A Learned Pig?

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

 Robert Southey, 1807

A Learned Pig


The original learned pig was a black suckling, purchased for three shillings and named Toby by itinerant animal trainer, and sometime pub landlord, Samuel Bisset. Following an intensive sixteen months of training, the pig was “as pliant and good-natured as a spaniel” and was taken to the stage. He could apparently tell the time, distinguish between the married and unmarried, spell out names, and read the minds of women. Men, it seems, were immune to Toby’s unique talents.

Bisset himself died tragically after being attacked in his room by a sword-wielding intruder, and Toby was 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 said to be ready to “discourse on the Feudal System, the Rights of Kings and the Destruction of the Bastille.”

Unsurprisingly, this great success spawned quite a litter of learned pigs, and the act subsequently 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 symbol for the ignorance of politicians, the paucity of public taste, the baselessness of celebrity, and all things 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”.

Pig has, it seems, not been wanting to man, but man to pig.

Whilst, the learned pig is, on the one hand, a classic example of humanity’s repeated subjugation and exploitation of other species, on the other, it may also be read as engendering the sporadic disruption 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 Johnson 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.