by Jessica Secmezsoy-Urquhart
University of Glasgow
Abstract: In Animal Studies the topic of whether animals have a form of agency has grown in popularity over the last few years. Those like Vinciane Despret and Erica Fudge have wrote often on it in their respective fields. This article sets out to argue that the human fabricated category of animal known as vermin are evidence of the fact that animal agency does exist and that this agency profoundly affected human societies during the period of the eleventh century to the end of the eighteenth century. This is shown through a piece which sets out the theoretical background to vermin agency before going onto explore the historical evidence. The way that grain and crop eating pests challenged humans is discussed as is the way that carnivorous vermin affected people. The work then moves on to show how people fought back again grain and crop eating vermin through ecclesiastical vermin trials and excommunication as well as through killing or trapping them. The manner in which predatory vermin like wolves or foxes were stopped through traps, poisons and killing is also discussed with the circumstances surrounding the eradication of European wolves being explained in connection to their agency. In this manner, the agency of vermin is shown in hope that a new stage of studies concerning such agency can begin.
The story of vermin and humanity is an old one and has influenced societies since human agriculture developed. These ambiguous animals, be they bird, insect or mammal, have been defined not by biological classifications but their negative impact on humanity as creatures, in contrast to domesticated animals, they are uncontrolled, compete with humans for resources, and ultimately exhibit agency in their ability to go from the spaces of nature to human society and back again. During the period of 1300-1800 the cyclical relationship between man and vermin continued to involve vermin agents transcending boundaries to find nourishment, thus impacting the humans involved, through taking crops or livestock needed for subsidence or profit. Humans responded in different manners hoping to curb these animal actors and end the network of agency within which they were connected. However, as this essay will demonstrate, during this time period, this relationship was transformed due to political, societal, and cultural changes. Agricultural changes during these centuries impacted these relationships significantly with manorial systems turning to enclosed private systems of farming; selective breeding of livestock and crops; and the introduction of the two, and eventually four, field rotation system popularised by Charles Townshend in the 18th century. The rise of market forces and capitalism enforced the immediate need for humans to react to the threat caused by vermin.
This work will discuss the agency of northwest European vermin between 1300 and 1800 considering relevant theories and their context, and join with this a consideration of human agency acting in response be it through historical understandings, hunting, ecclesiastical courts, rituals, or magic. The history of Western agriculture during the centuries discussed is ultimately equally the history of vermin. These creeping, penetrating creatures, created a joint story that will be examined here.
Establishing the historical context of this relationship is vital before delving into the analysis. Considering the etymology of the words used to name and explain vermin will enlighten this discussion, after which the essay will explore the changing nature of agriculture in more detail. First of all, what are vermin? The European history of this word is long and interesting and conveys how it developed to meet the needs of language. By naming these negative creatures humanity could try to gain control and understand them. “Vermin” can signify an animal which is of a noxious or objectionable kind, creatures which prey on livestock or crops, a creeping or wingless insect of a loathsome nature, or even a human who embodies these traits. This definition tells us that “vermin” is an anthropocentric term which binds a variety of animals together by their negative influence on people. It describes vermin as more stealthy, wild, minute, or parasitic than other creatures and makes it clear that they are annoying, disgusting and, through their agency, can heavily impact human agriculture or even be dangers to humans themselves. The English term vermin itself is noted in a variety of sources from the fourteenth century on as shown by the Oxford English Dictionary with Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale (1386) mentioning “Som foul vermyne,” Mandeville’s Travels (1400) describing “vermyn of corrupcioun” and the King Alexander romance (1400) calling them vermyn. However it existed before that in multiple guises. The origin of the word is the Latin term vermis meaning worm which developed into the vulgar Latin verminum and in France and Italy it became vermine.
In England, the period roughly between the Norman Conquest (1066) and the creation of the printing press in the 15th century saw Middle English develop from the impact of Old French and Latin in the Anglo-Norman English spoken in Court. In the middle of this period, sources suggest the modern term vermin appeared from Latin and Old French influences. It seems the word became used because of the specific context of the English language at this time, and because it was increasingly needed. Similar words existed. Pest, for instance, came from the Middle French peste used in the mid-1400s to describe plague, disease, and pestilence, but which, over time, came to also signify an animal who impacted humans negatively. The word worm is from the Proto-Indo-European wrmis which became the German wurm and old English wyrm (snake, worm) before turning into worm, werm, wurm or wirm in Middle English. Finally, in German, terms for vermin like schadling, ungeziefer, geziefer, developed over the later part of the timespan to mean vermin with the latter coming from Old German terms for an animal unsuitable for sacrifice. This tells us that the agency of vermin of all sizes can be glimpsed in the variety of words used between languages to describe them. Whether a Romantic, Germanic, or hybrid language, words for such creatures developed. It was a form of animal that was recognized and needed definition across and between cultures. Their power over humans and attempts to restrain them with such terms is highly evident in the etymology of their names.
The taxonomy and classification of vermin is also vital to understanding their influence in the human-vermin relationship. Left over from pre-modernity are terms for certain groups of animals which rely not on the biology, but on human-animal relationships: pet, livestock, and vermin. Many ways of categorising existed during the medieval to early modern period. Aristotle’s concept of quadrupeds and non-quadrupeds defined them on a scale of perfection or power of the soul in works like De Anima which would go on to influence the idea of the Great Chain of Nature in which more perfect beings like God, the angels, then humans were above lower animals, plants and objects. The 13th-century figure, Thomas of Aquinas, expanded this concept to legitimise the use of animals, alive or dead, due to their imperfections. In the early modern period, binomial nomenclature developed as a way to categorise animals. Bauhins brothers spearheaded it in the late 16th and early 17th century before Linneas popularised it in the 18th century. However, Linnaeus still emphasised mammals as biologically superior to the lowest creatures he termed verme, or worms, which covered much more than what we call the common worm today.
During the majority of the time under discussion, however, it was concepts like the chain of being and the ideas of those like 7th century author Isidore of Seville, who inspired the content of most medieval bestiaries, that helped form negative definitions of vermin. Isidore groups animals by their role for humans so he discusses livestock or beasts of burden and non-livestock quadrupeds like deer, who are not under human control as beasts. This term derived from their force, which he described as violent and wild with a feral natural freedom. He describes them as driven “by their own desires” for “their wills are free” going “wherever their spirit leads.” He assigns animals like big cats, apes, wolves, and foxes to this category thus conveying how this influential work would help plant the idea of these carnivorous vermin having profound intelligence and agency. Isidore’s work likewise reflects an aspect of studying history of animals we need to address. Mus or mouse was not just a word denoting a specific species of rodent, but could signify entire families of creatures. This conveys the fluidity of definitions that enabled vermin to develop as a group. Likewise, he uses the term worm or vermin/vermis to describe insects, dividing them into different types such as ones of the air, water, earth, land, and flesh. The Spanish fly is of the land, spiders of the air and everything from lice and fleas to round worms are flesh vermin. By using this term, Isidore sets it up as a term for multiple forms of insects and micro-creatures.
All of this is vital to this discussion because during the 14th century to the end of the 18th century the category of animal called vermin was influenced by such definitions. They were not beasts or domestic animals; they were defined by their independence from human control, but not in a positive manner, as were beasts. Vermin were free to follow their own desires but their agency in working against the desires of humans works against concepts like the chain of being. Western culture had developed a profound belief, embedded in religious and scientific thinking, in its own superiority to other life. The ability of vermin to penetrate boundaries, to take livestock or crops was an affront to their worldview. Vermin were not meant to be competitors or equals, but they pushed that boundary forcing humans to challenge their attacks.
The definition of agency in the Oxford English Dictionary is having the ability to choose to act or produce an effect through one’s actions. This trusted source therefore shows us that there is an argument to be made that any animal can be an agent with a form of agency as they can act and produce effects. Vermin in particular are good at this.
Animal agency has become a phenomenon in the field of animal history over the last ten years. Those like Hilda Kean and Erica Fudge are just two of the authors who have put forward the argument that we should try to study animals as historical agents whose stories are worth telling despite the different approach we might need to use to discover them. A variety of different theories can help us to see how vermin were incredibly important agents. One example which is crucial to this argument is the concept of Actor Network Theory (ANT) which suggests that animals do not need the subjectivity of humans to have agency. John Law and Bruno Latour are the forefathers of the theory which originated in Science and Technology Studies during the 1980s. As Law noted it could be used to show how the true and false, large and small, human and non-human, are not separate things but interconnected. Fudge and Vinciane Despret have argued for its importance in Animal Studies. The theory claims that animals, and even objects, have agency and produce an effect on other actors in a network between them so, for instance, a flock of locusts who destroy a crop are actors who engage in an interactive relationship with the humans involved. Despret’s work uses ANT in her history of animals as autonomous individuals while Fudge applies the theory to attribute agency to objects made from animal materials, like vellum books. This has provoked counter arguments from figures like Langdon Winner who has claimed that it is absurd for animals, without the ability to mean actions, to be deemed equal active agents to humans. However, ANT proposes that agency (the ability to act) does not predispose the need for the actor to intend their actions consciously. Therefore, the model can acknowledge an animal’s ability to be an actor of an equally conscious or unconscious nature. Bill Brown’s concept of Thing Theory can also help us attribute agency to vermin actors as it argues that objects which resist or stop working for humans become agents through this. A final important work which can aid us is John Searle’s 1994 article which argues that action requires perception, belief, and desire to occur—all things that can be found in animals, such as a wolf that notices un-protected sheep, decides it wants to eat them, and then acts to get them. These theories can be applied to in order to assert vermin agency.
The main manner in which vermin had agency was through their conflict with humans. John Knight’s Natural Enemies discusses how conflict arises for a variety of reasons. Animals may attack humans directly or assault their resources such as livestock and crops. Through these conflicts, they threaten order and human superiority and show the limits of human control of animals. An important reason that human-vermin struggles occurred was because of their categorization as animals defined by their role as boundary crossers with intermediate status. Vermin are not wild or domesticated and blend the symbolic markers which make human society. In Matthew Candelaria’s work on the microgeography of infestation, he notes space was central to vermin agency as it was competition and co-existence with humans that gave them spatial power. Vermin crossed boundaries through their eating of human livestock and grains leading to human reactions. Trials, legislation, traps, poisons, or eradication helped humans regain control in the face of vermin agency.
The consumption of both livestock and crops by different vermin resulted in them threatening the material survival of human societies through their agency. The most visceral violent examples of vermin claiming human food was that which concerned livestock. As Clutton-Brock has suggested, solitary predators, like foxes and wolves, were seen as erratic and disobedient due to their agency. These agents blossomed as hunters due to domestication making the catching of prey easier. Over time such creatures became threats to human progress, and throughout the period under discussion, they were seen as things to be eliminated and stopped. Wolves were one of the most feared creatures due to the danger they posed to flocks and humans themselves. In biblical scripture the hatred of wolves helped symbolize the fight of early Christians, which led to further negative perspectives of wolves. For instance, in Luke 10:3 Jesus tells his disciples that they will have to speak God’s Word “as sheep among wolves.” This example shows the danger early Christians encountered could be symbolized through wolves. In Aesop’s Fables, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” made clear that lying, especially when it related to predator vermin like wolves, was as incredibly risky thing to do. In The Fioretti di San Francesco, St. Francis of Assisi tamed a wolf attacking Gubbio thus curing it of its troublesome agency. This was a common theme in hagiography as it showed how the holy could bypass nature’s mistakes and bend animals to humanity’s will. Some examples of how wolves affected real people include information from the Earl of Lincolns Lancashire estates from 1303-4 in which he notes losing eleven cattle to wolves although this is a minuscule amount compared to the 123 he lost to disease. In Jean Marc Moriceau’s work on environmental dangers within France over the period 1400-1918 they also tally how wolves effected humanity. Over 2566 predatory attacks were noted with an additional 2813 being rabid attacks. Most areas had twenty to forty cases over the period but a considerable number experienced hundreds of cases (fig. 1). This conveys that European states had to deal with wolf attacks as a common reality for centuries unless they eradicated them.
The hatred held for foxes was similar to this but in addition to savagery it was their cunning which drew scorn. In Chaucer, they are described as sly creatures who acts like assassins or murderers. Human qualities are thus used to humanize the creatures to show their depravity. Buffon, the 18th century naturalist, claimed foxes were famous for craftiness and that their behaviour merited their bad reputation. They are thus described consistently as cunning, intelligent, yet negative agents. The stained-glass roundel in Ely Cathedral provides material evidence of this. It depicts Reynard the Fox in Episcopal robes, preaching to geese, and saying: “God is my witness, how I long for you all in my stomach” (fig. 2) thus conveying the extent of vulpine duplicity. These examples demonstrate that animals which attacked livestock were categorized as violent and disruptive creatures who could severely damage humanity’s prosperity. Their agency was what made them dangerous and led to cross-species war.
Human conflict also formed due to the impact of pests on crops. These vermin were often smaller creatures like insects or rodents. Due to the subpar nature of historical pesticides the struggle surrounding agricultural produce was a daily problem. In biblical scripture vermin destroyed crops to enact God’s justice. The most famous example is from Exodus in which Moses’ plague of locusts destroy all of the Egyptian crops and “cover the face of the earth.” In Medieval and Early Modern Europe it was commonly believed that attacks by insects and vermin on crops could be a sign of God’s displeasure, an idea that helped Christian Europe explain away vermin agency. Around a fifth of modern grains today are lost to pests and disease despite advancements in the field which has led Mark Overton to argue that this statistic likely equalled a third of pre-modern historical crops. Thus before modern pesticides, vermin agency had a profound effect on human development and agriculture.
A variety of vermin caused damage and destruction to crops. E.P. Evans’ work illuminates the role of animal trials regarding beetle (or inger, as they were known) destruction. A 1478 case in Switzerland noted they had “done immense damage…to the perceptible diminution of food for men and animals,” and the people had called upon the Bishop of Lausanne to command them to leave. Several scholars have detailed locust attacks which occurred from the Middle Ages to 1800. These occurred in Italy, Poland , Spain, Hungary, Poland, and Yugoslavia, and more. This information shows us how often attacks were over the centuries and where they happened because, although not common, attacks by locusts could cause mass destruction. Instances of this include the 1314 attack on Bologna by locusts who destroyed all regional crops, according to accounts likely overestimating slightly, while in 1499, Venice had a cloud of locusts attack.
Evan’s 1906 work documents many different creatures attacking crops. In 1120, Laon was plagued by field mice and caterpillars so they excommunicated them while in nearby Foigny flies were equally blamed for problems. The town of Mayence had to deal with a plague of Spanish flies in the 14th century while in Dijon in 1460-61 it was noted that weevils had caused damage. These instances show how vermin caused distress, hunger, and suffering through the agency that made them seek crops to eat.
Consequently, it has been shown that vermin of different forms could use their agency negatively by deciding alone, or in a swarm, to devour human foods. Overnight they could take human settlements from prosperity to ruin and hardship, a powerful agent, despite often being as small as an insect. Both predatory vermin and crop-eating vermin consequently left a large footprint on human society, from the 11th to the 18th century, regardless of whether they were aware of their actions. Together they combined as agents to make human survival a constant battle. The power of their appetite made them enemies and thus humans felt the need to take action against them.
The agency of vermin, whether explained by ANT or other theories, profoundly affected Pre-Modern Europe. The manners in which they could be controlled and stopped were numerous including taking them to court and or excommunicating them, scaring them off, killing them or eradicating them completely. Through such attempts at power over vermin, humanity fought against their agency.
Animals were seen as accountable for their actions so trials were seen as a way to have their crimes punished whilst acknowledging this agency. Von Amira drew a distinction in his work between two types of animal trial: thierstrafen was capital punishment of a secular nature against domestic creatures while thierprocesse were trials of an ecclesiastical nature against property-damaging vermin. As Leeson has noted, vermin trials were a mostly Catholic phenomenon in places like France, Italy, and Switzerland and were used to increase tithe revenues which the congregation often evaded. Church donations occurred, whether the vermin left, or whether they still persisted as a problem as a way to say thanks or pray for deliverance. An example of this is when Saint Jean-de-Maurienne sued weevils eating grapes and were told that paying tithes would stop them. Only the church could control vermin as it was believed vermin, like all animals, had souls which were subdued to high powers and would be “eternally condemned” if they did not obey. The church therefore took on the role of a spiritual pesticide and could be turned to when all other remedies had been unsuccessful. Trials were as fair as they could be before modernity and legal council was given to the defence.
Instances of this defence include the case in Saint Jean-de-Maurine where weevils were given two legal representatives. Likewise, in 1519 in Glurns, Italy, a group of field mice being sued received legal council. These instances show how their agency was respected. In the case of Bartholme Chassenee, some lawyers could make their name via representing vermin. In 1540, he became the president of the Parliament de Provence due to his reputation.
An example of a trial is that in 1478 Lausanne where the priest Bernhard Schmid denounced beetles in the Bishop of Lausanne’s name and demanded they cease their misbehaviour. He called them irrational and imperfect creatures, gave them six days to leave before they would be tried for their crimes and argued they had to obey the holy trinity and church. Another example of vermin trials is the 1541 case of the people versus the grasshoppers of Lombardy, Italy. The prosecutor appealed to the ecclesiastical judge involved saying that “these poor supplicants” had the possibility of an “impending famine” due to the “ravages of little beasts which spare neither the corn nor the vines.” In addition, he argued that their power to excommunicate these vermin made them more powerful than Caesar. Although trials were fair they often ended with excommunication and conviction ,especially if figures did not show up. Vermin trials therefore show us that vermin had profound agency that required Medieval societies to create spiritual infrastructure to try to control them. They were treated as agents and had to answer for their crime. Unlike the secular trials of domestic animals that went bad, vermin in church trials were not domesticated to begin with. Humanity could regain control of the animals they had spent generations domesticating but for vermin they had to turn to God and hope they could gain influence.
When things like trials and warnings did not work it meant that trapping, killing, or even eradicating different types of vermin was required. To get rid of grain-eating vermin a variety of roles developed like that held by a young boy on the thirteenth century Halvergate estate of the Earl of Norfolk in which he had the responsibility to chase off rooks, something that the East Anglian Lutterell Psalter also shows a man with a sling doing. Rat catchers often carried cages with their catches around and one man in 1404 was paid eleven guilders for killing 567 rats in Arhems, Netherlands by the Duke of Guire. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I authorised parishes to provide money to those who killed grain-eating vermin with the latter ruler’s version of the law focusing on foxes, weasels, mice, and rats. The Acte for the Preservation of Grayne therefore helped control the impact of vermin.
Much literature existed to aid in destruction. Ancient agricultural works by Pliny were published in Venice from 1469 while Palladius’ texts had Latin editions between 1472 and 1595. By the 16th century, works were showing increasingly ingenious traps to get rid of vermin. As Thomas Tusser, an English poet and writer said, though cats were a jewel every “dairy have trappe for a mouse” while Heresbachius, in the 16th century, argued traps and poisons were better than cats for small vermin. Likewise Leonard Mascall released a work called the Booke of Engines and Traps which provided many types. For instance a “Lay Trappe” for “Corne fields” could stop animals touching crops when placed near wheat and fruit (fig. 3). There was also a variety of baits and poisons for those like rats and mice featuring combinations of ingredients like arsenic, figs, hazel nuts, walnuts, oatmeal, butter, sugar, and bread. A similar book which dates from at the latest 1755 called The Vermin Killer likewise provides suggestions of how to get rid of grain-eating pests such as putting hemlock seeds in their holes as their well-known greediness would make them gorge on it thus poisoning themselves. The sheer amount of poisons, traps and tricks created to destroy vermin shows sufficiently how these agricultural pests embodied a potent form of agency.
The approaches to stopping carnivorous pests employed many similar tricks to that for dealing with herbivore and grain eating ones. Mascall’s book describes a latch or fox trap, the foote trappe for foxes, the wolf trap (a pit), and a French drag hook for foxes or wolves (figs. 4-5). As Fissell notes, animals were believed to be able to understand warnings, something evident in warnings to grain pests and within trials, thus meat-eating vermin could be warned too. A book called The Experienced Fowler explained that to drive away weasels one simply had to castrate a weasel, cut his tail short then let him run loose therefore scaring all others of his type from bothering humans.
In the case of foxes, they could be worthy of the hunt although historians argue about the date this started. The typical argument is that aristocratic fox hunting began late in the 18th century due to aristocrats like Hugo Meynell who adapted hunting and bred new hunting dogs in the wake of a mass loss of stags and deer. In contrast, Iris Middleton’s work on fox hunting’s origins shows this is likely untrue. Twiti, a French gentleman and writer, describes in 1327 how foxes were held aloft after the hunt for the hounds to bay at then the heads were ceremoniously taken to the estate. Thus, foxes were still vermin at the time but could likewise be seen as agents of great symbolic power who could occasionally be worthy of the chase. The Master of Game from 1406 describes foxes flying through woods pursued by hounds, while in 1539 Robert Pye wrote to Thomas Cromwell complaining about the expenses spent fox hunting when the vermin could be killed for much less. As Erving Goffman noted in 1959, aristocrats could make minor activities into expressions of power and rank. The killing of vermin could be a lashing out at their negative effect but it could also be used in the form of hunts to define them as equals in a romanticised conflict with man and the beasts who serve him.
The eradication of wolves across Europe shows clearly how these carnivorous animals, whose impactful agency had them deemed monstrous and evil, led humans to drive them to extinction in many countries. By the time of Henry VIII they were extinct in England. James I started the process of extermination in Scotland which was completed by the later 17th century. Compulsory hunts ensured wolves were killed as evident in a law from Scotland in 1428 which stated the king had ordained and decreed that each baron and his barony would need to chase wolves and slay them, and that the baron would reward his men for each catch. This system in which benefits included income for slaying and a reduction in the wolf’s negative impact was thus met by the negative implications if one refused to take part. It was the responsibility of these lords to ensure their baronies were safe. In 1652, the commissioners of revenue for Cromwell’s government in Ireland set a large wolf bounty of £6 for a female or £5 for a male which was a large sum. In this case, wolf hunting conveys how Cromwell’s government colonialized Ireland through its fauna. It was a sign of Ireland’s backwardness that wolves were still a problem. Lastly, in France, from Charlemagne’s time onwards, there was a royally appointed position concerned with hunting wolves called the Wolfcatcher Royal, Louvetier, or Grand Wolfcatcher. The Marquis of Flamarens had a coat of arms made in 1741 celebrating this role (fig. 6). Therefore, in France, this job was highly important and a sign of status. These examples show how wolves were murdered in large droves without the romanticism that occasionally accompanied foxes. The agency of lupin vermin was what made them evil and made their deaths needed. Different countries approached their eradication in different ways and the process was long but for pre-modern Europe the eradication was an eventuality all of them tried to work towards. All of these examples show how humans were in a constant battle to gain dominance over both types of vermin so as to ensure prosperity instead of hardship. Through trials, traps, tricks, poisons, and killing vermin humans fought back showing how vermin agency affected them.
Consequently, this article has proven that animal agency can be glimpsed in the form of the vermin who lived alongside Europeans during the 11th to 18th centuries. Through using the theoretical understanding brought to animal agency by ANT, Thing Theory, empiricism, and rationalism, and considering historical examples, this essay has proven the influential impact of vermin agency. Humans came up with a multitude of ways to counteract this agency but nothing could completely restrain that shifting symbolic creature called vermin.
Figure 1: Map showing the wolf attacks experienced in France from 1400-1918.
Figure 2: Early fifteenth century stained glass roundel of Reynard the Fox preaching to the geese at Ely Cathedral.
Figure 3: Illustration of Lay Trap for Fields and Crops from Mascall’s 1590 work.
Figure 4: Illustration of the foot trap from Mascall’s 1590 work.
Figure 5: Illustration of the wolf trap or pit from Mascall’s 1590 work.
Figure 6: The coat of arms of The Marquis of Flamarens, The Count of Flamarens, Grand Wolfcatcher and Survivalist (1741).
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