Pets are a common part of the modern lifestyle. We lavish affection on them, share pictures of them with the world, record their antics on our phones, and spend a small fortune on their care, including special food, toys, and treats. I have a house full of animals myself; three cats, two dogs, a lizard, hamster, and sizeable fish tank. Pets amuse us, soothe us, and—usually—keep our blood pressure down. They’re sweet and fun to have around. So I thought for today’s Medieval Monday I would approach the subject of pets from a medieval perspective. In a world where animals were mainly kept for food and labor, did medieval people ever keep what we would consider to be pets?
To answer the question, we must first understand that the concept of a “pet” as we know it did not really exist in the Middle Ages. The idea didn’t become a defined word until the end of the 1500s, and even then, it didn’t have quite the same meaning it does today. Domesticated animals, like cats and dogs, were kept strictly for the services they provided. Cats kept rodents under control. Dogs protected people and livestock, or were used for hunting. This doesn’t mean that people weren’t affectionate toward their animals, it just means they weren’t kept purely for their companionship. They had a job to do which earned their keep and made them valuable. Even in the late Middle Ages (really the Renaissance era) pets were a rarity, and were mainly cats, dogs, or birds kept by the wealthy or by monks and nuns. There are records that the Church discouraged this practice, advising them “not to keep too many and not to take them into church with them.” They thought the resources squandered on these animals would be better used to benefit the poor.
A 13th century scientist and philosopher named Albertus Magnus wrote a book about animals that included advice on their care. He noted that the cat “loves to be lightly stroked by human hands and is playful, especially when it is young.” He said that “they lose their boldness” if you cut off their whiskers, but that their ears should be clipped to keep the dew out. He indicated that dogs meant to be used for guarding should not be constantly petted or fed from the table, or they will “keep one eye on the door, and one on the generous hand of the master.”
Another writer from the 14th century had advice for the care of hunting dogs. He said that their kennels should be off the ground at least a foot, and be built of wood in such a way that the dogs could stay warm in winter and cool in summer. They should always have fresh straw on the floor, clean water, access to a sunny yard for play, and be given daily walks.
However, the animal with the most special status in the medieval world was actually the horse. Albertus noted in his book that war horses were known for displaying intense affection toward their masters. When their masters were lost, they often refused to eat and “grieved to the point of death,” even shedding tears. Another text indicates that “the horse has strong emotions, being “ioiefil in feeldes” and “comforted wiþ noyse of a trompe”; he can be “excyted” to run by the sound of a familiar voice. Furthermore, he is “sory” when beaten in battle and “gladde” when victorious. Some know their “owne lord alone” and forget “myldenesse” if their lord is overcome. It is not unusual for a horse to allow no other man to ride on his back but his “owne lord alone” and “many hors wepeþ whan his lord is deed.”
While working horses were clearly not “pets,” they certainly achieved a greater status than other farm animals (most of which were eaten when their usefulness for other tasks waned), or even than cats and dogs. Horses became the closest thing to a true companion for their masters, most specifically those which were highly trained (such as war horses) or which were ridden very often, or over long distances. Horses displayed loyalty and emotion that people could connect with. They were highly dependent on human care, and the humans who cared for them were equally dependent on their horses. Researcher Kristen M. Figg wrote, “both horses and dogs were often housed in very close proximity to humans, whose lives depended on the quality of the animal who would carry them into battle, help them locate or pursue game, warn them of danger, and—in moments of distress—show empathy for their suffering. This final and distinctive characteristic was crucial, in the context of a culture that speculated much more than we on the nature of the soul and insisted on the distinctive theological status of human beings.”
Moreso than the cat, which was highly independent and not particularly loyal, or the falcon, which was noble but acted on its own interest, dogs and horses both represented the Feudal values which were predominant in the Middle Ages. While none of them qualified as “pets” by our modern day definition, there is no question that they formed close bonds with their humans, and were the predecessors of the beloved, pampered animals that keep us smiling today.