Tag Archives: early modern

Early Modern Pets

Some of you might know we have recently adopted two chinchillas into our home (because I obviously didn’t have enough to do). Considering my history with animals I was instantly attached, and I absolutely love our newest additions to the family. Needless to say, I quickly became curious about chinchillas in medieval history, especially as house pets.

Unfortunately that was a fruitless search, and the first mentions of them came from the late sixteenth century in Spain and France, and early seventeenth century in the West Indies. All of these instances solely focus on the animal’s appearance and luxurious fur, with no mention of a desire for domestication – due to their softness, they were immediately marked for the fur trade, in which they remained until very recently when in the nineteen sixties and seventies they became increasingly popular as household pets.

Here is a snippet of my two favorite early entries for chinchillas in the OED:

1604   E. Grimeston tr. J. de Acosta Nat. & Morall Hist. Indies iv. xxxviii,   The Chinchilles is another kind of small beasts, like squirrels; they have a wonderfull smoothe and soft skinne.

1622   R. Hawkins Observ. Voiage South Sea 157   He is gray; his skinne is the most delicate, soft, and curious furre that I have seene..They call this beast chinchilla.
However, around the time westerners discovered the chinchilla, in the same area they came upon the cuy, better known as the guinea pig. These small creatures do not make good fur coats, but according to South Americans, they are an edible delicacy. However that trend never caught on for the rest of the world and the guinea pig was adopted in Europe in the sixteenth century as a novelty household pet for the wealthy.

The first piece of evidence relies on the remains of a guinea pig that were found in a cellar by F. Pigiere, dating from the mid sixteenth century. Unlike other remains, these were intact with no indication that the animal had been cut up or injured during its lifetime.  Also, considering it was by itself with no other similar remains found, it was not a part of a larger future food supply. It was being kept as a pet.

As guinea pigs were gaining prominence as pets, they were also garnering notoriety in artwork. One of the earliest depictions of a guinea pig was in this well known anonymous portrait from circa 1580 of three children where the young girl in the middle displays her little pet.

guinea pig

Not much later, in 1613, a guinea pig is spotted in the work of Jan Brueghel, “The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark,” evincing that the guinea pig had become a well known animal, and considered as attractive and/or useful as the other animals chosen to be saved.


(the guinea pigs are the two small creatures right underneath the lions, and next to the squirrels)

It was quite a bit of fun uncovering the history of guinea pigs and chinchillas, even if they had no contact with western culture earlier than the sixteenth century. I would be curious to see what other fantastic pets were kept in homes in the early modern period and of course earlier. Maybe another time.


Pigiere, Fabienne. “New archaeozoological evidence for the introduction of the guinea pig to Europe.”

Wing, Elizabeth. “Domestication of Andean Mammals.”

The Mothers Blessing (1616)

The works I have recently been looking at for my Female as Shapeshifter paper have been concerned with outlining proper codes of behavior for women, especially while they were with child, for fear that their conduct would effect their unborn babies. The two prior pieces both relied upon excessive consequences for improper behavior, almost as scare tactics to keep women in line. However, there is another facet to this genre that sidesteps fear inducing literature and appeals to simple common sense and human decency, and most interestingly, the participants of this genre are mostly women. I am referring to the mother’s manuals, and one of the most popular in the seventeenth century was Dorothy Leigh’s The Mothers Blessing, first published in 1616 (and countless times thereafter).

She positions her work as the domestic duty of a mother to instruct her children, humbly acknowledging her status in society. However, through the very act of publication she also acknowledges her ambitions in society where her words would reach well outside her domestic sphere as she inserts herself within the male dominated print culture –  “a thing so unusual among us,” meaning women. Less than fifty years later there would be dozens of works published by women as they were beginning to understand the importance of this medium to impress their voices.

Further evidence of Leigh’s desire for immortality through the press, along with a global audience lies in her many examples for female conduct, despite having had only sons. Arguably she posits these tidbits of advice as being reserved for the future wives of her sons, but that too stretches her influence well beyond the ordinary role of the mother whose sons’ wives’ obedience was expectantly their husbands’ alone.

Yet while this aspect of publication is fascinating, it resides well outside the scope of my paper (and I will be the first to admit I often need to be reigned in from pursuing adjacent and equally interesting topics), and unfortunately I don’t think I will have time for this in my fifteen minute presentation. Thus I will refocus on the aspect of childbearing and the implications of this enterprise for women. Leigh obviously believed the mother’s comport while pregnant effected the child, but in a different manner, where she equated giving birth almost in terms of a Marian feat, and the mother’s conduct influenced the baby well outside of the womb, not in some supernatural sense where the mother’s fashion choices altered a baby’s appearance, but rather that the mother served as a role model and guide for her children and thus must have always been cautious with her piety, never straying from the ways of God.

L0005357 Woman bearing 20 children. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Franciscus Picus Mirandolae, quoted by pare, says that one Dorothea, n Italian, bore 20 children at 2 confinements, the first time bearing 9 and the second time 11. He gives a picture of the marvel of prolificity, in which her belly is represented as hanging down to her knees and supported by a girdle from the neck. (Gould and Pyle). Illustration Prodigiorum ac ostentorum Chronicon Conradus Lycosthenes Published: 1557 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

L0005357 Woman bearing 20 children.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Franciscus Picus Mirandolae, quoted by pare, says that one Dorothea, n Italian, bore 20 children at 2 confinements, the first time bearing 9 and the second time 11. He gives a picture of the marvel of prolificity, in which her belly is represented as hanging down to her knees and supported by a girdle from the neck. (Gould and Pyle).
Prodigiorum ac ostentorum Chronicon
Conradus Lycosthenes
Published: 1557
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Leigh at one point in her writing referred to nursing her babies in Christological terms, likening the process to infusing the baby with blessings and life blood. This too referenced an anxiety of the early modern period that viewed breast milk as a potentially corrupt and subversive element. Much like Leigh believed she was pouring goodness into her babes mouths, others’s beliefs were much more nefarious. In Juan Luis Vive’s Education of Christian Women (1524), he presents the duality of breast milk as admirable nourishment on the part of those women who did not opt for a wet nurse simply out of convenience, but also regarded it as possibly harmful as it passed along the mother’s temperament and even more dangerously, her impurity. However, this did not negate the existing hazards of allowing a wet nurse access to a malleable baby, as she too could negatively influence him through her milk. Clearly there was no winning strategy and it must therefore be understood that female interference in a baby’s life, from conception in the womb well into the infant state was a disruption in patrilineage, and even the best intentions were frighteningly the reflections of maternal agency.


(Madonna with child, Da Vinci, 1491)

Thus it can be surmised that the woman’s role in society was to remain as unobtrusive as possible, dispelling male fears based upon their utter dependence upon women for promulgating and identifying lineage. Therefore despite Leigh’s clear indication of the importance of instructing children, and essentially dictating their upbringing through the creation of written accounts, her work served as an example of the friction between ideology and practice.

An Admonition For Readers

While working on my “Female as Shapeshifter” paper, I am beginning to look at some primary sources for inclusion. The first I wanted to work with is a piece from 1566, “The true discripcion of a childe with ruffes borne in the parish of Micheham in the cou[n]tie of Surrey in the yeere of our Lord. M.D.LXvi,” which is in two parts. The first part is a vignette describing the physical attributes of a baby girl born with malformations to her skin. The second part, however, is most interesting as it relies on popular portents that construed birth monstrosities as omens against sinfulness for others, as well as indications of the parents’ transgressions, specifically those of the mother.

Monsters in the medieval period were often thought of as the physical manifestations of sin, and if their purpose was correctly deciphered, could serve as warnings. Similarly, once their significance was understood, they illustrated the sin, fait accompli, which brought them into existence. In my example, the baby with ruffes, or ruffled skin, was the punishment brought upon the mother for her indecent, or immodest wearing of ruffles on her garments. Here is a snippet of the original poem (the entirety of which can be found here):

Pray we the Lord our hart{is} to turn, whilest we haue time and space:
Lest that our soules in hel doo burn, for voiding of his grace.

And ye O England whose womākinde, in ruffes doo walke to oft:
Parswade them stil to bere in minde, this Childe with ruffes so soft.

In fourme as they in nature so, a maid she is in déed:
God graunt vs grace how euer we go, for to repent with spéed.

Her supposed vanity while pregnant was transmitted to the child inside of her, physically shaping the baby in accordance to the mother. Thus this second section is an admonition to women everywhere, reminding them of their responsibilities not only to themselves but to society who entrusts them with the duty of creating future adults.

Just yesterday afternoon I lectured on Susan Sontag’s “A Woman’s Beauty” and in both my classes the discussion turned towards the great facility with which we split off the “inside” from the “outside” when defining beauty, namely in modern culture. There is a strong belief that the two are irreconcilable. It doesn’t help that Sontag attributes this distinction to a Christian era that she believes ostracized women for being attractive. Nevertheless she is not wrong, and this is the double edged sword of beauty – attention to physical appearance is admonished and reprimanded, yet anything less is a portent of a stain upon our hearts. So beauty is a representation of purity, but rejoicing in it is pride, and a sin. Thus in the Christian era Sontag cites, the inside and outside are not mutually exclusive, only reflections of each other.

The woman in my quoted passage, however, is not condemned for flaunting her God-given appearance, but rather for embellishing herself with ruffles (Ruffles!). She may well have been a great beauty, and was immodestly boasting by drawing further attention to herself. Or she may have been rather ordinary looking, or even unattractive, using ruffles to overcompensate for lack of beauty. This does not matter. I am going to completely ignore the insinuation that acquired traits which bear no genetic inheritance are used as an explanation for her baby’s appearance, and rather focus on the social implications that are transmitted by the work. Here pride is not only a punishable sin; pride is a particularly anxiety producing character trait because it reveals the extent to which female comport resides outside the boundaries of societal, and more importantly, male control. The baby inherits her mother’s flaws, genetic or otherwise, and fails to resemble the father, negating the demands of patrilineage. Further, this child does not even so much as resemble the mother but rather holds a mirror to her sinful behavior, providing a double offense to the father who has nothing to show for his role in the process of conception, and now must also suffer a reminder of his wife’s transgressions.

The female body during pregnancy becomes a locus of activity. Her body changes as she shapes and molds the baby inside of her according to her physical appearance, her thoughts, and her behavior. Consequently all of these facets of female existence then need to be controlled in order to ensure proper progeny. This resulted in an abundance of texts produced during the early modern period, specifically intended for women, that admonished unfavorable behaviors in an attempt to eradicate them. While a large portion of these were of course political, and help shed light on some of the controversies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including the dispute between Puritans and the reforms of Charles I, these are of less concern to me than the regard for the female body during the period of gestation. And as I continue working on my paper I look forward to exploring several other texts as well.


Crawford, Julie. Marvelous Protestantism: Monstrous Births in Post-Reformation England.

Crawford, Patricia. “The construction and experience of maternity in seventeenth century England.”

Purkiss, Diane. “Producing the voice, consuming the body: Women prophets of the seventeenth century.”