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Cattle Histories and its Importance to the Discipline

Animal histories has become an energetic field, with a variety of academics exploring the role of animals in history and the proper ways in which animals should be treated as an historical topic. This paper, specifically, focuses on the role and nature of cattle in history, but utilises the broader spectrum of animal histories to answer this question.

Through an analysis of the literature, this paper establishes that cattle histories, like animal histories, is a useful term and branch of study for understanding the importance of cattle in human history, but also in acknowledging the agency and importance of animals in their own history. As opposed to a variety of views that will be explored, this essay posits that cattle histories cannot be divorced from humanity, and that we should accept that the human lens is inevitable.

What is cattle histories: a species on the moo-ve

Cattle histories is not so much an independent history of cattle, devoid of human interaction, but an acknowledgement of human interference towards animals and animal interference towards human. It is an acknowledgement that humans, despite our civilisation and prosperity, are equal actors to animals, and that cattle and the other creatures of this world informed our evolution just as much (if not more) than we did theirs.

What is cattle histories? Initially, it is simply a study of history with a focus on cattle, but, as is the case in most disciplines, it can and does become more complex. Many historians, philosophers and other writers postulate that animal histories, and cattle histories as a subdiscipline, should recognise the essential independence, agency and instrumental importance of cattle.[1] Fudge (2017) argues that animal histories (and by extension, cattle histories) is an approach that recognises the animal as an historical actor.[2] In the same vein, Hribal (2007) argues that animals must be granted agency in their history.[3] These scholars all have the essential commonality that they believe that animal histories should not only centre the animal as a focus of study, but also engage with it as an actor on par with human figures of history. This is a core aspect of cattle histories. It is not merely history with a focus on cattle, but a history that recognises the agency of cattle as actors on par with humans. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Wolloch (2012) suggests a shift from the view of animals as stupid and alien, to the more accurate view of studying animals as instrumental to the human experience and progress.[4] This view may be accused of being anthropocentric, however, by the other scholars – and thus is the wrong approach. This paper would disagree, however. A human studying history will inevitably seem anthropocentric. It is an inevitability that human historians will use animal histories to understand themselves and the role of animals in relation to humans. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Humans are actors living alongside animal actors. As will be explored in the subsequent section, we cannot divorce the human lens from the animal history – but we may not need to.

Difficulty of cattle history: udderwise ignored

The first initial difficulty with cattle histories is a problem of recording. How does one gather accurate data on the history of a being that cannot speak or write? Cattle, as far as we know, cannot speak a language we understand fully, and do not have written language. This leads to a huge difficulty for cattle history, as instead of a history of cattle, we rather experience a history of human attitudes towards cattle.[5] This leads to a problem of human privilege in recording, but also to the overly personifying of animals. Caffo (2014) argues that if we are to truly understand animals and recognise the ways they may possibly think or communicate, we must stop overly humanising them.[6] A human historicising animal histories inevitably, some would argue, leads to merely a human crafted façade of the genuine animal experiences. But is this problem specific to animal histories? As Fudge (2017) argues, recording, bias and the unreliability of sources is a problem in general history.[7] Is there any difference between an historian analysing and writing about the life of a voiceless Roman citizen, and an historian recording the life of an animal? Not much. Both are voiceless. Both are unable to record their own history (at least, in the case of the Roman, anymore). History is an imperfect medium, but that doesn’t mean it should be thrown out like sour milk. As Fudge (2017) argues, narrating animals isn’t so different from narrating humans.[8] Cattle histories, while as imperfect in its recording as many human histories can be, can still be recorded and still serve a purpose.

To emphasise the point, animal histories can be recorded. As Kean (2012) shows with the case of Trim the cat, we can reconstruct the history of an individual animal.[9] Another salient example is the case of Just Nuisance, a Great Dane who was officially enlisted into the Royal Navy in 1939 after his service to his now fellow sailors.[10] What these cases show is that we can record animal history without their input. Humans can be interpreters of animal, and cattle, history. What is required is just a form of sincerity and honesty that should be admired in historians in general. But, inevitably, there are additional problems.

As mentioned previously, there is a problem of the over humanising of animals, as posited by Caffo reviewing Smith and Mitchell. As Caffo argues, we too often look for the human inside the animal, at the expense of understanding the uniqueness of the animal itself.[11] Animals are different and when we personify them too much, we run the risk of misunderstanding them. But at the same time, Caffo adds that humans are not too different from animals.[12] Of course, this is true. Humans are animals themselves. And as we should come to recognise the essential differences in analysing cattle and humans, we should also recognise the similarities in the approach. That we are both mammals, that we share the same environment, and that we have an intertwined history.

While Fudge (2000) argues that “anthropocentrism is inevitable”, we can still have a cattle history.[13] Centring animals, as Few and Tortorici (2013) argue, in history is a way in which we can move away from anthropocentric history.[14] Cases like Trim the cat and Just Nuisance show that we can individualise animal histories, and centre them in our historical narratives as characters, and not merely as accessories. While we run the risk of personifying them in this regard, we must also remember that while animals are different, we also share many similarities, and can use those similarities and what science has allowed us to understand about them to inform our recording of their history.

Importance of cattle history in understanding the human: a moo-ving tail

An inevitable question on the topic of animal and cattle histories is: why? Why study it? Why put so much effort into the subject. The same can be asked of why one studies ancient history. Why does a South African scholar study a small ethnic conflict half the world away? And the inevitable answer is: do we need a reason? No, but we can provide one.

At the risk of sounding anthropocentric, cattle histories are crucial to the study of history because it sheds so much light on the greater topic of history. The study of cattle as an accessory in history is insufficient to the study. Humanity has lived alongside animals for our entire existence, and cattle for most of it. We do not only share this world with our bovine brethren but have come to become intertwined with them. Animals are not aliens, but essential aspects of the human experience. If we neglect to give them the focus they deserve in our history, we are leaving huge blank spots in understanding what made us, us. Some may criticise this approach. Caffo argues that one must not study animals merely to enhance human dignity.[15] But is that necessary or even possible? History as studied by humans will inevitably lead to the subject serving a human agenda. That can’t be helped. The importance of granting animals agency isn’t so much a moral quandary, but one of accuracy. Animals are agents, with preferences, emotions and other aspects that humans once thought unique to us. In recognising the agency of animals, we can understand more accurately their relation to humans and their role in a united history. Rather than an automation, cows become workers in negotiation with their farmers, as Porcher suggested.[16]

Very importantly, as Fudge argues, humans define themselves constantly through contrast to animals.[17] Or as Specht puts it: “Animal behaviour reflects or illuminates broader points about human society or morality.”[18]

While this can be bad, as it alienates the animal and attempts to put the human on a pedestal, this contrast with animals can be enlightening. Through a relationship with animals, and a recognition of their role in our lives, humans can come to understand more and more about our own history. Magliocco (2018) posited that one should use a folkloristic approach to examine our relationship with animals, and how they help to define our being as humans.[19] Through a relationship with animals, we reveal a lot about ourselves. Less folkloristic, and more with a focus on history, Fudge argues that a “history of animals is a necessary part of our reconceptualization of ourselves as human.”[20]

So, while we can’t have history from the mouths of animals, we can have a history of our interaction and relationship with animals and fill a huge blind-spot in our history by doing so.[21]

To move away from ontology, cattle already serve an important role in the study of much of history. Wolloch writes about the shift in thinking of the enlightenment historians, and how they began to view animals as instrumental to human progress, rather than just aliens.[22] Porcher even argues that the history of animals reflects the historical phases of humans, comparing domestication to slavery.[23] Jacoby makes similar comparisons between domestication and slavery.[24] But that isn’t so useful for the approach of this paper. One can find symbolic comparisons to human conditions in fiction. We don’t need animals for that, and approaches like comparing domestication to slavery turn animals more into accessories to understanding human slavery. Rather, one should focus on the role of animals in history. Focus on the brave horses that have served in combat, try to understand why they did what they did, and how they felt about war. Or, specific to cattle histories, seek to understand why cattle work, as Porcher attempts to answer.[25]

Cattle are a crucial focus of study in understanding Southern African history, in particular. Hall (1986) is but one historian who has studied the role of cattle in history, arguing that cattle were not only commodities in Southern African society, but essentially informed entire political systems, cultures and modes of production.[26] This is similar to Magliocco’s folkloristic approach, which attempts to show how animals informed the spirituality of humanity.[27]

There are plenty more aspects of history that can benefit from a focus on cattle. As Fudge argues, we can learn more about our own history through animals.[28] While this runs the risk of becoming anthropocentric, it rather serves the human-focused historian to recognise the agency and even possible centrality of animals in this study. A cattle history, rather than a human history with cattle, recognises that rather than cows being an accessory to human society, in many ways, cows informed human society and how humanity survived and thrived.

A critical evaluation of three authors: a bullfight over spilt milk

Briefly, it is prudent to critically evaluate the approach of three of the scholars used in this paper. Specifically, this section will be evaluating the works of Caffo, Wolloch and Magliocco and their approach to the topic.

Firstly, Caffo approach the topic through a review of work by Smith and Mitchell, analysing the extent to which we can understand the minds of animals. He argues that we should attempt to focus on understanding animals and their unique perspectives.[29] In this way, he is advocating for a hard anti-anthropocentric view of animal histories. As has been argued in this paper, this view has its merits, but goes against what makes the animal focus in history so valuable – the role of cattle and animals in shaping humans. So, while Caffo presents an interesting view that should be taken in the study of animals, the idea that it should not be for the sake of human history is dubious.

Secondly, Magliocco’s folkloristic approach promotes a good midway between a human and animal focus. It advocates for what this paper views as the correct approach – the study of animals in how they informed the human. The paper itself does diverge in its spiritual approach to animals, but the initial use of animals in understanding humanity is similar to this paper’s approach.

Lastly, Wolloch in his study of enlightenment historiography of animals does risk a more anthropocentric view, showing how animals are analysed as instruments for human progress, but this view does contribute to this paper as a combination of an approach like Caffo’s that recognises animal agency, and then Wolloch’s approach of analysing the importance of animals in understanding human history does create a clearer and more useful picture of the role of animals in our history.

In Cowclusion

Cattle histories is a focus on how we shaped cattle and cattle shaped us. It does not need to be devoid of humans, as that would be intellectually dishonest. Cattle are just as much intertwined with the fate of humanity as we are with them.

This essay has analysed the meaning of animal and cattle histories, shown its difficulties and how these can be overcome, and then shows how ultimately cattle histories is important as it informs us of an extremely vital portion of human history. In this way, cattle histories is very far from a misnomer. Alternatively, cattle histories perhaps is a misnomer. Cattle have been and are such a huge part of the historical experience, that relegating them to a sub-discipline may be intellectually dishonest. But as we allow distinctions in history such as economic history and military history, this concern is ill-founded. Cattle are just as important to the study of history as economics and the military, and there is enough content to warrant an entire field.

Overall, cattle histories is a recognition that cattle are crucial actors in a united history. They aren’t merely the automations of humanity, but living agents that not only live alongside us, but informed our society and the human condition.

Bibliography

  • Caffo, Leonardo. “Review: In the Corridors of Animal Minds.” Journal of Animal Ethics 4, no. 1 (2014): 103-108.
  • Despret, Vinciane. “W for Work: Why do we say that cows don’t do anything?” in What Would Animals Say if We Asked the Right Questions?, 177 – 184. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
  • Few, Martha and Tortorici, Zeb. “Writing Animal Histories.” In Centering Animals in Latain American History, 1-30. London: Duke University Press, 2013.
  • Fudge, Erica. “A left-handed blow: Writing the history of animals.” In Representing Animals, edited by N. Rothfels, 3-18. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.
  • Fudge, Erica. “Introduction: The Dangers of Anthropocentrism.” In Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture, 1-10. London: Palgrave, 2000.
  • Fudge, Erica. “What was it like to be a cow? History and animal studies.” In The Oxford Handbook of Animal Studies, edited by L. Kalof. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • Hall, Martin. “The Role of Cattle in Southern African Agropastoral Societies: More than Bones Alone Can Tell.” Goodwin Series 5, Prehistoric Pastoralism in Southern Africa (1986): 83-87.
  • Hribal, Jason C. “Animals, Agency, and Class: Writing the History of Animals from Below.” Human Ecology Review 14, no. 1 (2007): 103-112.
  • Jacoby, Karl. “Slaves by nature? Domestic animals and human slaves.” A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies 15, no. 1 (1994): 89-99.
  • Just Nuisance. com. Accessed March 9, 2019. https://www.simonstown.com/just-nuisance.
  • Kean, Hilda. “Challenges for Historians Writing Animal–Human History: What Is Really Enough?” Anthrozoos Supplement 25 (2012): S57-S72.
  • Magliocco, Sabina. “Folklore and the Animal Turn.” Journal of Folklore Research 55, no. 2 (2018): 1-7.
  • Skabelund, Aaron. “Animals and Imperialism: Recent Historiographical Trends.” History Compass 11 (2013): 801-807.
  • Specht, Joshua. “Animal History after Its Triumph: Unexpected Animals, Evolutionary Approaches, and the Animal Lens.” History Compass 14, no. 7 (2016): 326 – 336.
  • Wolloch, Nathaniel. “Animals in Enlightenment Historiography.” Huntington Library Quarterly 75, no. 1 (2012): 53-68.

[1] Some scholars who believe that cattle and animal histories will be for the importance of the historical discipline are Fudge (2000-2017), Hribal (2007), Caffo (2014), Kean (2012) and many others who will be featured in the rest of this paper. The topic is a broad one, however, and not everything can be touched on without risking milking the attention span of the reader.

[2] Erica Fudge, “What was it like to be a cow? History and animal studies,” in The Oxford Handbook of Animal Studies, ed. L. Kalof, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 6.

[3] Jason C. Hribal, “Animals, Agency, and Class: Writing the History of Animals from Below,” Human Ecology Review 14, no. 1 (2007): 102-103

[4] Nathaniel Wolloch, “Animals in Enlightenment Historiography,” Huntington Library Quarterly 75, no. 1 (2012): 53-54.

[5] Erica Fudge, “A left-handed blow: Writing the history of animals.” In Representing Animals, ed. N. Rothfels (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 6.

[6] Caffo, Leonardo. “Review: In the Corridors of Animal Minds.” Journal of Animal Ethics 4, no. 1 (2014): 207.

[7] Fudge, “What was it like to be a cow? History and animal studies,” 7.

[8] Ibid., 7.

[9] Hilda Kean, “Challenges for Historians Writing Animal–Human History: What Is Really Enough?” Anthrozoos Supplement 25 (2012): 60.

[10] Just Nuisance, Simonstown.com, accessed March 9, 2019. https://www.simonstown.com/just-nuisance.

[11] Caffo, “Review: In the Corridors of Animal Minds,” 105.

[12] Ibid., 107.

[13] Erica Fudge, “Introduction: The Dangers of Anthropocentrism,” in Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture (London: Palgrave, 2000), 5.

[14] Martha Few and Zeb, Tortorici, “Writing Animal Histories,” in Centering Animals in Latain American History (London: Duke University Press, 2013), 3.

[15] Caffo, “Review: In the Corridors of Animal Minds,” 105.

[16] Vinciane Despret, “W for Work: Why do we say that cows don’t do anything?” in What Would Animals Say if We Asked the Right Questions? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 177.

[17] Fudge, “Introduction: The Dangers of Anthropocentrism,” 1-4.

[18] Joshua Specht, “Animal History after Its Triumph: Unexpected Animals, Evolutionary Approaches, and the Animal Lens,” History Compass 14, no. 7 (2016):  328.

[19] Sabina Magliocco, “Folklore and the Animal Turn.” Journal of Folklore Research 55, no. 2 (2018): 1-6.

[20] Few and Tortorici, “Writing Animal Histories,” 3.

[21] Fudge, “A left-handed blow: Writing the history of animals,” 8.

[22] Wolloch, “Animals in Enlightenment Historiography,”  53.

[23] Despret, “W for Work: Why do we say that cows don’t do anything?” 178.

[24] Karl Jacoby, “Slaves by nature? Domestic animals and human slaves.” A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies 15, no. 1 (1994):  89.

[25] Despret, “W for Work: Why do we say that cows don’t do anything?” 180.

[26] Martin Hall, “The Role of Cattle in Southern African Agropastoral Societies: More than Bones Alone Can Tell,” Goodwin Series 5, Prehistoric Pastoralism in Southern Africa (1986): 85

[27] Magliocco, “Folklore and the Animal Turn,” 1-6.

[28] Fudge, “A left-handed blow: Writing the history of animals,” 8.

[29] Caffo, “Review: In the Corridors of Animal Minds,” 103.

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