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About us Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies Organization Staff PhD Research Comparative Study of Religion

Sven Gins

Homo Imperfectus: Animals, Machines, and the Quest for Humanity in Late Mediaeval France

What insights does fifteenth-century Burgundy offer for present-day discussions about humankind’s systematic exploitation of nature, the rapid development of artificial intelligences, and the attribution of legal subjectivity to (nonhuman) animals? In those days, too, people sought answers to the ethical and existential questions that these debates provoke. I therefore analyse how mediaeval Christians engaged with biological and mechanical animals, and what this suggests about how humans defined what it means to be human. I do so by looking at three ideologically interconnected themes: encyclopaedias, artificial animals, and the legal prosecution of nonhuman animals.

Mediaeval encyclopaedias, based on classical knowledge of zoology and Christian prescriptions, are compendia about Creation that readers could utilise to fathom God’s plan for humankind. Animals were therefore described in terms of their potential role in the development of humanity: as food, draught animal, moral symbol, or medicine. I consider these discourses of animality to be prescriptive: encyclopaedias thus naturalised human expectations of animals and, because of their emphasis on the inferiority and nonhumanity of animals, they also articulated norms for humans. This way, people who ostensibly diverged from these norms could be represented as ‘inhuman’. These rhetorics are still often invoked to subjugate animals and human minorities. I therefore deconstruct such discourses to destabilise their present self-evidence.

The aforementioned expectations of animals are explicitly visible in human reproductions of animals in mechanical form. For instance, the dukes of Burgundy installed all kinds of artificial animals at their estate in Hesdin to awe and frighten European aristocrats. Because of their resemblance to biological animals, artificial animals provoked similar questions as the artificial intelligences that are presently developed. Is an organism no more than the sum of its parts? Does humankind have such an intrinsic understanding of the natural world that we can play for God now as well? What position do artificial intelligences occupy in the order of Creation, and can they dethrone their human creators? These questions, now more urgent than ever, play a prominent role in my project.

The self-evidence of human superiority was undermined when biological animals diverged from the—humanly prescribed—expectational pattern, like when a wandering pig killed a human infant. Valois-Burgundy was the epicentre of numerous secular and ecclesiastical ‘animal trials’ that were organised in Western Europe for many centuries as a reaction to such transgressions of God’s earthly hierarchy. To which extent were these trials social laboratories where everyday modes of sociality between humans and animals could be reinvented and re-naturalised?

Each of these themes suggests an interest in defining, subjugating, and controlling the natural world. These assumptions about the relation between humans, animals, and robots are still normative in the present, religiously diversified and secularised world because of Valois-Burgundy’s enormous impact on the intellectual and sociocultural development of Western Europe. My analysis of the aforementioned themes will deconstruct human forms of oppression and highlight how anthropocentrism harms both animals and humans, and how it hinders us from building sustainable and mutualistic rapports with other organisms.

This project is funded by the Dutch Research Council (NWO) and the University of Groningen via the Research Programme PhDs in the Humanities ( PGW.21.029 ) for talented researchers.

© Bibliothèque nationale de France
© Bibliothèque nationale de France
Last modified:04 October 2021 5.39 p.m.