Illuminating Medieval Hunting Dogs

On the nature and care of 14th-century dogs.
By Linda S. Slusser, March 2017
Greyhounds;

Greyhounds;

Livre de la chasse (Book of the Hunt)

Livre de la chasse (Book of the Hunt)

Greyhounds; A Hunter Attending to Kenneled Dogs;

IN THE LATER MIDDLE Ages, venery—the historical term for hunting with dogs—became a favorite sport for the aristocracy. Nobles justified it as a way to exercise the body and mind, prevent the sin of idleness, and learn the skills of warfare. Planning and executing the chase (in particular, the hunt for the stag) provided them with opportunities to practice knightly virtues in peacetime.

Details of this practice can be found in the beautifully illuminated manuscripts of the 12th to 15th centuries, which reveal the evolution of the dog’s place in medieval life. In many of those dedicated to hunting, dogs are portrayed as partners, valued for their positive attributes and skills. Although their function might still be considered utilitarian, as noblemen’s essential allies in the hunt, dogs began to be treated with care, tenderness, affection and devotion.

The best-known and most influential hunting treatise was the Livre de la chasse (Book of the Hunt), composed between 1387 and 1389 by Gaston Phébus, a highly educated medieval prince. Whether travelling or at home, Phébus was reportedly always accompanied by his favorite dogs (of the 1,600 he was said to have owned). His passion for hunting and his love of dogs were evident in his book, which drew heavily on his own observations and experience. In her detailed examination of the Livre de la chasse, Hannerle Klemettila concluded that one of Phébus’s important goals was to “express, shape and strengthen the positive image of the dog.”

Phébus praised dogs’ memory, perception and diligence; their forceful, powerful, yet playful nature; and their understanding, knowledge and judgment. The worst thing about dogs, he said, was that their lives were so short. According to Phébus, the dog “is the noblest, wisest and most sensible beast in God’s creation, and in general terms I make no exception for men or for any other living being.”

Phébus identified five main categories of hunting dogs. The alaunts (a now-extinct breed related to the modern Bulldog) were heavy-bodied with cropped ears, and hunted large game; as the strongest and most aggressive type, they required special handling and were often shown wearing muzzles. Because of their speed, Greyhounds were used for every kind of hunting and game; they were often pictured wearing colorful, decorative collars. (Associated with nobility and refinement, they were also kept as companions and pets.) The versatile running Hounds, depicted with long, floppy ears and in a variety of coat colors, were able to scent and track their quarry throughout a complex hunt. Somewhat less favored were the Spaniels, or birddogs, who were only useful for birds such as quail or partridges and for rabbits; they were shown with large heads, strong bodies and thick tails. Mastiffs could be used for several kinds of large game, but Phébus did not consider them to be outstanding hunting dogs.

In the veterinary part of the treatise, Phébus addressed symptoms, diagnoses and cures for 26 conditions, including mange, infected paws, flu, bite wounds, constipation, angina and rabies. His treatments, the most comprehensive of his time, were designed to be gentle for the dog. For example, he recommended a multi-purpose salve made up of verdigris, the saliva of three or four men, quicksilver and pig fat. As Klemettila notes, the willingness of aristocrats to invest time and money in the health care of hunting dogs “reflected their special status and high appreciation and strengthened connections between species.”

Phébus was precise about all aspects of the care of hunting dogs. He gave specific directions for constructing a kennel building that would keep the dogs comfortable in all seasons, allow them unrestricted access to an enclosed yard and ensure good hygiene. He observed that dogs should be fed twice a day, primarily bread; meat was usually reserved for the curee (pieces of the animal taken), a reward shared by dogs who had participated in the hunt. Dogs were inspected and groomed daily. For exercise when not hunting, they were permitted to run and play twice a day. While Phébus noted the importance of selecting the best dogs for breeding, he also believed that individual dogs could improve with training.

Phébus advocated what we today call positive reinforcement as the best technique for educating dogs. Although withholding a reward or a mild physical correction might be used occasionally, he felt that kindness and patience built the bond between dog and man: The hunter should speak to his dogs gently and truthfully, calling them “friend” and “brother.” The same commands should be used consistently, and hunters should encourage their dogs in difficult situations. If a dog failed to follow a verbal command, a visual sign or a horn’s signal, blame was attributed to the hunter, who needed to further study his own dog’s “language.”

Forty-six copies of the Livre de la chasse manuscript survive, and its miniatures show the value and close connection of dog to hunter. The dogs are depicted in a variety of situations: surrounding Phébus’s throne; relaxing outside the kennel; being tended by dog valets; resting and playing; caring for puppies; pursuing deer, boars, goats, hares, foxes, wolves, badgers, lynxes and otters; and partaking of the curee.

These hunting treatises and other types of illuminated manuscripts, which skew toward portrayals of the wealthiest social classes, reinforce evidence from related sources, including paintings, poems and archeological finds. Taken together, it is clear that dogs as companions were deeply woven into the daily life of people on all rungs of the medieval social ladder—a circumstance easy to understand even in the 21st century.