Department of Classics and Archaeology

Box office bears

Project summary

Professor Hannah O'Regan is the principal investigator on this exciting new AHRC-funded project exploring the history of animal baiting in the early modern period. 

The Box Office Bears project will revolutionise our understanding of baiting, an entertainment form that, despite huge amounts of research on the early modern period, has been completely overlooked in current scholarship.

The 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.

Slightly crude drawing of a small bear being attacked by six dogs of almost equal size. Blackline drawing against cream background.
Woodcut image of bear-baiting from Lily's Antibossicon (1521), © Folger Shakespeare Library

Project details

Animal baiting was a very widespread ‘sport’ in early modern England. It rivalled the theatres in popularity and was licensed by the King (or Queen) via the ‘Master of the Bears’.

During baiting, dogs were set on bears and other animals (including bulls, horses and even lions), and bets were probably placed on the outcome (i.e. would the bear kill the dogs or vice versa). A baiting was a date for the diary, with everyone from ambassadors to apprentices attending events in Southwark, London. Baiting imagery even underpins some of Shakespeare’s most famous plays such as Macbeth and Twelfth Night.

Despite huge amounts of research on the early modern period, almost none of it has addressed animal baiting, but the AHRC-funded Box Office Bears (BOB) project will change this! 

In collaboration with our project partners at MOLA, we’re examining the unique remains of the animals and arenas from early modern Bankside (Southwark). As befits a very varied topic, we’re using a wide variety of approaches including archaeozoology, stable isotope analysis, ancient DNA, archival research and performance workshops. These will help us to understand how the baiting economy worked and fitted into early modern society, and how the animals were treated in life and death, and where they may have come from.

We’re also looking outside London to examine how baiting operated in the provinces as well as in the capital. There is a lot to learn, and O'Regan (2016) gives a brief overview of what little we know so far.

Further information on this project can be found on the UKRI funding page




Department of Classics and Archaeology

University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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