Dogs were companions to humans long before written history, but being a guardian and a hunting partner is quite different to being a pet. In the Middle Ages they were not usually pets as they are today, indeed there is no record of the word ‘pet’ before the 16th century. Nonetheless, many medieval dog owners were no less affectionate and indulgent of their dogs than modern ones.
Guardians & hunters
The majority of medieval dogs had to work for a living and their most common vocation was as guard dogs either of homes or of goods and livestock. In this capacity dogs were found at all levels of society. Hunting dogs were also important, especially in aristocratic culture and they feature prominently in the sources left to us.
Unlike the mongrel guard dogs of merchants and shepherds, the practice of dog breeding (maybe of Roman origin) survived in the dogs of the aristocracy. Ancestors of many modern dog breeds are evident in medieval sources, including greyhounds, spaniels, poodles and mastiffs.
Greyhounds (a term that encompassed an array of sight hounds) were especially highly regarded and were seen as suitable gifts for princes. Greyhounds appeared in stories showcasing their prodigious intelligence and bravery.
One was even regarded as a saint for a while after it was unjustly killed, although the Church eventually abolished the tradition and destroyed its shrine.
The most prized quality in a medieval dog was loyalty . Praising the loyalty and intelligence of his hounds 14th century hunter Gaston, Comte de Foix wrote:
I speak to my hounds as I would to a man… and they understand me and do as I wish better than any man of my household, but I do not think that any other man can make them do as I do.
Lords employed dog-boys, dedicated servants who were with the dogs at all times. The dogs slept in specially constructed kennels which were recommended to be cleaned daily and have fires to keep them warm.
Medieval lap dogs
Aside from aiding hunters, dogs were also companions for more sedentary lifestyles. Lapdogs had existed in ancient Rome but by the 13th century they were again becoming prominent among noblewomen.
This fashion didn’t go down well with all, however, and some saw dogs as a distraction from more noble pursuits. The author of the 16th century Holinshead Chronicle accused dogs of being ‘instruments of follie to play and dallie withal, in trifling away the treasure of time, to withdraw [women’s] minds from more commendable exercises’.
Unsurprisingly, this rant was of little interest to the dog lovers and lapdogs remained a fixture of the aristocratic home.
Dogs in the Church
Dogs were a fixture of the medieval church as well and monks and nuns habitually flouted rules prohibiting pets. Theirs were not the only dogs present in medieval religious life and it seems that lay people bringing their dogs to church was not uncommon. Church leaders were unimpressed by all this; in the 14th century the Archbishop of York irritably observed that they ‘impede the service and hinder the devotion of the nuns’.
None of this should suggest that medieval dogs had easy lives. Like the humans of the Middle Ages they suffered early deaths from disease or violence and like the dogs of today some of them had neglectful or abusive owners.
There is nonetheless a strong suggestion in medieval art and writing that the dog owners of the Middle Ages had an emotional bond with their animals very much like the one we have with our present day pets.