law of the natural order is because many people thought that humans and animals could reproduce with each other. One could not blame people for thinking in such a manner, as animals could be cross breed with other animals, “a mule, a cross between a donkey and a horse”[3], thus this led to tales and beliefs of human and animal interactions, “Aelian recorded the strange union of a human groom and a mare that produced a foal”[4]. A strange prodigy like a foal could have threatened the natural order because such creatures were not intended to be created, and these creatures where extremely unfamiliar and alien to humans. This emphasised that in the early modern period, what humans could not comprehend was perceived as terrifying and as a threat to the unknown world. But these creatures also highlighted the anxieties of the natural world that were particularly prevalent during the early modern period.

L0033076 A man copulating with a goat or deer. Gouache painting by
wellcome Library London, A man copulating with a goat or a deer. Iconographic collection.

The reformation and the scientific revolution, which occurred during the 16th and 17th century, (which coincidently is when attitudes towards bestiality began to shift and it as a result was looked upon as a more heinous crime) Began to inspect the human status and what differentiated a human from an animal. One of the main differences apart from the obvious physical features such as, standing on two legs, communicating in a complex manner, etc. A Human had a conscience, but during the early modern period it was still unknown as to how the conscience operated. Thus this embodies the fact that if animals and humans crossbreed, a monstrous creature with no conscience or self-awareness would be created thus undermining the natural and social order, which links back to bestiality being a social taboo, because wanting to have sex with a creature that has no conscience is extremely dangerous and threatening to the natural order.

Bestiality also evoked an emotional response among people that being, disgust, disbelief, ridicule and it had a powerful cultural resonance. Tales of bestiality were especially evident in the bible, “and you shall not lie with any animal and so make yourself unclean” [5] and literary texts. Bestiality was closely linked to profanity and ungodly like behaviours such as prostitution, adultery, drunkenness, sodomy, all of these disobedient acts threatened the social order. This is because during the early modern period there were very clear set rules on what was acceptable in society. For example men needed to be macho but also at the same time graceful, thus to apprehend such qualities men were expected to spend time with women to learn theses characteristics as well as spend time with other men. Thus bestiality could potentially cause social and natural in balances and undermine the human race through species pollution. And these species could potentially undermine the human race through their erratic behaviour threatening social order and civilization.

[1] Fudge monstrous acts, Bestiality in early modern England, Eric Fudge

[2] Fudge monstrous acts, Bestiality in early modern England, Eric fudge

[3] Fudge monstrous acts, Bestiality in early modern England, Eric fudge

[4] Fudge monstrous acts, Bestiality in early modern England, Eric Fudge

[5] Bible, Leviticus 18:23