People in the Middle Ages did keep pets – dogs, cats, birds, monkeys and many other kinds of animals. Although they often had particular duties – i.e. hunting or catching rats – there are many accounts that showed affection and love between these pets and their owners.
Scattered in various texts and remains from the Middle Ages, and the research by Kathleen Walker-Meikle has uncovered several examples of medieval pet names:
Medieval Dog Names
In England we find dogs that were named Sturdy, Whitefoot, Hardy, Jakke, Bo and Terri. Anne Boleyn, one of the wives of King Henry VIII, had a dog named Purkoy, who got its name from the French ‘pourquoi’ because it was very inquisitive.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest Tale has a line where they name three dogs: Colle, Talbot and Gerland. Meanwhile, in the early fifteenth-century, Edward, Duke of York, wrote The Master of Game, which explains how dogs are to be used in hunting and taken care of. He also included a list of 1100 names that he thought would be appropriate for hunting dogs. They include Troy, Nosewise, Amiable, Nameles, Clenche, Bragge, Ringwood and Holdfast.
Meanwhile, in Switzerland a list of 80 dogs that took part in a shooting festival in the year 1504 has been preserved. They reveal the most popular name was Furst (Prince). Other names included Venus, Fortuna, and Turgk. Some dogs got their names from the work being done by their owners: Hemmerli (Little Hammer) belonged to a locksmith, while Speichli (Little Spoke) belonged to a wagoner.
The 14th century French knight Jehan de Seure had a hound named Parceval, while his wife had Dyamant. Leon Battista Alberti, the Renaissance philosopher, said his dog was sired by Megastomo (Big Mouth). Ludovico III Gonzaga, ruler of the city of Mantua from 1444 to 1478, has at least two dogs – Rubino and Bellina. When Rubino died, Ludovico ordered that he buried in a casket and that he would make sure that the animal would also get a tombstone. Isabella d’Este, a famous Italian lady and also a ruler of Mantua, was known to have many little dogs, two of which were named Aura and Mamia.
There is also the story of Guinefort, the saint dog – in the 13th century Stephen de Bourbon explains that the peasants near the French city of Lyons were saying prayers at the grave of a dog named Guinefort and reporting that he was doing miracles, especially for infants. He inquired with the peasants and learned this story:
There was a certain castle whose lord had a baby son from his wife. But when the lord and lady and the nurse too had left the house, leaving the child alone in his cradle, a very large snake entered the house and made for the child’s cradle. The greyhound, who had remained there, saw this, dashed swiftly under the cradle in pursuit, knocking it over, and attacked the snake with its fangs and answering bite with bite. In the end the dog killed it and threw it far away from the child’s cradle which he left all bloodied as was his mouth and head, with the snake’s blood, and stood there by the cradle all beaten about by the snake.
When the nurse came back and saw this, she thought the child had been killed and eaten by the dog and so gave out an almighty scream. The child’s mother heard this, rushed in, saw and thought the same and she too screamed. Then the knight similarly once he got there believed the same, and drawing his sword killed the dog. Only then did they approach the child and find him unharmed, sleeping sweetly in fact. On further investigation, they discovered the snake torn up by the dog’s bites and dead. Now that they had learned the truth of the matter, they were embarrassed that they had so unjustly killed a dog so useful to them and threw his body into a well in front of the castle gate, and placing over it a very large heap of stones they planted trees nearby as a memorial of the deed.
In medieval England domestic cats were known as Gyb – the short form of of Gilbert – and that name was also popular for individual pet cats. Meanwhile in France they were called Tibers or Tibert was generic name fo domestic cat in France – Tibert the Cat was one of the characters in the Reynard the Fox animal fables.
Other names for cats included Mite, who prowled around Beaulieu Abbey in the 13th century, and Belaud, a grey cat belonging to Joachim du Bellay in the 16th century. Isabella d’Este also owned a cat named Martino. Old Irish legal texts refer to several individual cats and names them: Meone (little meow); Cruibne (little paws); Breone (little flame, perhaps an orange cat), and Glas nenta (nettle grey). An Irish poem from the ninth century describes how a monk owned a cat named Pangur Bán, which meant ‘fuller white’. The poem begins:
I and Pangur Bán, my cat
‘Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.
An Environmental History of the Middle Ages, by John Aberth (Routledge, 2013)
The Medieval Natural World, by Richard Jones (Harlow, 2013)
Medieval Pets, by Kathleen Walker-Meikle (Boydell, 2o12)
Medieval Dogs, by Kathleen Walker-Meikle (London, 2011)
Medieval Cats, by Kathleen Walker-Meikle (London, 2011)
Need to know more about animals in the Middle Ages? Check out:
Top Image: British Library MS Additional 50005 fol. 75r