The historian W. E. H. Lecky remarks, there were two kinds of cruelty: the cruelty which comes from carelessness or indifference; and the cruelty which comes from vindictiveness.
In the case of animals what was normally displayed in the early modern period was the cruelty of indifference. For most persons, the beasts were outside the terms of moral reference. Contemporaries resembled those 'primitive' peoples of whom a modern anthropologist writes that they neither seek to inflict pain on animals nor to avoid doing so: 'pain in human beings outside the social circle or in animals tends to be a matter of minimal interest.' It was a world in which much of what would later be regarded as 'cruelty' had not yet been defined as such. A good example of how people were inured to the taking of animal life is provided by the diary kept by the schoolboy Thomas Isham, who grew up in Northamptonshire in the early 1670s. His little journal records much killing of cocks, slaughtering of oxen, drowning of puppies. It tells of coursing for hares, catching martens in traps, killing sparrows with stones and castrating bulls. None of these events evokes any special comment, and it is clear that the child was left emotionally unruffled.
The same indifference is reflected at a more sophisticated level in a simile used by the poet Edmund Waller:
As a broad bream, to please some curious taste,
While yet alive, in boiling water cast,
Vex'd with unwonted heat, he flings about
The scorching brass, and hurls the liquor out;
The image is purely visual and there is no interest in the feelings of the fish. In the same way Matthew Prior compares the versifiers of his day to a pet squirrel making futile efforts to escape from his captivity:
didst thou never see ('Tis but by way of simile)
A squirrel spend his little rage,
In jumping round a rowling cage,
The cage, as either side turn'd up,
Striking a ring of bells a'top -?
Mov'd in the Orb; pleas'd with the chimes,
The foolish creature thinks he climbs:
But here or there, turn wood or wire,
He never gets two inches higher.
What is revealing about this passage is that it is the squirrel, not Prior, who gets into a rage.
Yet, a hundred years later, William Blake's Robin Redbreast would evoke a very different reaction, for by that time the feelings of animals had become a matter of very great concern indeed. Throughout the eighteenth century, and particularly from the 17405 onwards, there was a growing stream of writing on the subject: philosophical essays on the moral treatment of the lower creatures, protests about particular forms of animal cruelty and (from the 1780s) edifying tracts designed to excite in children 'a benevolent conduct to the brute creation'. There were scores of books and innumerable contributions to periodicals and newspapers. There was also a great deal of poetry.
This was one of the periods in English history when poets, Shelley's 'unacknowledged legislators', had a powerful influence on educated opinion. The poets were regularly cited by the pamphleteers and quoted by speakers in Parliament; and it is impossible to understand the vehemence of the movement unless one takes into account the works of Pope, Thomson, Gay, Cowper, Smart, Dodsley, Blake, Burns, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Southey, Crabbe and Clare, to name no more. In the early nineteenth century the agitation culminated in the foundation in 1824 of the Society (later the Royal Society) for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the passing (after unsuccessful bills from 1800 onwards) of a series of Acts of Parliament: against cruelty to horses and cattle (1822), against cruelty to dogs (1839 and 1854) and against baiting and cock- fighting (1835 and 1849).