Imperfect Creatures

Vermin, Literature, and the Sciences of Life, 1600-1740
Lucinda Cole
An ambitious new study of Western Europe’s distaste for “vermin”—mice, locusts, crows, and even some dogs—in early modern literature


Lucinda Cole’s Imperfect Creatures offers the first full-length study of the shifting, unstable, but foundational status of “vermin” as creatures and category in the early modern literary, scientific, and political imagination. In the space between theology and an emergent empiricism, Cole’s argument engages a wide historical swath of canonical early modern literary texts—William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, Abraham Cowley’s The Plagues of Egypt, Thomas Shadwell’s The Virtuoso, the Earl of Rochester’s “A Ramble in St. James’s Park,” and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Journal of the Plague Year—alongside other nonliterary primary sources and under-examined archival materials from the period, including treatises on animal trials, grain shortages, rabies, and comparative neuroanatomy.

As Cole illustrates, human health and demographic problems—notably those of feeding populations periodically stricken by hunger, disease, and famine—were tied to larger questions about food supplies, property laws, national identity, and the theological imperatives that underwrote humankind’s claim to dominion over the animal kingdom. In this context, Cole’s study indicates, so-called “vermin” occupied liminal spaces between subject and object, nature and animal, animal and the devil, the devil and disease—even reason and madness. This verminous discourse formed a foundational category used to carve out humankind’s relationship to an unpredictable, irrational natural world, but it evolved into a form for thinking about not merely animals but anything that threatened the health of the body politic—humans, animals, and even thoughts.

“For the last decade Lucinda Cole has been an important figure in animal studies, and here she carries the debate about human-animal relations into new territory by considering them as ‘heterarchical’—that is, unfixed and mobile, provoking between species unintended exchanges of properties, conduct, and ‘rank.’ The ‘human,’ as she points out at the end of Imperfect Creatures, ‘is not an absolute standard or unmarked term.’”
—Jonathan Lamb, Vanderbilt University

“This book provoked me to think beyond, as well as with, the claims it advocates. Cole wittily and aptly terms the reading practice that emerges from this altered focus ‘reading beneath the grain.’ The results are both welcome and remarkably generative, and this work is likely to be widely cited in subsequent discussions. Cole’s argument is both lucid and ambitious, blending attentive reading with solid scholarship in graceful, accessible prose that engages productively with an array of important theoretical positions in literary, science, and animal studies.”
—Richard Nash, Indiana University

“Lucinda Cole’s engaging book expands the repertory and shapes the direction of the field of animal studies. This work offers us a new subject of inquiry—in animals regarded as ‘vermin’—and it uses these ‘imperfect’ creatures to extend our understanding of the significance of shared community. Animal studies has advanced our understanding of the community or commonality of beings, human and non-human, through a range of methods and materials. Cole’s book reveals the ways in which the rats, lice, frogs, dogs, and other ‘vile’ beings in Shakespeare, Shadwell, Cowley, Defoe, and others demonstrate a heterarchical approach to human/non-human difference. These ‘vile’ animal beings extend our understanding of the ways in which the engagement with non-human beings systematically raises, tests, and interrogates structures of hierarchy and expectations of anthropomorphism.
—Laura Brown, Cornell University

“By taking early modern vermin seriously, Imperfect Creatures reveals the crises and insecurities that these ubiquitous creatures could evoke in humans. Ranging widely across time and genre, this insightful and beautifully crafted study lifts animal studies to a new level of analysis and theoretical sophistication, while never losing sight of its human and animal actors.”
—Anita Guerrini, Oregon State University

Cover: Jacques De Gheyn II, Study of Two Rats and Three Frogs.

Lucinda Cole is Visiting Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Praise / Awards

  • "Cole’s engaging style combines rigorous analysis with accessibility even to readers who are not specialists in  ecological studies and literature."
    --British Society for Literature and Science
  • "A pleasure to read and an excellent contribution to the field, Imperfect Creatures will appeal to anyone interested in early modern literature and the history of science, as well as ways in which the past relates to present environmental concerns."
    --Eighteenth Century Fiction
  • "Cole’s important book will be hard to ignore. To that end, it will also make the heretofore invisible “imperfect creatures” of early modern and Enlightenment culture hard to ignore in turn."
    --The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation
  • "The observations [within] make this one of the best books in eighteenth-century cultural studies to have come along in a while."
    --SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900
  • "Her book is an excellent addition to the field of animal studies. Her extensive and fascinating study of the early modern networks among animals, humans, and food supplies extends those networks into works of science and literature. Her work is thorough, witty, and thoughtful."

  • "Imperfect Creatures is a serious work of scholarship: an ambitious work that will certainly prove of interest to researchers not only in the field of animal studies, but also in the developing research area of literature and science."
  • Short-listed for the Michelle Kendrick Book Prize given annually by the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts.  

  • Winner of the 2017 Robert Lowry Patten Award from SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900

    "A stunning contribution to the burgeoning field of animal studies."
    --Judges, Robert Lowry Patten Award 

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 248pp.
  • 6 illustrations.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2016
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-07295-8

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  • $64.95 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2016
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-05295-0

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  • $29.95 U.S.

  • Open Access
  • 2016
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-90063-3

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  • Western Europe, early modern literature, vermin, creatures, animal studies, hunger, disease, famine, historical, scientific, environmental