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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.

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Sophie Oosterwijk

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The liveliest and most attractive animals serving as footrests on medieval tombs are probably dogs. They may be seen peeping out from under ladies’ skirts, looking up at their master or mistress, or barking for attention. As an emblem of fidelity, dogs were evidently considered an appropriate symbol for the medieval tomb monuments of married women. The meaning of this motif is unclear, but one might wonder whether these dogs represented the deceased’s own pets. This idea is not as far-fetched as one might think, for personalized pet dogs do occur on medieval monuments, in particular beneath the feet of female effigies. This essay examines the lost origins of this popular motif and how its meaning may have changed over time.

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Donna L. Sadler

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Before the dog took his position beside the ruler in the Renaissance portrait, he found himself depicted below the king’s feet in the tomb sculpture of the Middle Ages. The presence of a small breed beneath the feet of the queen was commonly associated with hearth and home, a symbol of domestic bliss. However, this formula broke down when the same dog curled up beneath the king’s feet instead of the manly hunting dog that should have, according to this logic, been found there. Indeed, dogs in medieval royal tombs seem to warm the feet (and hearts) of their masters, a role they fulfilled in life and art.

This essay examines dogs on the tomb monuments in Saint-Denis for further signs of the “anatomy of fidelity” in the canine domain. Do the dogs beneath queens behave differently than those beneath kings? Do royal offspring warrant a different breed of dog? Does the gender of the dog matter? How do the dogs in Westminster behave? Do the dogs beneath royal effigies distinguish themselves from other aristocratic tombs that feature canines? When the Valois dukes chose lions instead of dogs, was the choice based purely on animal symbolism?

The royal tombs at Saint-Denis have been studied from a political, ecclesiastical, and historical perspective. However, the royal dogs slumber beneath the feet of kings and queens. Classification of these canines increases knowledge of the tombs they enliven with their presence and the rulers they obeyed.

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Janet Snyder

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Details of the animals represented in art in northern Spain during the Middle Ages conveyed significant ideas in much the same way as attributes of saints and depictions of clothing. An examination of sculpted canines in Castilla y León reveals not only that these apparently portraitlike images represented the recognizable dog breeds that originated in Spain but also that the carvers expressed notions of the stature and rank of the persons associated with these dogs: small companion dogs accompanied the ruling elite; canine guardians replaced lions in supporting monumental sarcophagi; coursing or hunting hounds indicated the special role played by bishops who served in the stead of absent monarchs during times of need. Making use of detailed photographs of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century sculptures and modern photos of descendants of ancient Spanish breeds and the historical context for these painted sculptures, this essay deciphers the lexicon of a sophisticated language of images in gothic Castilla y León.

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Karen M. Gerhart

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This essay seeks to explain the role of dogs in Japan’s medieval period (twelfth–fifteenth centuries) through an examination of contemporary written records and images in illustrated handscrolls. In the late twelfth century, when Japan’s ruling military elite reshaped the politics of the country, they also reconfigured the role of dogs to suit their needs and interests. Dogs in texts and paintings sponsored by the military elite became associated with fighting and blood sports, such as inu-ō-mono, where dogs were confined within an enclosure surrounded by a bamboo fence, pursued by men on horseback, and killed with arrows, activities which also served as tactical and weapon training for the warriors. But dogs also remained part of the medieval cosmology of the satoyama (farm village) landscape, which appears both in the writings of low-ranking aristocrats and Buddhist priests and in illustrated handscrolls they commissioned. The satoyama included both the sato (human settlement) and the yama (surrounding hills). While animals that lived in the foothills—mainly foxes, badgers, and monkeys—populate the folk literature of Japan and frequently appear as local gods (kami), dogs lived in the human settlements and are found in illustrations of commoner settings, temple environs, and scenes associated with illness and death. This essay examines the relationship between the context in which dogs appear in medieval handscrolls and the social status of their patrons.

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John B. Friedman

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The principle on which collections such as Aesop’s Fables and their medieval progeny is founded is that by examining animals behaving like people, often badly, some aspects of human behavior can be called into question and ameliorated. Generally these are not domestic animals, but more usually wild ones: foxes, crows, wolves, and the like. A few fables do portray domestic animals, such as the story in which mice or rats bell a cat. But oddly, one of the most ubiquitous of domestic animals, the dog, is not chief among the actors in fables. Yet the dog has a long and illustrious history in medieval culture as a model for human behavior to be avoided or emulated. This chapter examines a number of instances in which medieval miniature painters used familiar dogs in interior scenes to serve as counterpoint to or heighten certain human traits, both desirable and undesirable, in courtly manuscript painting.

In trying to understand the significance of dogs in courtly medieval manuscript illustration, it is vital to look at context. In a complex triptych for example, a dog can on one wing be a tormentor of Christ and on the other symbolize loyalty. This chapter explores some of the different contexts for the dog in medieval art with a focus on its symbolism of civility and loyalty in courtly domestic interior scenes. The focus is primarily on Flemish manuscript painting of the later fifteenth century, but includes the appearance of the dog in medieval calendars as well to show how it comes to occupy such an important place in interior spaces and how, with the rise of Flemish realism, it goes along with plate, textiles such as bedding and hangings, and other things to affirm the values of the class for which the manuscripts were commissioned.

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Walter S. Gibson

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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.”

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Emily Cockayne

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Dogs were ubiquitous on urban streets in late medieval and Early Modern times. Reports suggest that more than five hundred dogs were killed in the Westminster parish of St Margaret’s as part of a plague prevention scheme in 1603. These were free-roaming dogs; many more populated the street scene. Certain itinerant tradesmen used dogs to accompany or help them, including bellmen, lantern carriers, tinkers, and knife-grinders. Butchers kept dogs to bait beasts before slaughter. Bigger households kept turnspit dogs, and ladies had lapdogs. Man and dog did not always enjoy a symbiotic relationship. Samuel Pepys mentions the irritation of being kept awake by a barking dog in his diary, and his experience was far from singular.

Noise was not the only concern. The fear of dog attack fueled a fashion for carrying walking sticks and canes. Many people were bitten, and some (mostly children) died. Many towns issued orders forbidding unmuzzled mastiffs or bitches on heat to “go abroad on the street,” particularly at night. In 1668 the Liverpool authorities ordered that all dogs “which can devour children or disturb others” be muzzled; seventeenth-century Manchester had a dozen officers responsible for enforcing a similar law. Many parishes employed dog-whippers to keep nuisance dogs out of congregations.

Using manorial and leet records, civic and borough documents, petitions, diocesan records, quarter sessions material, diaries and personal accounts, coroners’ reports, and trade company minutes, this chapter reveals the nuisances and dangers that dogs posed to people in late medieval and Early Modern English urban settlements. The key cities under study are London, Norwich, York, Portsmouth, Manchester, Southampton, and Oxford.

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Kathleen Ashley

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Animals figure prominently in medieval texts, whether as tropes in didactic literature, magical beings in romances, symbols in hagiography, or comic and moral foils in visual iconography. This brief essay turns instead to animals in the historical records, specifically the registers of sixteenth-century town council meetings in Beaune, center of the wine country of Burgundy, France. In general, animals are mentioned in these town records when they pose problems for public health, safety, or commerce. But in the domain of history—as in literary and artistic domains—animals occupy an important semiotic position in relation to human behaviors. At times the animals are regarded as extensions of, or participants in, a particular profession that is being regulated; but they can also stand for that which is “other” to humans.

The specific example of butchers adopting wolf cubs described in the Beaune town records raises the issue of the perceived boundary between “wild” and domesticated in late medieval urban life. It was the job of the town council to determine and enforce such categories through their regulations, and by studying the records we see modern urban society coming into being. Significantly, within the context of this volume on dogs, the way council members distinguished between domesticated dogs and their wild cousins raises the further question of why the familiar butchers’ dogs are never mentioned and reveals a profoundly puzzling difference between English and French town records of the period.