Saturday, October 18, 2008

dogs in the 7th century

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I don't know much about dogs; my sister had one when I was seven, but I'm a cat person. Nothing against dogs, I've just always lived in cities, which I think is a hostile environment for large dogs (and small dogs, in my experience--small though it is--tend to yap). So, regarding dogs: utterly ignorant. I've been researching the 7th century for a while now (for my Hild novel), but find I still don't know much about it. So, in this regard too: utterly ignorant. Now I'm faced with writing about dogs in the 7th century and my mind has gone terrifyingly blank.

Here's how I imagine the dog situation in the north of England circa 627:

  • There are herd dogs--large, loyal protectors of flocks (sheep, cows, goats, maybe even geese) that run with the flock to protect it from predators but don't herd the flock under commands from the shepherd/cowherd/goosegirl. These dogs (sometimes just one, occasionally a pair) would spend much more time with the beasts than the humans. They eat, sleep, even play with the cows/sheep. Perhaps they were imprinted as puppies and mostly think they *are* cows/sheep.

  • There are sight hounds, coursers and so on, like deerhounds--probably largely under royal or at least 'noble' control.

  • Bulldogs would control large animals going to slaughter.

  • There are hounds of war: huge things that perhaps wear spiked collars and are trained to do one thing: kill. These would most likely be kept in royal kennels because they might not be safe to allow anywhere else.

  • Perhaps isolated farmsteads or small settlements would have a couple of dogs-of-all-trades.

  • Perhaps people would form bonds with some of these dogs. Perhaps that would be discouraged. Perhaps not.

I read about Cuchulain and his hound, and I wonder, Did they care for each other? Or was the dog just a tool--an important and precious tool, like a sword, but not something to devote feeling to? If dogs were, to some degree, pets, how would they be trained? Would women be allowed to keep dogs? Would they want to?

Hild has basically had a puppy forced upon her by the queen, Æthelburh, who wants a dog for herself (I've yet to work out why) and thinks that if at least one other female at the royal vill--even a child, like Hild--has a dog, Æthelburh won't seem like such a foreign weirdo.

So now I'm trying to figure out how it all works: what would the dog (a bitch, I've decided) look like? Would it have a leash? How would it be trained? I'm thinking a cross between a wolfhound and a Molossian-type herd dog--big, but not as heavy as a Molossian or as tall as a wolfhound--that has protective but not herding instincts, with an urge (though not an overwhelming one) to chase prey. It would hit maturity around 18 months.

So my question for both dog-lovers and medievalists is: does any of that make sense? Do you have suggestions?

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  1. Be careful about introducing breeds that don't yet exist. I don't know much about dogs but I don't think bulldogs are around yet. The only dogs I can recall reading about in medieval sources are Irish dogs being a major export -- I suspect Irish wolfhounds. I can only think recall reading of dogs for hunting. I don't know if Irish setters were around yet. How does a setter work in an era when most hunting is done by spear or arrow? (Spear I think for large game like deer or boar).

    Anyway, my advice would be to look into the history of individual breeds to find out when they were bred.

  2. I don't think I'll get specific about breeds. Just talk about size, colour, behaviour, etc.

    For example, by 'bulldog' I meant 'large dog that works the bulls', the group of dogs from which, a thousand years (or more) later, was bred what we call the bulldog today.

    My guess is there were already recognisable sight hounds, scent hounds, terrier-types--though I'd have to check on that one; no rats = no terriers--but they wouldn't have been much like the dogs of today with all the generations of in-breeding.

    A lot of bird-hunting was probably by net and/or slingshot; so hmmn, retriever types would possibly also have been trained. So much I don't know...

  3. OK; this business of living without my books, is killing me.


    You might look at medieval mss. at the images--lindesfarne has dogs, for instance, and is available in digital form in a cutesy flash version at the British Library, as part of the "Treasures" digitization project. Also look at bestiaries--

    There are Old English references to dogs as companions...and there are dogs buried in pre-10th century graves of men and women. There's an article by, I think, Barry Cunliffe. There was a dog at the Sutton Hoo site.

  4. Here's a bestiary site--I suspect that Hild would have known the work of Isidore of Seville, but I don't know. He died in 636; his "etymologies" are a fascinating sort of free-association encyclopedia.

  5. Worth the Google:

  6. lisa, thanks for the bestiary link, and, ooof, I should have thought of Isidore; I love that book.

    Off to explore the world of illumination and marginalia...

  7. Hmm, I vaguely remember that Canute made a law outlawing the use of greyhounds by common people in order to restrict hunting. Rosemary Sutcliffe has some lovely human/dog relations in her novels. And just like today, my guess would be that some people loved their dogs, some treated them as tools, and some abused them.

  8. Yep, 'it depends' applies as much to history as to the present day. Cnut was a bit after Hild's time but I'm guessing the 7th C saw gaze hounds beginning to belong to the privileged. No way to know for sure. But my main concern is to not contradict what is known to be known.

  9. Wasn't there something called a Scottish deerhound similar to the Irish wolfhound? I imagine that larger dogs weren't only used in animal husbandry but also as protectors in the home and would therefore have been carefully tended. Gelert comes to mind...


  10. Jude, what we know today as the Irish Wolfhound was bred largely from the Scottish Deerhound, IIRC.

    I'm rethinking this whole notion of dogs. Or at least thinking about rethinking it :)


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