552 pages, 40 colour & 150 b/w photos and illustrations
Until the advent of steam and later the internal combustion engine, the fortunes of man and beast were intimately and essentially bound together. Animals played a variety of fundamental roles in a range of human work and leisure activities such as transport, agriculture, industry, warfare, sport and recreation. Their importance to human progress has become increasingly hard to grasp for our largely urbanized society, from which the animal world has become ever more remote.
Animal Encounters draws on the author's lifetime interest in the fields of art history, topographical literature, archaeology, history and archaeozoology, to provide an overview of the evolving relations between the human and animal populations of the British Isles from the Norman Conquest to World War I. In this very readable, instructive and well-illustrated narrative, Arthur MacGregor explores the animal kingdom from bees to horses, and the range of human activities, from pigeon-breeding to bear-baiting, showing how interdependent the animal-human relationship has been throughout history. Animal Encounters will have a broad appeal, aimed at all those with sympathy for and an interest in the animal world.
"It is easy for us to assume that we know more about wild animals than our distant forebears did, and in a strictly scientific sense that must be true. But both wild and domestic animals once played a far closer part in people's lives, even if the relationship was generally one of exploitation; for food or sport or entertainment. From the king in his castle to the poor man at his gate, people routinely spent large parts of their lives chasing or catching animals or netting or trapping fish. Specialists were needed to maintain animal 'habitats'. Rabbits, for example, were kept in artificial pillow-mounds that needed a high level of husbandry and maintenance (including the planting of turnips, in addition to thistles and groundsel, lest the bunnies should go hungry in winter). Parks and 'forests' were regulated to house the maximum amount of game. Even poor cottagers kept ees, bred pigeons, trapped eels in nets. Meanwhile, the urban populace derived amusement by betting on fighting cocks or watching a pack of hounds take on a tethered bear or bull. No-one had a care for conservation. The view was that God would provide, and on the whole they were right.
Arthur MacGregor, formerly Senior Curator at the Ashmolean Museum, in Oxford, has brought this lost world to life by documentary research into the countless ways in which we handled, tended and exploited animals, from the Conquest to the outbreak of the First World War (when the old rural world came tumbling down). His approach is topical rather than chronological. The animal-human story unfolds in four main sections: on hunting, rural sports, food and farming (with a special chapter on the most important animal of all, the horse). He avoids interjecting moral judgements and so far as possible allows contemporary voices to explain what they were doing and why.
His journey takes a similar route to Oliver Rackham's immortal The History of the Countryside, but from a social historian and archaeologists perspective. There were many things I had not heard about before, such as the detailed account of cormorant fishing (a very splashy affair, by the sound of it), introduced to England from China under James I and later revived by a Victorian, Captain Salvin, who trained both cormorants and otters to catch fish for him. I did not know that fish-ponds were periodically drained and manured to sweeten the water and increase their productivity. Or that bull-baiters made the spectacle all the more amusing by planting a terrified monkey on the bull's back.
The detail and vividness of these animal encounters leaves one full of admiration at the craft and ingenuity of past generations and their relish for life, as well as appalled at the cruelty of some of their pursuits: the poor, bleeding animals in the bear-pit, the dying otter squirming and biting on the huntsman's pole, the patient, and very cold, punt-gunner waiting to blast a whole raft of birds to kingdom come. We might be kinder people today, but I don't think that anyone will be writing in the same vein about us in a few hundred years' time (assuming we last that long). We are also, let's face it, a lot duller.
The book is very nicely produced, with pages that fall open easily, the text set out neatly and legibly in double columns and with well-chosen and well-printed illustrations, mostly from contemporary manuscripts and publications."
- Peter Marren, British Wildlife 24(2), December 2012
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Arthur MacGregor is a former archaeologist and was Senior Curator at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, uk. He is the author of Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn (1985) and Curiosity and Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century (2007).