15 Metaphorical Dogs in the Later Middle Ages: The Dogs of God and the Hounds of Hell

In: Our Dogs, Our Selves


Good dogs abound in medieval religious literature. Prominent among them are the dogs that licked Lazarus’s sores in Christ’s parable: they signified the priests and preachers who cleansed the faithful of their sins. But there were also the hounds of hell, the name often given to Satan and the lesser demons. The Vier Uitersten, a Dutch version of the “Four Last Things,” a widely read meditation on death and the afterlife, warns that “the Hound,” i.e. the Devil, and his followers will appear to the dying “in fearful shapes.” In his Inferno Dante witnesses two “black bitches” dismembering a damned soul in the Valley of the Suicides. Such canine devils were inspired by Psalm 21:17, in which the Psalmist complains: “For many dogs have encompassed me: the council of the malignant hath besieged me.”

Visual representations of hellhounds vary. In the early fifteenth-century Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, a devil-dog attacks a soul in Purgatory, while in the Taymouth Hours, illuminated a century earlier, devils and fierce greyhounds pursue the damned across the lower borders of three successive folios. Although such canine demons were confined chiefly to manuscript illumination, they were often depicted by Hieronymus Bosch, most prominently in the Hell panel of his Garden of Earthly Delights. By this time, the hounds of Hell had pretty much run their course in art, but their literary career lasted somewhat longer. A notable example is a moralizing poem by the Antwerp schoolteacher-poet Anna Bijns (d. 1575), which contains the warning refrain “otherwise, the hell hounds will devour your soul.”

Our Dogs, Our Selves

Dogs in Medieval and Early Modern Art, Literature, and Society