- Medieval Pets by Kathleen Walker-Meikle
Pets are enduringly popular, and Dr. Walker-Meikle capitalizes on this interest by offering a short summary of pet-keeping in medieval Europe. The author correctly notes that traditional works on medieval animals devote little attention to pets—animals that only provide “companionship and amusement” (ix)—and this work surveys historical, literary and iconographic sources to reveal evidence of pet-keeping. The book’s strength is in its comprehensive use of the sources with beautiful illustrations. Its weakness lies in the difficulties of defining what exactly constitutes a companion animal, a pet, but this is perhaps to be expected since late medieval people were slow to embrace the concept, if not the lap dog.
Dr. Walker-Meikle acknowledges that there is no comparable term in the medieval period; the first use of the word in English came during the sixteenth century, and referred to animals whose only use was as a companion. Then the author focuses primarily on animals that live indoors to try to limit her discussion to companion animals. However, this leaves out rural families whose cattle, goats [End Page 474] and other animals might share their living space in an attached byre. Even when the argument is restricted to noble families (who commissioned the art and wrote the literature that formed the main sources for this book), the definition of pet as an indoor animal also breaks down. Hunting dogs shared indoor space as much as lap dogs did, and cats worked indoors as mousers much more often than they lay spoiled and petted by a fire.
Walker-Meikle’s sources, along with the scarcity of information about medieval companion animals, leads the work to cover primarily the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries, with even a foray into the seventeenth. This book might more accurately be called “Renaissance Pets,” since many of the paintings and illustrated literary works show pets that come from the wealth and long-distance trade that brought monkeys and parrots into noble homes.
This short book (only 110 pages are text, the rest endnotes) organizes most of the material to coincide with modern pet-keeping. It begins with a general chapter on “The Medieval Pet,” then has three chapters on matters of interest to modern animal-lovers: getting a pet, pet welfare, and living with pets. These chapters offer interesting bits of information, like pet dogs mostly eat bread, and owners spend good money on collars and accessories. We also learn that the wealthiest pet owners, like Isabelle d’Este in Mantua, commissioned elegies to help her mourn her dead dog.
The last two chapters turn directly to the sources of information, and survey the range of visual and literary references to pets. These two chapters highlight one of the difficulties of mining artistic portrayals for actual evidence of how people treated their pets. The author notes that animal portrayals may be symbols of fidelity (dogs) or sexuality (squirrels and rabbits) or as symbols for love (lap dogs), yet might also reveal real-pet-keeping. One example of the problems inherent in this approach might be seen as the author analyzes one image in an illuminated manuscript in which a woman holds a dog while flanked by a wildman (65). Walker-Meikle suggests that the wildman is a symbol of nature against the symbolic “tamed nature” of the dog. Does this mean there is a real pet dog in the image? It is hard to know. However, the repeated portrayals of small animals in women’s care does imply the presence of these animals in the households.
A number of the illustrations show pets wearing collars with bells, which the author uses to identify these animals as companion pets. However, from the earliest medieval years, bells on animals marked property, whether they were worn by cows or goats. The presence of a bell signals ownership, not necessarily affection or companionship, which only indicates once again how difficult it is to read back into the past to tell how people felt about the animals that shared their...