Devising Boundaries: Distinctions Between Man & Animal

Paenitentiale Theodori

A pentitential record of Archbishop of Theodore's justments and was published in the year 700 C.E.

The Great Chain of Being

A hierarchical ranking for all forms of life. While this illustration depicts the boundaries between various life forms concretly, the boundaries were not as neatly defined in practice.

The Paenitentiale Theodori is a medieival pentitential that recorded the judgement of Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury. The date of this book extends to early 700, but it remains the earliest religious text to assert bestiality as an extreme sin (and the first to categorize it on par with homosexuality).[1] Although a great majority of England shared a similar and “comfortable” conception of animals—topics such as animal sexual differed greatly; there was not a religious concencus throughout Europe towards the actions of bestiality.[2] English penitentials--such as Theodori’s--differed vastly from Irish Paenitentials which equated bestiality to the sin of masturbation and as easily forgivable as 2 years of penance.[3] In contrast to Irish penances, Theodori believed individuals that engaged in bestiality should fast for 15 years, permanently on Wednesday and Fridays for the rest of their life, and lastly never receive communion until the day of their death.[4]

A religious source of authory declaring an act as detestable was not enough for a major societal shift; a major undertaking for religion in Medieval England was convincing theology and legal tradition to agree that bestiality was a violated boundaries as did homosexuality.[5] Animals were considered to be on the same level as objects (a thing to own as either property or food); therefore, engaging in sex with one was recognized simultaneously immoral and natural. Archbishop Theodore needed to successfully challenge social convention to prove that it was in fact perverse to nature, and he did so through attempts to alter medieval English society’s conception of “what is an animal?”.  The Paenitentiale Theodori intiated what would become a long process of granting agency to animals; pentitientials that came centuries later would continue this tradition of treating animals as closer to humans than objects. As a result of centuries of continued teaching, by the 16th century animals were understood to be capable of human cognition and therefore able to consent to sex with humans and be held to human rule of law.

A collection of John the Apostle's sermons published in 1561 (included is commentary from a chief priest). In the sermon "Of the signes of Antichrist, and Image of the beaste of him reysed," the priest discusses how bestiality is a sign of a corrupt government and signs of the antichrist. Considering the time this compilation was published, the commentary could potentially allude to the motivations for Parliamentary intervention in the matter.

Arguably the endevours of priests to deliver this message may have been too effective as they approached, yet again, the same question of “what is an animal?” during the Protestant Reformation. Theodori’s idea of animal agency and attitude towards beastiality had successfully survived; however, it introduced new questions concerning consent: can people that engage in buggery be punished if animals are capable of human sentience and able to consent?

During the Protestant Reformation there was an attempt to correct this lack of boundary that existed between animals and man. Church figures sought to correct this relationship by exploring new philosophical questions to prove there was a difference between animal and man. Scholarship concerning bestiality in 16th century England argues the major philosophical question concerning Protestantism was defining the idea of humanity and what it means to be human.[6] Furthermore, the defining ideas of humanity were created through the othering of animals and establishing humans as the antithesis of which an animal is. If individuals are continuing to engage in these egregious acts and trangress the boundary ordained by the Church and supported by God, then the ongoing fear of monstrous beings suggests not only a fear for morality but public saftey.

[1] Erik Wake, “The Beast with Two Backs: Bestiality, Sex Between Men, and Byzantine Theology in Paenitentiale Theodori” Journal of Medieval Worlds 2, no. 1-2 (2020): 11.

[2] Joyce E. Salisbury, “Introduction: What Is an Animal?,” The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages (London: Routledge, 1994) 1-11.

[3] Wake, “The Beast with Two Backs: Bestiality, Sex Between Men, and Byzantine Theology in Paenitentiale Theodori,” 19.

[4] Dutch and Belgian University Teachers of Old and Middle English and Historical Linguistics. Research Symposium, “This Noble Craft—,” in Proceedings of the Xth Research Symposium, ed. Erik Kooper (Rodopi, 1991), 176.

[5] Wake, “The Beast with Two Backs: Bestiality, Sex Between Men, and Byzantine Theology in Paenitentiale Theodori,” 11.

[6] Erica Fudge, “Monstrous Acts: Bestiality in Early Modern England,” History Today 50, 8 (2000): 23.