Published by W. W. Norton (2015), Hesperus Press (2013), | 400, 150 pages
Of all possible subsets of the American populace, one would presume that rural Americans must be among the least positively disposed towards acts of human-on-animal fornication. Accordingly, you may share my surprise to learn that over the past decade – and across multiple, separate instances – proposed anti-bestiality laws have been met with the fiercest opposition from ultra-conservative lawmakers. What these lawmakers – representing some of the most rural regions of America – know, and what great efforts have been made to keep the majority of the American public ignorant of, is the simple, practical fact that human-on-livestock fornication is essential to modern, industrial meat production. Frankly put, factory farms could not function without an army of grossly-underpaid workers humping pigs and taking various other provocative measures to effect their animals’ sexual titillation. Thus, an ancient taboo, still widely held, fails to mesh with the realities of contemporary industrial meat production.
Most people are not well-informed as to the specific environments and circumstances in which livestock – industrial, and to a lesser degree non-industrial as well – live and die. Meat and dairy producers have striven to keep the general public ignorant of the facts of livestock production and destruction, and we, as consumers, have for the most part conspired to let that happen. And yet today, as a cursory glance across the media and cities everywhere reveals, there is real evidence that this may be changing; that we may be living on the cusp of a paradigm shift as regards our understanding and treatment of our fellow living creatures. We cannot know what the new paradigm will look like until it is upon us. However, in Edward Payson Evans’ Animal Trials (first published in 1906) and in Denis and Gail Boyer Hayes’ Cowed (first published in 2015), we encounter two vastly different, though provocatively similar, analyses of the paradigm we were born into, that of humanity’s dominion over, and subjugation of, the non-human species of the world.
Evans’ book, Animal Trials, is a sweeping analysis of the age-old human practice of putting animals through formal legal proceedings and punishments for crimes ranging from the human (such as murder) to the natural (such as eating crops) to the supernatural (such as witchcraft). “The culprits” prosecuted here, we read, “are a miscellaneous crew, consisting chiefly of caterpillars, flies, locusts, leeches, snails, slugs, worms, weevils, rats, mice, moles, turtle-doves, pigs, bulls, cows, cocks, dogs, asses, mules, mares and goats.” interesting to ponder the fact that the trial records examined in Animal Trials account for only a small fraction of the extant records of animal trials, which themselves represent only the most infinitesimal sliver of the sum total of all cases tried). Interesting too is the fact that the last animal trial and execution documented here that occurred in Europe took place as recently as the 1860s. Evans’ text consists chiefly of anecdotes drawn from ecclesiastical legal records of the European middle ages, but Evans contextualizes them with examples and philosophical relics spanning from medieval China, the American colonies, Ancient Iran, and Classical Greece. Evans’ work takes the historical fact of such trials seriously and seeks to locate in the trial archive key insights into “the mental habit of the age.”
The passed mindset glimpsed here is in many ways an alien one. People believed, according to Evans, that the Church could compel animals to various acts through excommunication, etc., and animals were consequently expected to abide by human, Christian morality. Animals were lesser beasts and placed on earth to serve human needs, but they nonetheless fell into the same hierarchy and power structures. In cases of bestiality, for example, both partners—man and cow—were seen as active participants and equal sinners, and so both were burned alive. Peculiar as the medieval belief that animals should be subject to human laws surely was, however, their trials nevertheless did follow a strict set of rules, which worked not only against, but sometimes also in, the animals’ favor. In Animal Trials’ opening anecdote, an altogether more surprising scene unfolds during the trial of some rats “which had been put on trial before the ecclesiastical court of Autun on the charge of having feloniously eaten up and wantonly destroyed the barley crop of that province.” The rats neglected to appear, but Monsieur Bartholomew Chassenée, assigned to serve as their legal defense, reasoned that it was wholly unfair to expect the rats to appear before the court without due notice. So a new trial date was set and notice was posted throughout the countryside to inform the rats of the expectation. Again the rats neglected to appear before the court. This time Chassenée argued that his clients had not appeared because they had not been assured safe, unmolested passage to the court, and for the trial to continue the people of Autun would have to bring in all the cats; unless the rats could be assured such safe passage from their “mortal enemies, the cats,” Chassenée concluded, no fair trial could be offered. The court, apparently convinced of the soundness of the reasoning and the impossibility of the task, dismissed all charges.
An interesting line of reasoning in Evans analysis – downright provocative, considering the book’s 1906 publication year – is the suggestion that something important and altogether human may have been lost when humans severed themselves from their fellow creatures with the arrival of the modern world and the breaking of the continuous hierarchy of all living creatures. Acknowledging the astounding cruelty to animals people in the middle ages were capable of, and the obvious absurdity and injustice of trying animals according to human ethical codes, Evan’s nevertheless notes that the worldview that conspired to these ends also made previous generations capable of remarkable sympathy and understanding towards their fellow creatures. In one trial Evans documents of some insects who destroyed a towns’ crops, neither party contested “the right of the insects to adequate means of subsistence suited to their nature,” and the townspeople even tried to create a special insect preserve for them. “Progress” is complicated.
Cowed, the Hayes’ book – no less ambitious, in its collection of interesting and troubling anecdotes, than the Evans work – is a broad survey of the American beef and dairy industries from an explicit – if, ultimately, simplistic – environmentalist perspective, with particular focus on the carbon content of the terrestrial climate, and the catastrophic environmental impact of contemporary, industrial livestock production, which today threatens the ecological health of our planet. The Hayes want to convince readers, who “seldom see cows these days,” that “cows matter.” At this, they succeed. Cows, we learn, contribute five times as much to global warming per calorie than do pork or poultry (which themselves contribute vastly more by weight than plant crops), and use eleven times as much water and twenty-eight times as much land. The “production” of a pound of beef, we also learn, generates more greenhouse gases than the burning of a gallon of gasoline. The best and most educational parts of the book delve into a deep legal analysis of certain obscure farm policies and precedent-setting cases (Gail Hayes is a noted environmental lawyer), and we learn many shocking facts, such as the US Department of Agriculture’s refusal to allow beef producers to test for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE, or “mad cow”) precisely because they are certain it is prevalent in the food supply (positive detection would, it is justly feared, cause consumer panic).
Unfortunately, while the Hayes’ analysis of the detrimental effects of industrial livestock production is generally exemplary, in the quick fixes they offer the Hayes’ critical faculties largely desert them. “If you’re a beef eater and starting to paw the ground because you think we’re going to tell you not to eat beef,” the Hayes stress: “relax.” “Our proposal is affordable and simple,” they counsel, “all it requires is that enough like-minded people seek out organic dairy products and grass-fed-and-finished beef.” If people do that, they suggest, the big, evil factory farms, will lose profits, and the market will force them to change and become humane and environmentally friendly, too. Aside from the fact that their “affordable” solution would necessitate purchasing only the most expensive meat and dairy products on the market, not only is the Hayes’ market-demand-based proposal for transforming the very fabric of the American capitalist system of meat production (in place for over a century) not simple—it’s not even theoretically implementable. Even if all meat and dairy consuming humans could be convinced to increase their grocery bills, the Hayes entirely ignore the impossibility of scaling their utopian system to the demands of the 7 + billion humans that walk the earth—widely discussed elsewhere in the environmental literature. The Hayes should know better, but it seems they were blinded by their bizarre fixation on the sexual attractiveness of organic food producers (I am not kidding!).
In the final analysis, the historical archaeology Evans conducted more than one hundred years ago turns out to be, fundamentally, more progressive, even more radical, than the Hayes’ utopian prescriptions. Evans is adamant that, despite the superficial appearance of his optimism in the positive trajectory of our historical treatment of animals, a fundamental change in worldview towards one of compassion and empathy is still in our future. Though it is never stated explicitly, and though Evans may not have noticed or meant it, the implication is there for contemporary readers that the medieval persecution of animals is not so different, nor less bizarre or ethically problematic, than is our acquiescence into the astonishing, mechanized cruelty of the contemporary industrial livestock industry. Neither Evans nor the Hayes can predict the future, but the two perspectives they offer can function as useful signposts as to a general direction in which to head. In one, medieval, all beings are treated as dignified individuals, all life interwoven in mutually shared social and natural environments; in the other, modern, animals are treated as so much inorganic matter, to live and die by the whims of a balance sheet, in a process that inflicts immense damage upon the planet and all creatures that rely upon it. Where can this paradigm go from here? If you’re a beef eater and starting to paw the ground because you think I’m going to tell you not to eat beef, you already know.
Tim Paulson is working on a history of the beef economy in the United States and its consequences around the world. He is a close student of the modern food supply and was shocked to learn about the importance of human-animal intimacy to modern meat production from the works of Gabriel Rosenberg and Alex Blanchette.