Monday, October 26, 2015

Medievals and Their Dogs

by E.M. Powell

If I were to ask you to name a twelfth-century figure who was known to be afraid of dogs, you are unlikely to come up with Genghis Khan. Yes, he of the Mongol hordes infamy and conqueror of twelve million square miles had a fear of our four-legged friends. But before we pour too much scorn on the mighty conqueror's head, it's worth reminding ourselves of the animals which he feared. Mongol dogs were a type of large mastiff, know for their savagery. Travellers reported that the dogs could leap at a man even if he sat on the back of a horse or a camel, and described them as 'bony brutes...loud-voiced and vicious.' Perhaps, then, Genghis was more realist than coward.


Mastiff-type dogs were one just one breed of dog favoured by the medievals. Alaunts were the largest and heaviest of these, guarding the houses and flocks of their owners. Their size, weight and powerful jaws made them a popular choice as attack dogs in the brutal pastimes of bear-baiting and bull-baiting. They could also be used for hunting.


Hunting with hounds played a major role in the life of the medieval nobility. Stags and harts became the preferred quarry. Some packs of hounds stayed on a huntsman's leash; others ran free alongside their mounted masters. Dog packs could range from around twelve animals to up to fifty. In the 1360s, Edward III spent the exorbitant sum of £80 on his pack of seventy dogs and the huntsmen that looked after and worked the animals. Henry of Lancaster paid a goldsmith to make a silver chain for one of his dogs.


The fourteenth century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight contains scenes of hunting dogs in action. The unknown poet tells us 'Such a clamour arose from the assembled hounds, that the rocks around rang with the noise.' The dogs bring down deer, but meet their match when they disturb a wild boar: 'Full oft he stands at bay, And maims the pack on all sides. He hurts the hounds and they, Full piteously howl and yell.'



The Gawain poet also shows his appreciation of one particular breed: 'And the greyhounds so great, Could pull down prey in the blink of an eye.' The greyhound had a peerless reputation among the medievals for its speed and for taking down quarry. I doubt if these qualities of the breed would surprise many people. But the greyhound who was also a saint perhaps will.


On a visit to thirteenth-century Lyon, the cleric Stephen de Bourbon discovered to his horror that the Saint Guinefort revered by so many was, in fact, a greyhound. In life, the dog was alleged to have saved the baby of its master from a snake. The master had not realised, believing the bloody-jawed dog to have killed the infant and so slew the dog. He realised his mistake, and the dog's loyalty, when he found the dead snake. He erected a shrine to Guinefort, which grew in popularity. Local women carried out rituals at the site of the dog's death, praying for their sickly children.


Numerous examples exist from medieval times of people attributing deep loyalty to dogs. Gerald of Wales praised canine faithfulness. People believed that dogs would never desert their masters, would die for them or would hunt down their master's murderer if necessary. Such attribution even found its way into heraldry. John of Guildford's  fourteenth century Tractatus de armis has the heraldic symbol for a dog representing a loyal man who would never desert his master and who would lay down his life for him.


One could say that all of the above relationships with dogs are of their time. But there are many instances of people enjoying dogs exactly as we do today. People loved to see performing dogs. There's a twelfth-century account of a dog imitating actions on command. Dancing dogs, their owners accompanying them on drums and whistles, proved a huge draw at fairs and feast days. A tenth-century Scandinavian king employed an entertainer with a dog to make him laugh.


People kept dogs as pets, too. Many people favoured smaller breeds. The members of religious houses frequently kept dogs as pets. Chaucer's fictional Prioress in The Canterbury Tales has small dogs, '...which she fed, With roasted meat, and milk, and wastel bread.' 

And, all those centuries ago, people loved their dogs too. The very real twelfth-century Bernard of Clairvaux is credited with the popular phrase: 'Qui me amat, amet et canem meum. Who loves me will love my dog also.' or, more succinctly, 'Love me, love my dog.' But my personal favourite is from John of Salisbury's 1159  Policraticus. He simply says: 'Having a dog at your heel is most comforting.' Quite.




References:
All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 
Cawley, A.C. ed. Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd. (1976)
McLynn, Frank. Genghis Khan: The Man who Conquered the World. London: The Bodley Head. (2015)
Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England. London: The Bodley Head. (2008)
Resl, Brigitte, ed., A Cultural History of Animals in the Medieval Age. Oxford: Berg (2007)

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E.M. Powell’s medieval thrillers The Fifth Knight and The Blood of the Fifth Knight have been #1 Amazon bestsellers. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. She blogs for EHFA, reviews for the Historical Novel Society and contributes to The Big Thrill.

Book #3 in the series, The Lord of Ireland, based on the Lord John's disastrous 1185 campaign, will be published by Thomas & Mercer in March 2016. Find out more at www.empowell.com.


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12 comments:

  1. I suspect that dog Guinefort was as fictional as other dogs such as Gelert, the hound of a Welsh Prince, who has the same story - dog saves baby, master thinks he's killed it, master kills loyal hound and discovers his mistake too late. I think this story is found in many places. But a good story anyway, and who knows but that it might have been inspired by a true story. Dogs certainly played a vital role in mediaeval life!

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    1. Indeed, Sue! There's also a lot more in Resl's book about the Saint Guinefort story that I didn't include here. It ends, with a certain medieval inevitability, with charges of idolatry and demon worship. It's a great account in a book that's full of them.

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  2. Genghis Khan afraid of dogs - who knew? I really enjoyed this, thanks - and yes, I was reminded of poor old Gelert too. At least he now supports a roaring tourist trade in Beddgelert though!

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    1. You see? Dogs: the gift that keeps on giving! (And thanks for your kind words, Annie :))

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  3. E.M., did you consider the Irish wolfhound? I just did a post on that dog in medieval England... http://www.booksandbenches.com/2015/10/irish-wolfhounds-in-medieval-england.html. They were prized by English monarchs.

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    1. Hi Regan I did but I had already mentioned them in an earlier post on Medieval Ireland. Really enjoyed yours!

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    2. Oh, did not realize there was an earlier post, E.M. So glad you liked mine. Medieval pets are often overlooked in historical fiction and I love being able to include that in my own stories. I'll save your post!

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    3. Thanks, Regan! And I agree completely about animals not being included in medieval fiction. Them and religion. ;)

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  4. Charles II famously loved his spaniels, too. Hardly going to guard him in quite the same way, but they would make a lot of noise if disturbed in the middle of the night by a stranger.

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    1. Hi Sally. Ian Mortimer (in the book I cited above) does briefly mention spaniels in medieval times. He says they are 'so-called because they are believed to come from Spain.' I'm assuming he's correct because he's a renowned historian but I'd never heard that. Beautiful dogs and very courageous!

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  5. Ah, I knew my thought came from somewhere. Apparently Thomas Seymour wanted to replace the Earl of Somerset as proxy ruler. In the middle of the night on December 16, 1549, Seymour tried to break into the sleeping Edward VI’s apartments at Hampton Court Palace. He had the keys into the privy garden, but one of Edward’s pet spaniels started barking. Seymour shot and killed the dog, which brought the guards. There was no defense for being outside the King’s bedroom in the middle of the night with keys and arms – and using them both. It was alleged that Seymour’s plan was to kidnap the King, and either force him to marry Lady Jane Grey (Seymour’s ward); which was treason. It was suspected Seymour might have planned to marry the King’s sister, Elizabeth, and then kill the King and seize the throne. He came to the predictable end. Thanks to a spaniel.

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    1. What a great story! I'm sure someone's already done it. But I think we need a book of Dogs in History. :)

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