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Research Documents that Peasants were Devoted to Their Hard-Working Companions

It’s often said that dogs are people’s best friends.

In the early 19th century in European and American villages, Josephine Donovan says that pigs, horses, oxen, cows and owls often were, too.

In her article on the provincial life of animals in the journal Society & Animals, the University of Maine Professor Emerita of English seeks to improve understanding of human-animal relations in the premodern era.

Donovan refers to French, Irish, German and American stories and novels before industrialization, mass transportation and mass communication that indicate many peasants were devoted to pets, farm animals and wild critters, and treated them as “folk.”

Rural populations, says Donovan, often considered animals members of the families. Animals were vitally important to villagers and “boundaries between the species that are commonly accepted now were then blurred, less restrictive, or, in many cases, simply nonexistent,” Donovan writes.

“Peasants’ relationships with work animals appear to have been especially intense,” writes Donovan. “These animals were daily companions, helpers in difficult labor — for which their human owners were often deeply grateful — sometimes becoming the primary relationship in their lives.”

And peasants, she says, resented elitist, capitalist, urban authorities who had no understanding of rural life and who viewed animals as commodities.

In William Carleton’s 1843 story Phil Purcel: The Pig Driver, Phil and his pet pig are companion con artists. Phil sells the pig to an unsuspecting person and the pig runs away — 24 times — and promptly rejoins Phil for the next scam.

People and the animals they bonded with shared so-called creature comforts and meals, Donovan says.

Now, for many people much of the time, animals are the meals.

“The personal relationship with the animals meant that they had subject status — they were persons in the eyes of their owners — something no longer possible with the current system of industrialized agriculture, where animals are but mass objects, commodities for sale, slaughter and consumption,” writes Donovan, who has written two books on local-color literature: European Local-Color Literature (2010) and New England Local Color Literature (1983).

While mistreatment of animals did occur in the 19th century, Donovan says in local-color literature, “cruelty is generally deplored and humane treatment seems to have been the norm — a humane treatment rooted in intimate knowledge of animals as fellow beings who experience similar emotions, who suffer similarly, and who therefore deserve to be treated with respect and compassion.”

Contact: Beth Staples, 581.3777


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