Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

16 September 2013

Dogs: Medieval Man's Best Friend

Are you interested in dogs? Are you interested in medieval manuscripts? Are you interested in dogs in medieval manuscripts? Who's not?! And you can find out more by reading Kathleen Walker-Meikle's new book, Medieval Dogs, published by the British Library. Here the author kindly picks out for us some of her highlights.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing a portrait of Christine de Pizan writing at her desk alongside her dog.

Christine de Pizan and her dog: Harley MS 4431, f. 4r

Dogs abound in medieval sources, whether in the margins of manuscripts or entries for dog collars and ‘bread for the dogs’ in accounts, and they range from the hunting hound to the spoilt lapdog. (According to the 13th-century scholar Albertus Magnus, the latter often died of constipation due to their overly rich diet.) The 15th-century Boke of St Albans enumerates the following types of dog: a greyhound, a bastard, a mongrel, a mastiff, a lymer (a hound that finds the game), a spaniel, raches (a hound that runs the quarry down), kennets (small hunting hounds), terriers, butcher’s hounds, dung-heap dogs, trundle-tails, ‘prick-eared curs’ and small ladies’ puppies ‘that bear away the fleas’ and other small dogs. Assorted working dogs are described in John Caius’s On English Dogges (1570), such as the dog-messenger (who ‘carried letters from place to place wrapped up cunningly in his leather collar’), the water-drawer (who turned well-wheels), the tinker’s cur (which carried the tinker’s buckets), the turnspit (which turned kitchen-spits), and ‘defending dogs’.

A page from a theological miscellany, showing a series of illustrations of dogs.

A dog attacking its master's killer: Harley MS 3244, f. 45r

Loyalty was the most praised canine attribute in the Middle Ages. The late 14th-century author of Goodman of Paris remarked how ‘a greyhound, mastiff or little dog, whether on the road, or at table, or in bed, always stays close to the person who gives him food and ignores all others, being distant and shy with them. Even if far away, the dog always has his master in his heart. Even if his master whips or throws stones at the dog, the dog will still follow him, wagging his tail and lying down in front of his masters to placate him. The dog will follow the master through rivers, woods, thieves and battles.’

A portrait of King John petting one of his hunting dogs.

"Bad King John" and one of his hunting dogs, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 8v

Dogs were popular pets for those in religious orders, despite numerous injunctions that attempted to limit the practice. William Greenfield, Archbishop of York, remonstrated in the early fourteenth century that bringing little dogs into the choir during divine services would ‘impede the service and hinder the devotion of the nuns’.

A detail from the Maastricht Hours, showing an illustration of a nun holding her lapdog.

 A nun holding her lapdog: Stowe MS 17, f. 100r 

Medieval Dogs by Kathleen Walker-Meikle is available now from British Library Publishing (£10 hardback, ISBN 9780712358927). On a similar theme, Kathleen Walker-Meikle is also author of Medieval Cats (£10, ISBN 9780712358187).

You can read more about medieval dogs in our previous post, Nothin' But A Hound Dog. Meanwhile, many of the manuscripts featured here (and the dogs in them) can be viewed in their entirety on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.




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