People in the Middle Ages did keep pets – dogs, cats, and many other kinds of animals. They also found many interesting ways to give them names.
While in the Middle Ages animals were usually kept to do particular tasks – such as helping with the hunt or catching mice – we can many accounts that showed affection and love between these animals and their owners. Some could even be properly called pets.
Historians have been researching the relationships between animals and people, and among they have uncovered many examples of medieval pet names. In her book, Medieval Pets, Kathleen Walker-Meikle found that sometimes people would a generic name for all animals of particular species. When it comes to cats, Walker-Meikle writes:
In English the generic name for a tomcat was Gyb (the shortened form of the male name Gilbert), and was a popular name for individual pet cats. Its earliest use is on a late fourteenth-century seal of one Gilbert Stone which depicts a cat with a mouse and the legend ‘gret: wel: gibbe: oure: cat’. The cat who eats Jane Scrope’s sparrow Philip in Skelton’s poem is called Gyb. There is ‘gib our cat’ in the early sixteenth-century play Gammer Gurton’s Needle.
We also see many instances where cats got a unique name: there was 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, the famous ruler of Mantua, owned a cat named Martino. One of the most famous cats in the Middle Ages was Muezza, said to be a cat belonging to the Prophet Muhammad and who would sleep on his prayer robe.
Old Irish legal texts refer to several individual cats, revealing their names: Meone (little meow); Cruibne (little paws); Breone (little flame, perhaps for an orange cat), and Glas nenta (nettle grey). Then there is the Irish poem from the ninth century describing 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.
When it comes to dog names, we can in England canines called 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 Switzerland there is 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) was entered into the festival by 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 be buried in a casket and that he would make sure that the animal would also get a tombstone. Isabella d’Este was known to have many little dogs, two of which were named Aura and Mamia.
Then there is a tenth-century Arabic account about dogs that notes how one poet called his dog Muq, praising the animal in a poem:
O Muq, may you never taste the misery life can bring!
May you never have to drink muddy water!
Research by David Scott-Macnab examined an English manuscript that is entitled The Names of All Manner of Hounds. Probably created between 1460 and 1480, it is noteworthy for its list of 1065 names for hunting dogs. As one might expect, the names are very diverse, referring to many possible things. There is Birdismowthe, Stalkere and Holdefaste – referring to the desirable qualities of a hunting dog; Charlemayne, Ercules and Arture, referring to historical or mythological figures, and Cherefull, Plesaunce and Harmeles, which may have been ironic. You can read the full list here.
Medieval people also kept other kinds of animals as pets, and they often got a generic name. In medieval England, certain birds would be typically called Robin if it was red-breasted, or Philip if it was a sparrow. Walker-Meikle adds that in France you could find
Robert for a monkey, Fouquet for a squirrel, Pierre for a parrot, Rochard for a jay, Pierrot for a sparrow, Margos for a magpie and Colas for a crow.
What else can you learn about pets in the Middle Ages? Check out: Medieval Advice on How to Take Care of Your Pet.
Read more about Animals in the Middle Ages