The Learned Pig

Art – Thinking – Nature – Writing

A Learned Pig?

The original learned pig, from which this magazine takes its name, was once upon a time a humble black suckling. But one day it was purchased for the sum of three shillings by itinerant animal trainer, and sometime pub landlord, Samuel Bisset. Bisset named the pig Toby. And so a history was begun.

Looking to make good on his investment, Bisset trained the pig intensively for sixteen months. After that time, the story goes that Toby was “as pliant and good-natured as a spaniel”. Now he was ready for the stage. Toby could perform all manner of impressive feats: he could apparently tell the time, he could distinguish between the married and unmarried, he could spell out names, and read the minds of women. Men, it seems, were immune to Toby’s unique talents.

In an unexpected twist, Bisset was attacked in his room by a sword-wielding intruder, and died. Toby was then passed to a Mr Nicholson, who exhibited his new possession in Nottingham in 1784, and then in London the following year. Toby was toured throughout Europe and feted wherever he went. Returning to England following the French Revolution, he was widely praised for his intellect. It was even said that he could, if necessary, “discourse on the Feudal System, the Rights of Kings and the Destruction of the Bastille.”

The learned pig was in his day a far greater object of admiration
to the English nation than ever was Sir Isaac Newton.i

Unsurprisingly, this great success spawned quite a litter of learned pigs. Similar acts became something of a fixture at circuses and shows throughout the nineteenth century. The learned pig also developed into a common motif for satirists, and a potent symbol for a wide range of contemporary ills including the ignorance of politicians, the paucity of public taste, the baselessness of celebrity, and almost anything else deemed vulgar or unnatural. In The Prelude, for example, William Wordsworth includes the learned pig in his “Parliament of Monsters”, alongside “Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs.” “All,” it continues, “freaks of nature”.

Today, the learned pig stands as a classic example of humanity’s repeated subjugation and exploitation of other species. But, at the same time, the way in which Toby was so rapturously received also created a disruption, however temporary, of such a straightforward hierarchy. As children’s writer Sarah Trimmer reported in 1788:

“I have,” said a lady who was present, “been for a long time accustomed to consider animals as mere machines, actuated by the unerring hand of Providence…but the sight of the Learned Pig, which has lately been shown in London, has deranged these ideas and I know not what to think.”

Likewise, Samuel Johnsonii commented that: “the pigs are a race unjustly calumniated. Pig has, it seems, not been wanting to man, but man to pig. We do not allow time for his education, we kill him at a year old.”

The Learned Pig is therefore a strange kind of symbol: both a reminder of crimes perpetrated in the name of authority, and an opportunity to put them right.


The Learned Pig


i. Robert Southey, 1807
ii. James Boswell, Life of Johnson, July 12, 1784