The Dog in the Middle Ages
By Luisa Barbano
Senior Projects, Volume 24, 2016
Introduction: ‘Nothing is more diligent and intelligent than the hound, for he has more intelligence than other beasts. And hounds know their own names. And love their lords; and defend the houses of their lords; and put themselves willfully in peril of death for their lords; and run to take prey with their lords; and do not forsake the dead body of their lords.’
Thus begins the medieval encyclopedia entry titled “De cane.” This particular entry is excerpted from the fourteenth-century, Middle English translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum, which is itself a thirteenth-century, Latin encyclopedia that was arguably the most influential of its kind in the Middle Ages. This encyclopedia is just one of the numerous medieval bestiaries that attempted to catalog the natural world and in which the dog, “canis,” is a staple entry.
In this incipient passage, author Bartholomaeus Anglicus consolidates years of encyclopedic and bestiary tradition to give us a standard introduction to the creature called “dog.” Anglicus immediately places the dog upon a pedestal, praising its diligence and intelligence, qualities which he then demonstrates by showing the extent of loyalty that the dog will show to its master. This entry contends that not only are dogs cognizant of the name given to them by their master, but that they love their master, work for and alongside their master, and even seem to be in some sort of pact with their master, ready to die for him and refusing to leave his body should he die—a reference to a common bestiary fable.
Although the entry continues for some length, going on to include entries on female dogs and “whelps,” one thing already becomes clear simply from this excerpted passage: the worth of the dog is completely dependent on its relationship with a human master. In my project, I will be looking at the inextricable link between dogs and humans in the Middle Ages, and how dogs had their place among humans, forged relationships with humans, and had their own function in the human world.
Top Image: 14th century image of a dog – from British Library MS Additional 18684 f. 53v