Famous Dogs in Medieval Literature

By Minjie Su

It is the Year of the Dog. To celebrate, we present you with some famous dogs from medieval literature.

A dog depicted in a 15th century manuscript by Taddeo Crivelli


King Arthur’s hound Cabal, or Cavall, is briefly mentioned in the appendix of Historia Brittonum, ‘the History of the Britons’, a text that is customarily attributed to Nennius and is believed to have been composed in the 9th century. It records a mound known as Cairn Cabal in Wales. It is said that, when King Arthur was hunting the boar Twrch Trwynt, his hound Cabal stepped on a stone and left a footprint there. Later Arthur ordered a mound to be built, with a marked stone placed on top. Whenever the stone is carried away from the mound, it always finds its way back and reappears on the top of the Cairn the next day, just like a loyal hound that always knows his way home.

The boar hunt story is elaborated in the Welsh tale Culhwch ac Olwen, ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, probably written in the early 12th century. In order to woo Olwen, daughter of the chief giant Ysbaddaden, Prince Culhweh is required to complete numerous tasks which are deemed as impossible, including acquiring the treasures hidden between the ears of Twrch Trwynt. Trwynt was once a king himself but was transformed into a boar. He not only has venomous bristles but is also surrounded by seven equally deadly piglets. As the first cousin of King Arthur, Culhwch naturally comes to Arthur’s court for help. After heavy losses on Arthur’s part, the treasure is obtained, and the boar is driven into the sea; no one knows where he goes. Cabal takes part in the boar hunt with other dogs. His deeds are not accounted in detail, but considering that he takes down Ysgithyrwyn, another notorious boar on Culhwch’s list, it should not be hard to imagine what an asset Cabal is to Arthur and his warriors.

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The magical hound of Lugh Lámfhada (‘the Long-armed’) is always described as a whelp – a fitting companion indeed to the youthful Irish god. The story of its acquisition is told in Oidheadh Chlainne Tuireann, ‘The Fate of the Children of Tuireann’, a prose narrative of the Mythological Cycle that could have been composed as early as in the 11th century, though the earliest surviving manuscript is dated to the 16th. The story takes place just before the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, when Nuada just got his silver arm and Lugh joined the Tuatha Dé camp.

One day, Lugh’s father Cian and his two brothers are sent out to assemble troops for Lugh. Unfortunate for Cian, he runs into the three sons of Tuirean, who are always at odds with him. Cian transforms himself into a pig and starts to root the ground, but Brian, the most perceptive of the brothers, spots him before the transformation. The brothers transform themselves into hounds to hunt down the pig and kill Cian after allowing him the dignity of dying in human form – this turns out to be a mistake, for now the brothers must pay the price for killing a man. To punish the killers, Lugh sends them onto a perilous journey to acquire several items which would prove indispensable in the coming battle, and Failinis is one of them. The puppy is a treasure to the king of Ioruaidh, so the brothers have to fight a bloody battle against the entire force of Ioruaidh to acquire it. Later, the dog becomes Lugh’s lapdog and constant companion, but the brothers, despite their great achievements, are mortally wounded. They pass away upon Lugh’s refusal to heal them.

The Chatelaine de Vergy’s Little Dog

Dogs are known for their loyalty and affection towards their human masters. They are also easier to train and are always happy to run around, completing ‘tasks’. Love, loyalty, obedience – they are also the main themes of the tragedy of the Chatelaine de Vergy, in which a nameless little dog plays a part no smaller than the human characters.

Anonymously composed in the 13th century, the story of the Chatelaine de Vergy builds on the notion of trust and loyalty. A true lover is one who can keep a promise, no matter what. The Chatelaine, niece to the Duke of Burgundy, is in love with a handsome knight, but she grants him her love and body only on condition that the knight keeps their affair as a secret. It is not known if the lady is married, but it is to be understood that the secret keeping means to be a test. At each of their rendezvous, the lady will send her little dog into the orchard, where the knight customarily waits in the shadow; then the dog leads the man to his mistress.

Unfortunately, the lady’s secret is disclosed to the Duke then to the Duchess, when the knight is wrongly accused of disloyalty by the Duchess, after she fails to seduce the knight. The Duchess taunts the Chatelaine about her ‘well trained dog’, supposedly to mock her lover. The Chatelaine dies from heartbreak, firmly believing that she has been betrayed and has given herself to someone unworthy of true love. The knight kills himself too with his sword.

Illustration from Gesta Romanorum


Isolde’s lapdog Petitcreiu once belonged to a duke in Wales. Born in Avalon, Petitcreiu’s magical origin is well explained by his extraordinary colours (which is typical for magical animals in Celtic traditions): many colours are radiated from him; when you look from one side, he appears black and white, but from another, he appears brightly red. A golden chain with a bell is tied around his neck. Whoever hears the bell would instantly forget his sorrow.

The dog was brought out to cheer Tristan up, who was staying with the Duke at that time, having been exiled from Cornwall. The dog proved to be both his companion and comfort. But it is not enough, for whenever Tristan sees something precious, he immediately wants Isolde to have it. To obtain the dog, Tristan slaughtered a giant who had been ravaging the Duke’s country.

Now the dog belongs to the fair Isolde, who treasures him above all things. Happiness, however, does not last, and nothing can truly replace her one and only lover. Without Tristan by her side, Isolde does not think she deserves happiness – she should be sad, because her love is sad. She takes the bell off Petitcreiu so he shall never make anyone forget his/her sorrow with the chime; but the presence of the little dog nevertheless offers enough comfort in the absence of the Queen’s sweet lover.

You can follow Minjue Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

Click here to read more articles by Minjie

See also: Medieval Pet Names

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