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Our Dogs, Our Selves

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

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Edited by Laura D. Gelfand

The ubiquity of references to dogs in medieval and early modern texts and images must at some level reflect their actual presence in those worlds, yet scholarly consideration of this material is rare and scattered across diverse sources. This volume addresses that gap, bringing together fifteen essays that examine the appearance, meaning, and significance of dogs in painting, sculpture, manuscripts, literature, and legal records of the period, reaching beyond Europe to include cultural material from medieval Japan and Islam. While primarily art historical in focus, the authors approach the subject from a range of disciplines and with varying methodology that ultimately reveals as much about dogs as about the societies in which they lived.
Contributors are Kathleen Ashley, Jane Carroll, Emily Cockayne, John Block Friedman, Karen M. Gerhart, Laura D. Gelfand, Craig A. Gibson, Walter S. Gibson, Nathan Hofer, Jane C. Long, Judith W. Mann, Sophie Oosterwijk, Elizabeth Carson Pastan, Donna L. Sadler, Alexa Sand, and Janet Snyder.

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Craig A. Gibson

Abstract

The purpose of this chapter is threefold: to (a) document the history of encomia of dogs in Greek and Latin rhetoric from the fourth century BCE to the fifteenth century CE; (b) analyze the three extant medieval and Renaissance encomia of dogs—those by Nikephoros Basilakes (twelfth century, Greek), Theodorus Gaza (fifteenth century, Greek), and Leon Battista Alberti (fifteenth century, Latin)—in the light of the rhetorical tradition; and (c) highlight the physical, mental, and moral attributes of dogs that these medieval and Renaissance writers found most worthy of praise. Although no encomium of a dog is extant from Graeco-Roman antiquity, the theme is implicit in Aristotle, Lucian, and Basil. Three rhetoricians (Quintilian, Menander Rhetor, and Aphthonius) briefly discuss animals as possible subjects for encomia, but only Ps.-Hermogenes in his textbook on rhetorical composition provides instructions on how to praise them.

It is not until the middle ages that we find an extant encomium of the dog. Nikephoros Basilakes (twelfth century) praises dogs for their service to their human masters as hunters, seeing-eye dogs, rescuers, protectors, companions, and faithful friends, illustrating his essay with references to famous ancient dogs. The emigrant Byzantine humanist Theodorus Gaza (fifteenth century) does not closely follow ancient prescriptions for encomia, but instead illustrates a few key benefits of dogs with numerous examples drawn from a wide range of ancient authors. For Gaza, dogs are loving, kind, loyal, obedient, and brave in battle. He gives special emphasis to their usefulness in hunting and warfare. The Italian humanist Leon Battista Alberti (fifteenth century) was written as a funeral oration in honor of a favorite dog that had been poisoned. Born of illustrious ancestors, Alberti’s dog rejected military glory and instead pursued learning. Drawing on Gaza’s earlier encomium, Alberti praises the furry humanist for his prodigious memory, devotion to learning, philosophical lifestyle, and ability to distinguish good men from bad.