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Medieval Dog Tricks

By Cait Stevenson

Can your dog dig up rings, dance to music, or tell if a lady is pregnant?

14th century image of a dog – from British Library MS Additional 18684 f. 53v

A medieval knight is defined by his horse, quite literally (scholars classify armoured warriors who fought on fought as men-at-arms). But just as important to aristocratic manliness was a beloved dog at one’s side, fronting a full kennel of diverse types of hunting dog.  Beroult devotes an entire chapter to the unbreakable bond between Tristan and his Husdant (or Husdent), taking great pains to stress Isolde’s approval of her lover’s divided loyalty. In Königen Sibille, Elisabeth von Nassau-Saarbrücken allows the greyhound of murdered young knight Abrye to stay by his master’s body for four days, even to the point of starvation—because the greyhound’s last, most important hunt is for the downfall of Abrye’s killer.

And inded, the aristocratic pursuit of hunting tends to dominate the medieval discourse on dogs. This is true in the Christian world, as with the extensive instructions for the care and keeping of hunting dogs in wildly popular Livre de la Chasse from late fourteenth-century France. And it’s true in the Islamic world, as the tenth-century poet known as Kushajim combined a philosophical investigation of the religious permissibility of hunting with lengthy instructions for the proper breeding of hunting dogs (protip: color doesn’t matter, so stop caring about it so much).

But with all the work and skill that went into training proper hunting dogs—to say nothing of the herding dogs, kitchen dogs, guard dogs, watch dogs, and war dogs of the Middle Ages—it’s no wonder that medieval people turned their love and delight for their puppers into teaching their dogs tricks.

Drawing of a dog with a satchel. British Library MS Harley 3487 f. 142v

Sometimes our sources are tantalizingly and frustratingly brief. According to a ninth-century encyclopedia of animal lore, noble women in Baghdad apparently found a particular type of dog from China the best to train in entertaining tricks. And in the fourteenth century, Muhammad Ibn Mankali observed that marketplace merchants trained their dogs to take part in little dramatic performances for children. Then there were writers like sixteenth-century English physician John Caius, scorning mixed-breed dogs as “no notable shape, nor exercise any worthy property of the true perfect and gentle kind,” and declaring them able to (and worthy of) learning no trick except barking and barking and barking.

Other sources go into long and lavish detail about tricks performed by particular dogs—but with the twist that the tricks, and the descriptions, skirt the line between fantastical and likely to have happened. I don’t mean CSI: Greyhound like with Abrye’s dog described above. Rather, these are stories that seem like something an actual dog, today, might be capable of performing, but the story has recounted has a tinge of unbelievability or mysticism to it.

Sixth-century Byzantine chronicler John Malalas, for example, tells one anecdote that gets picked up by later Greek authors down through the Middle Ages. A merchant/entertainer from the west would set stage in the marketplace with his dog, described as “tawny-colored” (sorry, Kushajim; apparently color does matter). The showman would collect rings from audience members, bury them, and then have the dog dig up the rings and return them to their proper owners. This trick has the sheen of the dog training we call “nosework” today to it, with the difficulty of metal rings ramping things up to the verge of legend. (Indeed, in the anecdote, audience members whisper among themselves that the dog must be possessed by an oracle’s spirit.) Even better is the dog’s ultimate scent trick: upon his master’s command, he could pick out people in the audience who were adulterers, prostitutes, and pregnant. Is this an exaggerated (and steeped in medieval sexual values) recognition of dogs’ ability to detect the subtlest of biological/chemical shifts, from sickness or pregnancy or the like, in the way a human smells?

Somewhat less plausible is Theophanes’ ninth-century claim that this dog could correctly identify whether pregnant women would bear daughters or sons. And yet even this embellishment seems to represent a recognition that the core idea—the power of a dog’s nose and human-orientation to detect physical and moral alterations in humans—of John’s original anecdote continued to ring true.

A standing dog – British Library MS Harley 3052 f. 3

The thirteenth-century anonymous author of a Greek introduction to the Psalter, meanwhile, steps briefly out of omniscient-narrator mode to recount another dog-in-the-marketplace story. A certain flute player, the poet claims, would accompany a kithara player with a mournful melody. The dog would immediately drop whatever it was doing—even eating!—dash over to the flutist, and start yipping and yapping along with the music. As soon as the flute playing stopped, the dog darted eagerly back to its meal. In this case, the poet’s point is to illustrate the mesmerizing power of music—here, the power of psalms. The dog serves not as a supernatural messenger in and of itself, but a relatable, recognizable canvas that displays the power.

Awesomely, this random, anonymous poet’s story of a flute-trained dog has resonance throughout medieval literature. John Caius grudgingly admits that some mixed-breed dogs are indeed useful for performing similar tricks in sixteenth-century England:

There are also dogs among us of a mongrel kind, which are taught and exercised to dance at the musical sound of an instrument, as at the just stroke of the drumb, at the sweet accent of the citern, and tuned strings of the harmonious harp

But this John’s dogs do much more than bark:

They stand bolt upright, they lie flat upon the ground, they turn around in a ring holding their tails in their teeth, they beg for their meat, and sundry other tricks—which they learn from their vagabond masters.

John Caius’ dogs take us back out of the realm of religious portent, of Ponderous Meaning, and into what I would call “delight.” Medieval dogs might signify, as scholars say. But precisely because dogs were not just ubiquitous but also important—on an economic, social, and personal level—dogs were sometimes just dogs. They were playful and loving and loyal and funny.

Detail of a drawing a woman pointing a quill towards a sleeping figure, accompanied by a small dog – British Library MS Sloane 748 f. 79v

Some women, Caius added, loved their little lapdogs, who “play and dally and trifle away their time,” more than they loved their own children. But this might just be the best trick of all. Although this passage seems to start out as fiercely judgmental, Caius continues to note that most women who love dogs this much, do so because they don’t or can’t have children—and the love of dogs is the most perfect recompense.

Click here to read more from Cait Stevenson

Further Reading:

John Duffy, “Mondo Cane: Some Comments on Two Performing Dog Scenes from Byzantium,” in Realia Byzantina, ed. Sofia Kotzabassi and Giannis Mavromatis (2009)
Housi Alkhateeb Shehada, Mamluks and Animals: Veterinary Medicine in Medieval Islam (2013)
Albrecht Classen, “The Dog in German Courtly Literature,” Fauna and Flora in the Middle Ages (2007)

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