Box Office Bears: Animal baiting in early modern England

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Archaeology

Abstract

It is a well-known fact that Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences flocked to the theatre to see the plays of writers such as Shakespeare. It is less well-known that such audiences were just as likely to attend animal baiting as a form of entertainment. This involved pitting dogs against various kinds of animals, including bulls, bears and even lions. Many of the animals, particularly bears, became named celebrities in their own right with one, Sackerston, mentioned in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, yet we know very little about them or the activity of baiting itself. To date, most scholarly research has viewed baiting as a poor cousin to the human theatrical performances happening at the playhouses. Our project marks the first major attempt to challenge this perception in time for the Shakespeare First Folio celebrations of 2023.

The Box Office Bears (BOB) project will examine the nature and role of animal baiting in England in the early modern period. We will put a range of academic approaches into fresh dialogue, including archival research, performance workshops and the examination of unique archaeological records from Southwark, London. Here, three animal baiting arenas have been excavated, along with the bones of the bears, bulls, dogs and horses that lived and died there. We will perform the first comprehensive analysis of skeletal remains across these sites, to examine the lives of the animals as actors within the performance of baiting. We will learn their likely place of birth, their diets, and examine their injuries. Through ancient DNA analyses we will determine their sex, whether brown, black or polar bears are present, and where they might have originated (bears had been extinct in Britain for at least 1000 years). For the dogs, we can also look in astonishing detail at their appearance, with new DNA techniques even allowing us to identify their coat colour. Together these methods will allow us to recreate the spectacle of baiting in unprecedented detail, but also bring the lives of the animals to the fore - placing them at the centre of our study and making them more than just the silent participants in an activity that we now find hard to imagine could ever have been entertainment.

In tandem with the work on skeletons we will be examining archival records from across England, synthesising work from multiple projects (particularly Records of Early English Drama), to bring the world of baiting to life. We will see when and where baitings took place, how much it cost, and who was participating. Unlike many bloodsports, baiting was attended by women, but initial research suggests the dogs were provided by men, as is also the case in modern (illegal) animal baiting. The bears were of either sex and their gender identity was a part of their fame. This project marks the first time that the gender aspects of baiting will be explored. To bring the baiting to 'life' we also use performance workshops, using actors to explore our archaeological and archival findings in real time. We will consider the role of animals on stage, the physical spaces and sightlines of performance, and the wider role of combat in early modern England. These workshops will bring together fight directors, sports historians, archaeologists and experts in, and practitioners of, early modern theatre to forge a new dialogue about baiting as a form of entertainment. This novel approach will allow us to consider the physicality of baiting as well as the broader societal contexts.

The BOB project will revolutionise our understanding of baiting, a key entertainment form that despite huge amounts of research on the early modern period, has been completely overlooked in current scholarship. Our results will challenge current orthodoxy about the relationship between baiting and the playhouses, and provide a new medium for the examination of gender roles, entertainment and human-animal relationships in the early modern period.

Planned Impact

The impact of the Box Office Bears project will be developed throughout the period of the grant, building towards a key period of public engagement connected to the Shakespeare First Folio celebrations in 2023. We will target a range of non-academic beneficiaries, through online and offline activities including blogs, performance workshops and talks. Our key impact will target three groups, and we will also be responsive to any additional opportunities that become apparent through the lifetime of the project.

1) The public: Animals, and bears in particular, are very popular, as are the Tudors and Stuarts. We therefore anticipate substantial public interest in our project and results. The public will benefit through gaining a broader understanding of the early modern period, and we will also provide context for texts that refer to baiting and are regular features in school syllabuses, such as Shakespeare's Macbeth and Twelfth Night (Key Stages 3 and 4). To inform the public about our research processes as well as the results, we will have regular blog posts on the AHRC-funded Before Shakespeare website. Our results will also be disseminated through public talks and meetings, and through the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) Time Truck, which delivers heritage education to schools and the general public in the London area.

2) The media: Bears have a wide media appeal, and we will enhance this through targeted press releases and social media campaigns around our research. These will build through the project and culminate in 2023 during the Shakespeare First Folio celebrations. The media will benefit through fresh stories for the news cycle, and from the potential to make programmes or documentaries based on our findings that will ultimately lead to income for the production companies involved.

3) Performers, combat specialists and artistic directors: Following the successful Before Shakespeare model three performance workshops will examine key aspects of animals in 'forgotten' plays, spaces and sightlines with animals on stage, and the physicality of animal and human combat. The workshops are in essence a co-creation and the experience of the actors and audience will feed back into the questions we ask in our project research. By bringing less well-known scripts to wider attention, and bringing a physical dimension to our study, there is considerable potential for inspiring future cultural activities.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Title BOB TV: The Nantwich Fire 
Description An animation based on Box Office Bears research on bears in early modern Nantwich, Cheshire. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact Currently 550+ views on YouTube. 
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2Au8OEwfzM
 
Title Listen by the Lake: Box Office Bears 
Description Four short (<3min) audio recordings by the BOB team. They describe the BOB project, and place it in the context of Nottingham and the wider early modern entertainment economy. These recordings are hosted on a listening post in Highfields Park, Nottingham, for the public to play and listen to when taking walks in the Park. Recordings will be live on the posts from Jan-April 2022. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2022 
Impact Recorded interview for Notts TV. 
 
Description A Bit Lit BOB Announcement film 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An online film between the PI and Co-Is, explaining the Box Office Bears project and the research process and questions behind it.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZsYjhzaD8s
 
Description BOB Announcement blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact A blog post to announce the beginning of the project
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://beforeshakespeare.com/2020/08/03/box-office-bears-a-new-research-project-on-animal-baiting/
 
Description Listen by the Lake interview 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interview for Notts TV on the Box Office Bears listening post, part of the 'Listen by the Lake' audio engagement initiative in HIghfields Park, Nottingham.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
 
Description Our Shared Human Past Webinar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact 25 people attended a webinar run by the Department of Classics and Archaeology at the University of Nottingham. We introduced the project in the talk.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Talk for Aberdeen Centre for Early Modern Studies 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited online talk to the Aberdeen Centre for Early modern studies. Talk entitled "Municipal Play and the Home Fans (A Leisure Complex in Congleton)".
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021