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Cats and Dogs: The Development of the Household Pet through Symbolic Interpretations and Social Practices in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Cats and Dogs: The Development of the Household Pet through Symbolic Interpretations and Social Practices in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

By Lindsey Nicole Blair

Honors Thesis, University of Iowa, 2016

Cat and Dog – image courtesy Walters Art Museum

Abstract: Cats and dogs are perhaps the most ubiquitous and consistently represented animals throughout documented human history. Forms of the respective species have roamed the earth for millions of years; however, cats and dogs have held different societal positions ranging from exalted deities to pests. The shifting attitudes and social practices between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Western Europe fostered the reexamination of the relationship between humans and animals.

Dogs – and later cats – were the earliest animals to be allowed occupancy inside the medieval house solely to serve utilitarian needs. The development of the modern day concept of the household pet began to emerge between the 14th and 16th centuries. By the 16th century, recorded bonds between animal and master became increasingly common alongside breeding for human companionship. Animals were allowed in the house for pleasure rather than strictly utilitarian needs, the earliest notion of a pet as we see them today. The altering human opinion of cats and dogs from objects to animals with the ability to form attachments correlates with the simultaneous iconographic and metaphorical fluctuations of these creatures between the periods.

In stride with other social, political, and artistic changes, imagery of the cat and dog adopted comparable uses and implications. The creatures were used as symbols of sensuality, familiarity, and temperament, as pets for scholars and as attributes in portraiture. Largely a product of dense textual, biblical, and humanistic philosophies, the medieval interpretations of cats and dogs in art often place the animals at moralistic extremes, while during the Renaissance they adopt more nuanced symbolic and functional roles in art.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Iowa

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