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.
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)
I wrote this post for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. It was first published there in October 2015.