What distinguishes humans from animals?


In 1386, the northern French town of Falaise witnessed an extraordinary trial – extraordinary to the modern mind, at least. A pig, “a sow of three years or thereabouts”, was arrested, held captive, tried in the local court by lawyers and magistrates, found guilty, sentenced, and finally executed for the crime of attacking a child, specifically of having “eaten the face” (mangé le visage) of a swaddled human baby. The infant died; the animal was dragged through the streets and hanged by the town’s “master of high works”, whose receipt for his fee is extant. Apparently the practice of subjecting animals to criminal prosecution, originating in France, spread to neighbouring countries and persisted for centuries, the last recorded case in Europe occurring in 1906. The episode of the homicidal sow is one of the multiple bits of zoographic evidence that informs Stage, Stake, and Scaffold, Andreas Höfele’s sophisticated study of how early modern Europeans conceived of the human being in relation to other species. Recently, Erica Fudge, Laurie Shannon and, more generally, Martha Nussbaum, Cary Wolfe and Giorgio Agamben have endeavoured to reappraise the category of Homo sapiens in different historical eras. Höfele extends their discussion by linking the early modern stage, the bear pit, and the executioner’s arena, thus addressing taxonomic questions such as: what do humans have in common with animals? What distinguishes humans from animals?

more from Russ McDonald at the TLS here.