Blog on Medieval dogs.
John Marshal, my hero in A PLACE BEYOND COURAGE has a constant companion throughout much of the novel. She is understated but nevertheless she pads at his side. Her name is Doublet and although I don’t mention her breed or type, my personal visual image is of something like a black, flat-coated retriever. That’s my whimsy, that’s how she came to me. My heroes and heroines often have dogs as companions. John has Doublet. Mahelt Marshal in To Defy A King has a three-legged terrier called Tripes, and Fulke FitzWarin in Lords of the White Castle owns a fearsome wolfhound called Tara. With all these faithful animals in mind, I thought I’d blog about the medieval medieval relationship with canines.
The name Doublet and variations of its spelling was a popular one for dogs in the Middle Ages. This comes from the detail that the leading hound in a pack, the bravest and fastest of all, was given a special coat to wear called a doublet. So it became a name for a special dog. Knowing how much value John Marshal set on courage, I thought Doublet was the perfect name. We know from chance remarks in documents that other popular names for dogs included Terri, (presumably short for terrier) Jakke, Fido, and Damask (probably had a beautiful sleek coat).
The dog that enjoyed the highest status of all in the Middle Ages was the gazehound, today called the greyhound. They were often given as gifts and were highly prized. They were called ‘gazehounds’ because they hunted by sight rather than by scent. We know King Stephen kept them as part of his kennel collection, along with lyme-hounds which were held on a leash and only used for finishing off the prey, and brach hounds that hunted by scent. We don’t know what these two looked like.
Leashes were traditionally made from braided horse tail hair and is typical of the waste not not want not ethos of medieval life. Gazehounds are often portrayed wearing wide leather collars.
A full 11th century dog skeleton recovered from a dig in Stafford revealed an animal that was similar in appearance to an English bull terrier, but about the size of a German Shepherd – not something you would want to meet on a dark night! In Wales, remains of a dog very similar to the Corgi were found in 9th century context. So the Queen’s favourite dogs have been around a very long time.
Dogs that happened to live within the jurisdiction of the forests owned by the king were at risk. Although small dogs could be kept without penalty, greyhounds were banned and large dogs such as mastiffs were only allowed to be kept if they had had three of their toes cut off to lame them so that they couldn’t chase the king’s precious game. This didn’t stop poachers from keeping swift running hounds, but still, the forest laws were brutal, and although many people loved their animals, casual cruelty (sadly) was rife.
Although dogs usually had to work for their living, they could and did become much loved pets too. In a 12th century Latin sermon, St. Bernard of Clairvaux said ‘Qui me amat, amat et canem meum.’ Basically Love me, love my dog, Pet dogs are often seen at the feet of tomb effigies in the Middle Ages, and while they are a symbol of fidelity, (Fido) they are also a sign of genuine affection.
One fourteenth century couple have his and hers dog effigies lying at their feet in faithful eternity - Parcevel the greyhound, and Dyamant (Diamond) the plump lap dog.
I love dogs and cats myself, although we currently only have the former. We have an elderly mongrel with a large dose of collie and perhaps some Corgi in him, and a pair of very handsome and lively Patterdale, Jack-Russell terrier crosses, Jack and Pip. Obviously their gene pool goes back to the Middle Ages, but their immediate ancestors were bred to work the fells and keep down vermin on the farms. And yes, they sleep at my feet!
The early twelfth century is a time for ambitious men to prosper, and royal servant John FitzGilbert Marshal is one of them. Raised high as the kin of the deceased King Henry battle each other for England's throne, John reaps rich rewards but pays a terrible price for the choices he makes - as do his family. His wife, fragile, naïve Aline is hopelessly unequipped to cope with the demands of a life lived on the edge and, when John is seriously injured in battle, her worst nightmare is realised. Sybilla, bright, forthright sister to the Earl of Salisbury, finds herself used as a bargaining counter when her brother seeks to seal a truce with his troublesome neighbour, John FitzGilbert. And then there is Sybilla's small son, William, seized hostage by the King for John's word of honour. But sometimes keeping your honour means breaking your word...