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15.05.38, Walker-Meikle, Medieval Dogs

The Medieval Review

15.05.38, Walker-Meikle, Medieval Dogs

By the most conservative estimate dogs appeared as a distinct species at least 14,000 years ago when human subsistence was still largely dependent on hunting, gathering, and foraging. [1] As the earliest domesticated animal, dogs have had a long and privileged relationship with humans. Today, the American Veterinary Medical Association's 2012 U.S. Pet Ownership Demographics Sourcebook [2] reports that there are nearly 70 million owned dogs in the United States, with 36.5% of households having at least one dog; a 2007 student of dog ownership in the United Kingdom found approximately 10.5 million dogs living in 31% of households. [3] Thus it is no surprise that we should find a healthy audience for popular fiction, memoirs, and science writing on dogs, nor that with the recent "animal turn" in ecocritical studies dogs should be the subject of new scholarly scrutiny.

A follow-up to Medieval Cats (2011), Kathleen Walker-Meikle's Medieval Dogs is a slim, delightful volume offering a wealth of exquisite images from manuscripts held by the British Library, and it serves as a valuable resource for those who do not have access to the library's manuscript collections. Her book includes images showing a range of medieval dog morphologies in all shapes, sizes, and colors, from greyhounds (generally viewed as the noblest of dogs in the Middle Ages) and other hunting dogs to small lapdogs. The images are drawn from a similarly wide range of Western European manuscripts, including bestiaries, hunting manuals, books of hours, psalters, breviaries, and romances. Many of the images feature dogs as part of everyday life, as in books of hours, or as elements in marginal decorations. One might quibble that some images are drawn from sources outside what is typically considered the medieval period, such as the multiple images taken from the sixteenth-century Golf Book of Hours of the Virgin, but the majority are from fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts, with others dated as early as the ninth century. The text is drawn from Walker-Meikle's 2012 monograph, Medieval Pets. [4]

The book's images are accompanied by snippets of medieval lore and learning about dogs that provide the reader with a sense of the range of perspectives with which dogs were viewed in the period. The most prominent positive characteristic Walker-Meikle mentions is loyalty. Many sources present dogs as exemplars of loyalty who protect their masters' lives and guard their masters' bodies after death. Dogs are so widely recognized for their loyalty that they figure prominently as heraldic symbols of the virtue (14). This fabled loyalty can backfire, however, as Albertus Magnus notes regarding dogs who make poor hunters because they are more inclined to follow the human they love (34). Furthermore, Rabanus Maurus suggests the dog's reputation for loyalty may not be fully deserved, questioning whether they guard the houses of their masters out of innate devotion or merely because they know where their next meal comes from (13). As Walker-Meikle notes, biblical references to dogs are almost entirely negative, with the exception of Tobias' dog in the Book of Tobit (18). However, dogs also appear in several saints' lives, such as saints Roch, Dominic, and Bernard of Clairvaux (25), and Meikle-Walker includes the story of Guinfort, a dog elevated to the status of unofficial saint himself as a protector of children (26). She also makes a brief allusion to St. Christopher, the dog-headed saint, in her mention of the cynocephali (22).

In addition to stories about dogs in medieval sources, Walker-Meikle also provides examples illustrating homely, day-to-day interactions with dogs, such as advice on feeding and training both pets and working dogs and the joys and perils of keeping and kenneling them. She also mentions various diseases and treatments (including use of dogs or parts of dogs in medieval treatments for human illnesses).

While dogs are central in the examples discussed above, in some instances dogs are merely incidental in the texts cited. For example, Walker-Meikle includes the story of King Herla, who receives a dog as a gift and is told not to dismount until the dog leaps down; as the dog never leaves his arms, Herla and his knights are doomed to wander England forever (30). Though an interesting anecdote in itself and a nice example of Celtic lore, the story adds little to our understanding of medieval dogs. On rare occasions there is a disconnect between text and image, as in the case of Walker-Meikle's mention of the long tradition of the threatening, mysterious apparition of the black dog (a precursor, perhaps, to Arthur Conan Doyle's hound of the Baskervilles), which in the book is accompanied by images of Lothbrok and his faithful--and very white--hound in Lydgate's Metrical Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund.

I use the word "mention" in this review repeatedly as an apt descriptor for the function of the text. Clearly intended more for a popular than a scholarly audience, this book does not attempt to explicate, analyze, or interpret the representation of dogs in the Middle Ages. Frustratingly for the scholar, Walker-Meikle does not always include the titles of the works referred to in the text, as in the case of a discussion of dogs drawn from Hildegard of Bingen's Physica, and only a bare handful of the book's primary sources are listed under "Additional Readings" at the end of the book. One might assume that Walker-Meikle has omitted from the list those sources that are not available in modern editions, but that is not the case (for example, Gerald of Wales' Journey Through Wales is readily available from Penguin but is not listed). Moreover the images accompanying the text are not drawn from manuscripts containing the works in Walker-Meikle's text, which are chosen more for their thematic coherence and, presumably, their availability within the British Library's holdings. Granted, this information is available in Medieval Pets, and considering the primary audience for the book it would be unreasonable to expect scholarly notes; however, a more expanded bibliography would still be appreciated and easy to add without detracting from the pleasure of browsing through this book's pages. Nevertheless, Medieval Dogs has much to offer casual reader and scholar alike, and is a perfect gift for dog-lovers.



1. Carlos A. Driscoll, David W. MacDonald, and Stephen J. O'Brien, "From Wild Animals to Domestic Pets: An Evolutionary View of Domestication," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, supp. 1 (2009): 9971-8 (9972, 9974); see also Adam H. Freeman et al., "Genome Sequencing Highlights the Dynamic Early History of Dogs," PLOS Genetics 10, no. 1 (January 2014): 1-12 (8).


3. J. K. Murray, W. J. Browne, M. A. Roberts, A. Whitmarsh, and T. J. Gruffydd-Jones, "Number and Ownership Profiles of Cats and Dogs in the UK," Veterinary Record 166, no. 6 (2010): 163-8.

4. Kathleen Walker-Meikle, Medieval Pets. London: Boydell & Brewer, 2012.