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.