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Imperfect Creatures

Imperfect Creatures: Vermin, Literature, and the Sciences of Life, 1600-1740 OPEN ACCESS

Lucinda Cole
Copyright Date: 2016
Pages: 248
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    Imperfect Creatures
    Book Description:

    Lucinda Cole’s Imperfect Creatures offers the first full-length study of the shifting, unstable, but foundational status of “vermin" as creatures and category in the early modern literary, scientific, and political imagination. In the space between theology and an emergent empiricism, Cole’s argument engages a wide historical swath of canonical early modern literary texts—William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, Abraham Cowley’s The Plagues of Egypt, Thomas Shadwell’s The Virtuoso, the Earl of Rochester’s “A Ramble in St. James’s Park," and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Journal of the Plague Year—alongside other nonliterary primary sources and under-examined archival materials from the period, including treatises on animal trials, grain shortages, rabies, and comparative neuroanatomy. As Cole illustrates, human health and demographic problems—notably those of feeding populations periodically stricken by hunger, disease, and famine—were tied to larger questions about food supplies, property laws, national identity, and the theological imperatives that underwrote humankind’s claim to dominion over the animal kingdom. In this context, Cole’s study indicates, so-called “vermin" occupied liminal spaces between subject and object, nature and animal, animal and the devil, the devil and disease—even reason and madness. This verminous discourse formed a foundational category used to carve out humankind’s relationship to an unpredictable, irrational natural world, but it evolved into a form for thinking about not merely animals but anything that threatened the health of the body politic—humans, animals, and even thoughts.

    eISBN: 978-0-472-90063-3
    Subjects: Zoology, Language & Literature
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  1. In the last three decades, animal studies has influenced every discipline in the humanities, including literary studies, encouraging scholars to acknowledge the anthropocentrism of the stories we have been telling about ourselves and the natural world. Nuanced analyses of what Aristotle called the “more perfect creatures” have introduced new life forms into traditional literary and cultural history, so that once-overlooked references to horses, dogs, apes, bears, cats, wolves, and other beasts in early modern texts now shimmer again with complex meaning.¹Imperfect Creatures: Vermin, Literature, and the Sciences of Liferecovers a category of creatures—vermin—whose philosophical and literary...

  2. In sixteenth-century England, outbreaks of the plague, the persecution of women for witchcraft, and several major rat infestations occurred during an extended period of climatological instability. he Little Ice Age, between 1350 and 1850, was characterized by a general cooling, bringing about what Brian Fagan calls “a lethal mix of misfortunes”: famine, serial epidemics, bread riots, and chaos. “Witchcraft accusations soared,” he points out, with the greatest number of prosecutions in England and France occurring in the severe weather years of 1587 and 1588.¹ Drawing, in part, on Fagan’s analysis, Emily Oster argues “in a time period when the reasons...

  3. In his 1616 treatise,The Fall of Man, or the Corruption of Nature, Godfrey Goodman exhorts his readers, “let not the plagues of Aegypt seem so incredible,” when, within living memory (1580), swarming mice infested Essex and made it “almost [un] inhabitable.”¹ The corruption of nature, he asserts, has spread throughout the animal world: even domesticated creatures “who were made onely for mans vse and seruice” have “cast of their yoake, and are now become dangerous and obnoxious to man” (219). Goodman’s characterization of a deeply corrupted nature in the early seventeenth century turns on an extended analogy between the...

  4. Thomas Shadwell’s 1676 comedyThe Virtuoso, a pointed and very popular satire of the Royal Society, lambasts Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, a would-be experimentalist who embodies the follies of pursuing impractical knowledge rather than managing his family and inances. His rebellious nieces, Clarinda and Miranda, describe Sir Nicholas to their suitors, Bruce and Longvil, as “A sot that has spent two thousand pounds in microscopes to ind out the nature of eels in vinegar, mites in cheese, and the blue of plums,” and who “has studied these twenty years to ind out several sorts of spiders, and never cares for understanding...

  5. In Cowley’s version ofThe Plagues of Egypt, dogs appear as the faithful, stricken companions of shepherds during the time of pestilence, the fifth plague. “The starving sheep refuse to feed,” writes Cowley, “They bleat their innocent souls out into air; / The faithful dogs lie gasping by them there; / Th’ astonish’dShepherdweeps, and breaks his tunefulReed” (240). In this heart-wrenching inversion of the pastoral, Cowley reinforces the role of dogs as economically valuable and blameless victims of a metaphysical catastrophe. Yet, in some versions of the ten plagues, dogs act as scourging agents rather than as...

  6. In 2011, the Nature Conservancy began a two-phase project to eradicate nonnative animals that had been introduced in the seventeenth century to the Galapagos Islands and have been breeding ever since. After removing goats, cats, pigs, and burros, conservationists turned their attention to rats, whose population density had reportedly reached about one rat for every square foot on Pinzón, the main island.¹ In what one newspaper describes as the “biggest raticide in the history of South America,” Ecuador began dumping twenty-two tons of poison, designed to kill eighteen million rats, eliminating (if all goes according to plan) the resident rat...

  7. Reading beneath the grain encourages us to consider how engrained English literary history is in food systems, in how and what to eat. Feeding practices cut across and unite medical, moral, economic, and political histories in ways that demand multidisciplinary work.¹ Animal studies, food studies, environmental studies, and agricultural studies are all points of emphasis in a much larger network of biopolitical relations. The “question of the animal,” then, can be abstracted neither from matters of environmental stress nor from the role of specfic animals, including humans, within equally specfic food systems. We survive (or not) with other creatures in...

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International
This book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International.
Funding is provided by Knowledge Unlatched