Beasts & Books

poster announcing the Beasts & Books exhibition

A new exhibition in Stanford’s Green Library, curated by Stanford Ph.D. candidate in history Mackenzie Cooley with contributions by undergraduate students in her fall, 2014 course, “History/Femgen 29S: The Animal Other: Humans and Animals in Western History,” explores the interdependence between humans and animals through the lens of book culture. The exhibition of rare books and manuscripts from the Stanford University Libraries' Special Collections will be on display in the Peterson Gallery and Munger Rotunda, Green Library Bing Wing, April 6 through August 22, 2015.

Presented thematically in historical perspective, the exhibit considers diverse aspects of humans’ recorded encounters with and thinking about animals. Among the topics explored and illustrated are monsters of the deep as depicted in sixteenth-century maps; medieval bestiaries and Christian theology, natural history in the ancient, medieval, and early modern periods; animals in the New World; horsepower and equine training; bullfighting, masculinity and the culture of hunting; animals as metaphor in the fables of Aesop; Descartes and the “beast-machine;” ethics of consumption of animal flesh; and animals in children’s literature.

The exhibition draws out changes in the nature of animal-human relationships as Western society shifted from domesticity into a post-domestic world, and shows how human knowledge was written onto animals, literally and metaphorically. While medieval manuscripts recorded knowledge on parchment, animals metaphorically functioned as “the other” — the non-person, against which the characteristics of personhood and humanity were defined. Through natural histories, philosophers grappled with the diversity of the natural world, questioning and reaffirming what (if anything) made human beings special within it. By collecting and analyzing animal bodies, humans have continued to define their purpose and uniqueness within the world.

Notes Paula Findlen, Ubaldo Pierotti Professor of Italian History at Stanford University, “The exhibition invites you to think about the long history of beasts in books from antiquity to the present day. It explores the wealth of rare materials in Stanford University Libraries related to this subject, selecting some of the most interesting items that permit us to trace this theme between history, science, fiction, graphic illustration, and lived experience. There will always be beasts in books. How and why animals haunt our imagination and challenge our understanding of our world – and our place within it in relation to them – lies at the heart of this delightful and thought-provoking exhibit.”