Everyday Life

Dogs: A Medieval Wagging Tale

We all love dogs. Right?

The later Middle Ages, spanning from the 14th to the 16th centuries, and the years immediately following, were one of the most intriguing periods in the history of humanity’s relationship with dogs. During this time, dogs played multifaceted roles in society, and their presence was everywhere.

The Roll of the Dog

Hunting and hawking were the premier sports of the leisure class, and dogs were their invaluable companions in these pursuits.

Additionally, dogs enjoyed popularity as loyal pets, and their utility extended to protection and herding for the broader population. Beyond their functional roles, dogs were celebrated for their remarkable intelligence and faithfulness.

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Performing dogs, in particular, were a source of fascination. People delighted in hearing stories of dogs displaying extraordinary fidelity and intelligence.

One such story involves the great Duke of Berry, who personally visited a dog that refused to leave its master’s grave. Touched by the dog’s unwavering loyalty, the Duke generously provided funds to a neighbour. Tnis was to ensure the faithful animal received proper care and sustenance for the rest of its days.

Dogs come in all shapes and sizes. But what of Medieval breeds?

While the era had its challenges, such as the common occurrence of rabies, it was a time when people recognised that dogs should not be held responsible for such ills.

In fact, when faced with the bite of a mad dog, individuals had a variety of remedies at their disposal. These ranged from goat’s liver to sea bathing. whether they worked however we don’t know!

Breeds of Dog

In this doggy-centric society, certain breeds held positions of prestige.

The aristocrats of the medieval dog kingdom were the greyhounds and what our ancestors referred to as ‘running hounds.’

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Interestingly, ‘running hounds’ referred to dogs that hunted by scent rather than sheer speed. This was a quirk in terminology that continues to perplex dog-genealogists. The term ‘greyhound’ was applied broadly to encompass any dog with a greyhound-like physique. This spanning from the impressive Irish wolfhound to the diminutive Italian greyhound.

Greyhounds were prized gifts, particularly among royalty, and they often starred in the medieval dog stories of the time. A 14th-century writer described the ideal greyhound as courteous, obedient to its master’s commands, kind, clean, joyful, and sociable with all except wild animals.

These noble hounds were often depicted on tombstones at their master’s feet, demonstrating their special status.

Medieval noblewomen were inclined to favour lap dogs. Effigies of these dogs, often seen wearing collars and little bells, adorn tombs.

Interestingly, toy dogs of the period, much like contemporary fashionable clothing, garnered criticism from moralists.

A Doggy Folly

A 16th-century critic decried them as instruments of folly for indulging “wanton women’s wills.” He regarded these small dogs as a means to trifle away time and divert attention from more commendable pursuits, lamenting that some people seemed to derive greater pleasure from their dogs than from their own children, who possessed wisdom and judgment.

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The appearance of these toy dogs was as diverse as their functions. Some resembled pugs but had longer noses, while others featured long or short hair.

Dogs were as much a part of everyday life as they are now

Smooth-coated toy dogs were more prevalent, and extreme variations in build, such as the dachshund’s unique legs, were absent. Ears could be short or drooping, and tails were left intact, with no concern about indecency.

They were frequently seen at royal courts, despite etiquette rules to the contrary. The Très Riches Heures, an illuminating manuscript, captures this disregard for decorum. It portrays two small dogs on the table at a ducal feast, with a servant eagerly feeding an expectant greyhound nearby.

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In simpler times, people travelled with their dogs without raising eyebrows. Chaucer’s Prioress was known to have her lap dogs, and the hunting Monk had his loyal greyhounds.

It was even common to bring dogs to church, despite strenuous objections from church authorities. A 15th-century monastic regulation lamented the disruption caused by dogs and puppies. It noted their propensity to disrupt church services with their barking and occasional book tearing.

To Guard

The average person’s dog in this society was far from a mere pet. In a world with minimal law enforcement watch dogs played a crucial role in safeguarding homes and property.

These watch dogs were expected to sleep during the day, ensuring they were fully alert and protective at night. Many guardians were large dogs, but the most highly esteemed were the mastiffs. These were similar in some ways to their modern descendants.

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Origins traced back to Spain, alaunts were large, robust canines somewhat resembling greyhounds but with coarser heads, shorter muzzles, and upright (or possibly cropped) ears. They came in various colours, with a preference for white dogs with black spots near the ears.

The better-bred alaunts, known as “alaunts gentils,” were sought after for hunting, while the coarser variety found demand as watch dogs and were employed by butchers to help herd cattle.

These dogs, known for their ability to control escaped livestock, were also the favoured choice for bull-baiting. Illustrations of the time often depict alaunts with carefully applied muzzles due to their reputation for ferocity.

Shepherds and swineherds, in addition to butchers, also relied on dogs for protection and herding. The breeds were not well-defined during this period. However the dogs served to guard against thieves and predators, such as wolves.

Dogs on a bull
Bull baiting is thankfully outlawed in most countries. In Medieval times it was classed as a sport.

Other laborers had their own working dogs. A 13th-century encyclopaedist praising the “mungrell curres” that assisted ditchers and hedgers in guarding their tools, food, and clothing. These dogs were known to be fiercely loyal to their masters.


Terriers, as their name suggests, were primarily used in pursuing foxes to their earths. Unfortunately, the historical records from this period provide few references to terriers.

They were seemingly taken for granted, as fox-hunting held relatively little importance in those days, with practical ancestors preferring edible game over the chase.


Spaniels were another common breed and were crucial for the sport of hawking, which offered a more accessible and less strenuous alternative to hunting.

These early spaniels had a strikingly different appearance compared to their modern counterparts. They typically had wavy coats, a larger physique, and often longer legs with shorter feathering on their legs.

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Tails were generally left unaltered, in stark contrast to later practices. Their coats could be white, tawny, or speckled, and their heads featured pointed noses with a slight upturn, a departure from the familiar spaniel look today.

Nonetheless, they were efficient hunting dogs, capable of flushing game and retrieving land and waterfowl.

A notable 14th-century sportsman, Gaston, Comte de Foix, who authored one of the finest medieval hunting books, extolled the virtues of spaniels.


He described them as faithful, affectionate, and fond of frolicking, even playfully wagging their tails. However, he did lament that when taking greyhounds for a walk, if accompanied by a spaniel, the latter would often chase geese, cattle, or horses.

This mischief would lead to the greyhounds joining in, creating chaos. Gaston attributed the ensuing disturbances and hunts off-course to the spaniels. However, these hounds were never intended for hunting and were merely engaging in their natural behaviour.

On the other hand, Duke Charles of Orleans expressed his love for spaniels in his poems. He composed verses dedicated to his favourite spaniel, ‘Briquet of the drooping ears,’ praising the dog’s field prowess and enthusiasm.

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Another poem by the Duke reflects on the advancing years of his beloved companion: “Let Baude range the bushes, old Briquet takes his rest … an old fellow can do but little.” This verse encapsulates the heartfelt affection and fondness of a dog lover for his aging, devoted companion.


Stag hunting, a fashionable sport during this period, employed both greyhounds and ‘running hounds’ (referred to as ‘raches’) for different roles.

Greyhounds were used to quickly stop the game.

The serious huntsmen, however, preferred to watch the running hounds work alone, appreciating their distinct style. Gaston de Foix praised these dogs, which were similar to modern bloodhounds.

A Greyhound in ‘The history of four-footed beasts and serpents’ by Edward Topsell.

They were heavily built with powerful forequarters, short muzzles, and short tails, much like the hounds used for ‘still’ hunting.

Their coat colours ranged widely, with earlier preferences favouring white, black and white, or mottled dogs, while the late Middle Ages leaned toward tawny brown. Coats were generally smooth, although rough-haired examples were not uncommon, and some had smooth coats with long, feathered tails.

Various animals were hunted with these hounds, and the choice of hounds often depended on their training rather than their specific breed.


Harthounds, larger and faster than harriers, were generally preferred over harriers, named because they ‘harried’ the quarry rather than being restricted to hares.

Certain dogs were selected for their exceptional scent, loyalty, and size and were trained as ‘limers’ to hunt on a leash.

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They served to locate or ‘harbour’ the stag and later, in the event of confusion, to untangle the pack’s trail. These limers were individual specialists rather than a distinct breed.

Owners of these hunting dogs maintained high standards for their care. Gaston de Foix’s ‘Traité de la Chasse’ outlined meticulous details for the management of kennels.

The kennel was to be constructed a foot above the ground, with a loft for temperature control, including coolness in summer and warmth in winter.


A chimney provided additional warmth when needed. The kennel was situated in a sunny yard with an open door, allowing dogs to play outside at their leisure, a familiar delight for any dog lover.

The hounds enjoyed daily walks and runs in a sunny meadow and were allowed to eat grass if they were unwell. The kennel’s floor was covered in straw, changed daily, and fresh water was provided twice a day.

Each morning, the hounds were meticulously rubbed down with straw. The primary diet consisted of bran bread and meat from hunting expeditions. Special game was even hunted to ensure the hounds received the finest meals.

A Parsons Jack Russell Terrier

Sick hounds might be treated with special diets, including goat’s milk, bean broth, chopped meat, or buttered eggs.

Kennel duties were typically the responsibility of a dog-boy, a young apprentice huntsman who started learning the trade at around seven years old.

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Besides his various tasks, such as spinning horsehair for hound couplings, the dog-boy had to be well-versed in the names and colours of the hounds.

He was required to remain with the dogs to prevent fights, even during the night. The instructions did not leave any room for laxity; the dog-boy was expected to love his master and the hounds, with the threat of punishment for disobedience.

The care extended to injured hounds was equally meticulous, covering aspects like splinting broken bones.

The Poorly Pup

The Duke of York, Edward Topsell, a renowned writer of the Elizabethan era who held the position of Master of Game to Henry IV, concluded the treatise with an impassioned plea. He implored readers not to let their faithful hounds suffer due to the slight inconvenience or expense of providing necessary medical treatment.

Topsell emphasized the value of these loyal companions who had provided countless moments of joy during hunting expeditions.

This era is marked by a unique aspect of attributing moral qualities and responsibilities to animals.

It is therefore not surprising to find that dogs received some of the benefits associated with religious rituals. One Duke of Orleans even arranged for masses to be said for his dogs.

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The famous “messe des chiens” on St. Hubert’s day, a custom that still survives, is a testament to the reverence for dogs. Furthermore, when certain hounds belonging to Charles VI of France fell ill, they were sent on a pilgrimage to hear mass at St. Mesmer to facilitate their recovery.

A Dogs Life

The historical and intriguing insight into the vital and diverse role that dogs played in society during the later Middle Ages and the years that followed were immense.

Dogs were more than mere companions; they were protectors, hunters, and even revered figures in some cases.

The bond between humans and dogs, as evidenced by the care, devotion, and affection shown to these animals, is a timeless and enduring aspect of human history.

Whether in the form of loyal greyhounds, diligent hunting dogs, or faithful hounds, the relationship between people and their canine companions has been a constant throughout the centuries.