Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
13.09.21, Walker-Meikle, Medieval Pets

13.09.21, Walker-Meikle, Medieval Pets

Scholars have a talent for discovering the emergence of widespread pet keeping in earlier and earlier periods: Harriet Ritvo in the nineteenth century, Ingrid H. Tague in the eighteenth [1], and then Karen Raber in turn in Shakespeare's England, while claiming that "Medieval peasant housing, mingling as it often did farm animals and human beings, does not yet have the conceptual and physical characteristics that allow pets to exist" [2]. All these scholars mistake evidence of widespread pet keeping for novelty, and all are, at least accidentally, provoking arguments with the scholars of earlier periods. Rather than continuing the argument, medieval and other scholars should instead leave off worrying about emergence and breaks until we have humbly submitted ourselves to the possibility that other eras, some anterior, some later, may have something to say to us. After all, more than 30 years ago, James Serpell observed that pet keeping is a trait not uniquely modern or Western but one shared by humans in general, of whatever class, culture, or period [3]. We should, then, resist the temptation to use Kathleen Walker-Meikle's Medieval Pets as a scourge against other periods. Medieval Pets itself makes no claims about historical breaks, although its frequent recourse to early sixteenth-century Italian evidence and John Caius's 1570 De canibus Britannicis does suggest a sly transgression of any traditional limitation to the Middle Ages.

To avoid debates about the limits of what relationships count as pet keeping, and likely to keep the book short, Walker-Meikle focuses on indoor animals or animals kept in highly controlled outdoor spaces like closed wagons or gardens. Dogs and cats, of course, receive most of her attention, but we also encounter badgers, monkeys, a variety of birds, especially parrots, and squirrels, common pets in this period. Her focus means that the book is also, partially, about gender, since such smaller animals were kept primarily by women or by male clerics and students, whose peculiar gendering barred them from the more stereotypical masculine outdoor pursuits of hunting and warfare.

Walker-Meikle does not, however, argue that larger, outdoor animals were never pampered, thought of as members of a family or household, or cherished beyond the strict limits of utility. Medieval Pets thus avoids the mistake of drawing a firm line between utility and pleasure, admiration and love, a practically minded medieval mindset and a frivolous modernity, and a host of other shaky binaries that can hardly survive the first encounter with critical pressure. Instead, her study models what might be found when scholars stop assuming that medieval people thought of their animals, whether indoors or outside, only as tools.

Despite its laudably large set of resources--literary, epistolary, architectural, iconographical, archaeological--Medieval Pets might give the impression that pet keeping was limited to people like Isabella d'Esté, early sixteenth-century Marchesa of Mantua, whose grief first for her cat Martino and then her dog Aura inspired courtiers to generate a host of epitaphs, a flurry of letters, and elaborate funerals for both. All we can say confidently about this behavior is that the rich loved their pets and, then as now, bought and often decorated them like luxury items, and that, as with most medieval cultural practices, the habits of the wealthy and clerics, diligent producers and preservers of archives, are much easier to track than those of the poor.

Medieval Pets six chapters as a whole survey the kinds of animals kept as pets, veterinary, funerary, and elegiac methods, and the representations of pets in art and literature. The book is packed with material unfamiliar even to this veteran animal scholar, especially those of us who have focused primarily on literary, biblical, doctrinal, conduct, and homiletic texts, on the animals kept for transport, hunting, or food, or on the mostly unsympathetic conventual visitation records. Chaucer's animals get only a few glances, likewise the dogs of the Tristan and Iseult legend, as do the animals of the bestiaries and encyclopedias. Instead of another recital of these well-worn examples, Walker-Meikle assembles material on the market for specialty cats from Syria and the bird sellers of Paris, the representations of pets in the personal seals of women (but never men), the variety of engraved collars and pet-engraved rings that have survived to our period, pet names--like "Dyamant," a dog owned by the wife of Jehan de Seure (d. 1391), or Mopsus, which seems to have been a common name for the dogs of Italian scholars--and the charge brought by Moll de Mora of Wakefield against William Wodemouse in 1286 for murdering her dog. Without Walker-Meikle's book, few might know that Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland (d. 1425), was buried with a greyhound, or few outside Italian specialists might note that Petrarch felt a satisfying scholarly life could be achieved with only sufficient clothing, a few servants, and a dog for companionship. Medieval Pets finishes its last full chapter with the best study of medieval and early modern animal elegies I know.

Walker-Meikle is able to pack so much into such a short book mostly by foregoing interpretation. Apart from discovering, transcribing, and sorting the material and scattering her discussion with references to pets and gender performance, Walker-Meikle sticks mostly to the facts, without the faintest reference to critical animal theory or any other kind of strong methodological or topical reflection. As a result, the book can sometimes feel like a guided slog through thickets of data. But not every successful book has to be strongly interpretative, especially if its reader arrives already well-furnished with interpretative resources. I would be happy to teach parts of this book alongside literary texts in units or courses on emotion, genre, gender, and, of course, animals, and I know the many texts I first encountered here could inspire more writing than I could ever have time to finish. --------


1. Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures of the Victorian Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), cited in Ingrid H. Tague, "Dead Pets: Satire and Sentiment in British Elegies and Epitaphs for Animals," Eighteenth-Century Studies 41.3 (2008): 290 [289-306].

2. Karen Raber, "Vermin and Parasites: Shakespeare's Animal Architectures," in Ecocritical Shakespeare, ed. Lynne Dickson Bruckner and Daniel Brayton (Farnham, Surry: Ashgate, 2011), 22-23 [13-32].

3. James A. Serpell, "Pet-Keeping and Animal Domestication: A Reappraisal," in The Walking Larder: Patterns of Domestication, Pastoralism, and Predation, ed. Juliet Clutton-Brock (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 10-21, cited in Susan Crane, Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 178 n10.