Jacket Image

Enlarge Image

190 × 135 × 13 mm
192 pages
123 illustrations, 46 in colour
01 Sep 2004
  • £14.95

Rat Jonathan Burt

The rat has been described as the shadow of the human. From ancient times it spread via the routes of commerce and conquest to eventually inhabit almost every part of the world. Its impact on history has been enormous in terms of the damage done through plague and disease, the destruction of agricultural produce, and the infestations of cities. At the same time the rat has provided science with a huge resource for experimentation. This highly adaptable, fertile and intelligent creature is almost universally loathed, but there are cultures in which it is revered, even deified.

This book traces the history of the human relationship with rats from the first archaeological finds to the genetically engineered rats of the present day, describing its role in the arts and sciences, religion and myth, psychoanalysis and medicine. The author includes wide-ranging examples of the rat’s appearance: in literature – The Pied Piper; Beatrix Potter stories, The Wind in the Willows; in culture –- Victorian rat-and-dog baiting pits, its popularity as a pet, even the subject of a ’70s pop song; folklore – it was a good luck symbol in ancient Rome, symbol of cunning in Chinese mythology; and psychoanalysis – Freud’s Rat Man, for example.

The book also seeks to answer two problems raised by the complexity of human attitudes to the rat. The first concerns how it was that the rat came to be seen not just as verminous, but also as being particularly despised for being so – more so, in fact, than other parasitic animals. The second concerns the manner in which human attitudes to the rat can be so contradictory, when admiration for its abilities are set against this idea of hatred. The rat can be found at the heart of human preoccupations with hygiene, sexuality and appetite, and exists as a perverse totem for the worst excesses of human behaviour. In Rat, Jonathan Burt provides a fascinating account of this animal in history, myth and culture.

‘Superbly illustrated, this is the perfect book for the rat fancier in your life’ — The Guardian

‘As Jonathan Burt writes in his excellent book Rat – part of the Reaktion series on animals in culture – our phobia of rats is intimately tied up with our own self-image as humans. We despise rats for the very things we despise in ourselves: their filth, their lust, their disease, their destruction, their pointless, unbounded, never-ending consumption. Their ingenuity. Their hypocrisy – rats make everything else dirty but keep themselves extremely clean. Rats, he argues – not apes – are what humans fear we will devolve into in the event of societal collapse.’ — Richard Godwin, The Observer

‘Tracing salient periods in the symbiotic connection we have had with these reviled and revered creatures, Burts absorbing and highly readable story gnaws into the labyrinthine, deep-rooted psychological terror that these tenacious creatures engender.’ — The Herald, Glasgow

‘well illustrated . . . an excellent example of how cultural history can entertainingly cross borders.’ — BBC History Magazine

Rat is a good account of the many different manifestations of this animal, and a good place to start for those new to critical animal studies.’ — TLS

‘a highly useful reference source for the history of rat-human relationships . . . The books theme is that the rat mirrors the human: and the book itself, in being the history of that connection, provides a compelling, albeit often disturbing, look into the human mind’ — Anthrozoös

‘This book represents an altogether very impressive effort of drawing on examples from the arts, science, religion and folklore of the six continents that rats have colonised . . . [a] lovely book.’ — Animal Welfare

‘. . . a fascinating read, even for those a bit squeamish about Rattus.’ — British Journal for the History of Science

Show all

Jonathan Burt is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge, UK. He is the author of Animals in Film (Reaktion, 2002) and general editor of the animal series.