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Rethinking the Status of Animals in the French Renaissance Culture: from Pierre Belon to Michel de Montaigne

  • Author(s): Sylvia, Olga
  • Advisor(s): Hampton, Timothy
  • et al.

This dissertation discusses the status of animals in sixteenth century French texts of various literary and non-literary genres. It aims at demonstrating the significant shift from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance with regards to the literary portrayal of animals, which were no longer regarded in the allegorical tradition but rather as a subject matter. These changes in philosophers’ perceptions of animals were conditioned by the intersection of two major phenomena taking place at the time – geographical explorations exposing new knowledge about unknown animals and species, and a rediscovery of classical texts that challenged the Aristotelian vision of a hierarchy of species. As a result, scholars were urged to break the old tradition of animals’ representation as a vehicle of human flaws and social differences, and created instead a new role for animals for the first time in the history of Western civilization.

The main goal of this dissertation goes beyond simply introducing the animal as subject in French Renaissance texts, but it ambitiously seeks to demonstrate that, despite modern scholars’ belief that the Renaissance was a period of all-embracing anthropocentrism when Aristotelian ideas regarding the hierarchy of species flourished and freed man from all moral obligations towards animals, there was a significant cluster of French texts from various authors, such as Des Périers and Montaigne, that raised the question of animal equality, or even superiority, and called upon man to take responsibility for the treatment of animals. The careful examination of these texts surprisingly reveals that modern ideas regarding animal rights and species equality were already addressed, or at least touched on, in French Renaissance literature.

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