About the project

What is Box Office Bears?

Box Office Bears: Animal baiting in early modern England, is a UK Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project bringing together researchers from the Universities of Nottingham, Roehampton and Oxford and project partner Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA).
Our project combines a number of different approaches, brought together to discover more about the practice of animal baiting and the animals at its centre:

Zooarchaeology

Zooarchaeology (the archaeological study of animals, as part of which we use isotope analysis—a chemical investigation of animal remains) will recover details about the lives of the animals involved: what did they eat, where did they grow up, how and when did they die?

Archaeogenetics

Archaeogenetics (the study of ancient DNA) helps us understand more about the identities of these dogs and bears: what was their ancestry, what colour was their fur, what can we learn from the genomes of long-dead animals?

Archival Research

Archival research (looking through historical textual documents stored in different archives) aims to uncover records about the humans and animals involved: what were the stories, activities, journeys, and identities behind baiting?

Performance Studies

Performance studies will help us understand how and why these animals “performed” before a public and helps us ask questions about exploitation, cruelty, and violence that characterised animal baiting.

Why are we doing this?

These approaches unite to give us a holistic view of this unsettlingly popular practice and allows us to bring together a remarkable amount of surviving evidence.

One impetus for Box Office Bears is the unusual, perhaps unique, opportunity to bring together a series of archaeological finds on Bankside—of bones and building remains—with a rich and thorough archival record of letters, diaries, patents, etc. that maps directly onto them. We also put this localised evidence into conversation with the wider archival record outside of London, exploring the regional and national cultural presence and the travels of bears, bulls, and dogs. Unusually in zooarchaeology, this means that there is a wealth of supplementary information that helps inform the questions asked about these animals and that can strengthen the histories we tell about animal cruelty, entertainment practice, and the social world of Shakespeare’s England.

What are our central themes?

Some of our central themes are: migration and travel; gender; economics; patronage and authority; bearward individuals and dynasties; regulation; animal identity and experience; audiences.

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More about the project...

Join us to discover more about the many curious stories of these historic animals: of bears roaming the highways, dogs stolen for sport, and bulls with recognisable personalities.  Explore our website to learn more, including Resources for teaching and research, textual blogs with cutting-edge research details, and animations bringing the past to life.  Please also be in touch with any queries, suggestions, or advice.

Animal Cruelty

The questions we pose about the past do not just belong to the past; while the practices described here might seem bizarre and even barbaric, animal cruelty is still rife across the UK and the world today.  We encourage you to donate to our partner the Badger Trust, which provides support against animal cruelty.