Allegorical Animals

By Anna J. Cook

Welcome to the second installment of our Beehive series, “Readers Relate,” in which we bring you a variety of examples of the type of research being done here in the MHS library.

Today’s responses come from Joshua Kercsmar, a PhD candidate under Mark Noll at the University of Notre Dame who spent several weeks conducting research here at the MHS this past summer.

Can you briefly describe the research project that brought you to the Massachusetts Historical Society?

My dissertation explores how British Americans used the moral meanings of animals to define religious and political identity in the New World. In coming to the MHS I wanted to know how ministers — key interpreters of nature for popular audiences — translated the meanings of animals for their listeners.   

What specific material in our collections made coming to the MHS important to your research?

The extensive collection of sermons at the MHS was a main attraction. Once there, however, I discovered an impressive collection of maps. Maps are important for my project, because engravers often framed them with allegorical scenes of people and animals. To promote whites’ image of themselves as improvers of the land, map-engravers would often portray Europeans in the vicinity of livestock. Scenes of Africa and America, however, tended to show Africans and Indians standing near (or riding atop) various species of wild, reptilian, or otherwise unproductive creatures. Through these kinds of comparisons, map-images helped reinforce the notion that Britain was more civilized and virtuous than other cultures.

While you were working here, was there something you examined that surprised you? What was it, and why was it surprising?

These animal-tropes were quite persistent, even into the late eighteenth century. Although I wasn’t sure what to expect, their persistence surprised me. I had thought that as the idea of the “noble savage” gained momentum during the eighteenth century, the equation of Indians with morally questionable reptiles might soften. But it didn’t.

Is there a particular quote (or visual image) from the material that you consulted that stands out for you? What is the quote (or image) and why is it important?

On two maps (Joshua Fry’s A Map of the Most Inhabited Part of Virginia Containing the Whole Province of Maryland [London, 1755], and John Henry’s A New and Accurate Map of Virginia [London, 1770]), I found not Indians but African slaves, who were portrayed as nearly naked and serving food. Given the strong connection between Africans and wild animals in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century maps, I read the slave-images as emblems of nature tamed. The images are important, because they suggest how common was the link (so often made in pro- and anti-slavery writings) between African slaves and domestic animals.

If you brought a visitor to the MHS and you had a chance to show them ONE item from our collections, what item would it be?

Detail of plate from Atlas des Colonies Angloises en AmeriqueI would show them the Atlas des Colonies Angloises en Amérique, which contains thirty-eight maps printed in a wide variety of styles from 1736 to 1777. Many of the maps I looked at were from this fine collection, although I was delighted to find that the MHS holds nearly two hundred other maps printed between 1500 and 1800 as well.


We invited Joshua to share anything further about his research that Beehive readers might be interested in. He writes:

 I earned my B.A. in Theology from Wheaton College (IL); my M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; and my Th.M. in American Religious History from Harvard Divinity School, where I worked under David D. Hall. I am now a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. History at the University of Notre Dame, and a student of Mark Noll.

My dissertation, entitled “Nature of the New World: Animals, Identities, and the Moral Ecology of British America, 1530–1800,” examines the ways that British Americans turned to the animal world, a vast repository of moral meaning, to make sense of their place in the American wilderness. I argue that ever since the Middle Ages, Britons had read systems of relationships among humans and animals (what we now call ecologies) as religious and moral indicators. Farmers were virtuous because they cultivated useful and industrious animals such as livestock, and killed destructive ones like foxes, crows, and wild dogs. Witches were evil in no small part because they reversed the scheme, cursing livestock and nurturing relations with snakes, frogs, black dogs, and a host of other corrupt animals. Responding to massive religious and social upheaval, sixteenth-century writers and artists expanded this system. They began to link Catholics and indigenous peoples to wolves, reptiles, and other wild beasts; and Protestants to domestic animals and ecological improvement. British colonists brought these ideas with them to America. Adapting them to new contexts (and through a wide range of sources), they came to define Indians and Africans as sub-humans that needed to be killed, removed, or (in the case of slaves) tamed, but themselves as Protestants, Britons, and (by the 1780s and 1790s) virtuous citizens of a new republic.

I also have two articles in progress. One of them explores how booksellers marketed the predictions of Ursula Shipton, an obscure English prophetess, to various London audiences during the English Civil Wars. Another, in the “revise-and-resubmit” stage with the William and Mary Quarterly, argues for the ongoing influence of Perry Miller on studies of early New England.

If you are a researcher who has worked at the MHS and are interested in participating, please contact me and I will be happy to forward our “Readers Relate” questionnaire to you.