Dog History 101: Medieval Greyhounds

 |  Apr 30th 2010  |   0 Contributions


 Greyhounds of the middle ages were remarkably similar to today's Greyhounds. Image: Greyhounds (c.1500) Gaston Phoebus, Book of the Hunt Pierpont Morgan Library M.1044, f.37v

Today we may have a few visitors from one of my favorite dog blogs, Life With Dogs, because I have done a guest post for blogmaster Nigel the Greyhound, and his helper, Neil the Person. Since Nigel the Greyhound rules the roost over there, I figured I'd better kiss up to him as a little thank-you for sending some of his readers our way.

Nigel the Greyhound is clearly a (VERY distant) relative of the noble and aristocratic creatures of medieval times

And so I shall blog about the surprisingly interesting life of the Medieval Greyhound. Don't fall asleep. This is actually pretty cool stuff! (My daughter is doing a middle-school term paper on Life in a Medieval Castle, and being the daughter of a dog blogger, she decided to include a little section about dogs. She read me what she wrote, and I took her by the hand, and beseeched: "Lead me to your sources. Nigel will love this!" And thus the birth of today's history post.)

Compared with many other genres of dogs, Greyhounds have enjoyed a rather elevated status throughout history (at least until racetracks came around, and also until certain Greyhounds switched from Stella Artois to Pabst). Although they were nearly extinct during famines in the early Middle Ages, clergy saved them and bred them for nobility. After that, Greyhounds were considered dogs of the aristocracy, and fared better than a lot of people. Check out these facts I found on the Gulf Coast Greyhounds site:

In the tenth century, King Howel of Wales made killing a greyhound punishable by death.

The Hunt in the Forest. (Left half, 1460s, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.Paolo Ucello (or Uccello, Italian, 1395-1475)

King Canute of England established the Forest Laws in 1014, reserving large areas of the country for hunting by the nobility. Only such persons could own greyhounds; any "meane person" (commoner) caught owning a greyhound would be severely punished and the dog's toes "lawed" (mutilated) to prevent it from hunting.

The value of a Greyhound exceeded that of a serf, and the punishment for causing death of a Greyhound was equivalent to the punishment for murder: Execution.

Gwydion ap Myrddin tells of the events leading up to, and including the battle of Hastings in 1066. This tapestry is over 200 feet long. In this panel, the King of England, Edward the Confessor, sends his son-in-law, Harold, to Normandy to tell Duke William that he is to be his heir. The hounds lead the way. Gwydion ap Myrddin, Bayeux Tapestry, (c.1084)

In 1066 William the Conqueror introduced even more stringent forest laws. Commoners who hunted with greyhounds in defiance of these laws favored dogs whose coloring made them harder to spot: black, red, fawn, and brindle. Nobles by contrast favored white and spotted dogs who could be spotted and recovered more easily if lost in the forest. It became common among the English aristocracy to say, "You could tell a gentleman by his horses and his greyhounds." Old paintings and tapestries of hunting feasts often include greyhounds.

The greyhound was used as an emblem, often in tombs, at the feet of the effigies of gentlemen, symbolizing the knightly virtues (faith), occupations (hunting) and generally the aristocratic way of life. Where tombs are concerned, the greyhound always was associated with knighthood (along with the lion, symbolizing strength) and never with ladies, who generally were associated with the little lap-dog (symbol of marital faithfulness and domestic virtue).

Greyhounds may have been the first dogs written about in English literature. In Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, we are introduced to greyhounds thus:

Greyhounds he hadde as swifte as fowel in flight;
Of prikyng and of huntyng for the hare
Was al his lust, for no cost wolde he spare.

The image of greyhounds was used in coats of arms, and on knights' shields

Chaucer reportedly spent gobs on his own greyhounds. If only he had lived today, he'd have it made, with all the retired sighthounds looking for homes. But he didn't.

Oh and check this out: Greyhounds held a lot of sway with people. They even went to church. Here are a couple of fascinating facts from AZ Greyhounds:

Many royals enjoyed the company of their greyhounds. At one point, Charlamagne, king of France, became in censed when nobles began bringing their hounds to church. The king banned the dogs, so nobles came to the entrance of the church with their beloved dogs, but did not enter, as a compromise. The priests at the end of the mass would then go to the entrance of the church to bless the nobles

In 1304, the wife of Robert the Bruce was jailed when he was charged with treason. She was allowed three greyhounds and a servant girl in her cell.

And AZ Dogs also brings you a tale you may have heard before, about Gelert, a faithful Greyhound of medieval Wales:
Detail from Veterinarians Treating Dogs (c.1500), Gaston Phoebus, Book of the Hunt Veterinarians treating various illnesses and diseases of dogs.  Greyhounds (c.1500) Gaston Phoebus, Book of the Hunt Pierpont Morgan Library M.1044, f.31v

One day, while out on a hunt, the Prince realized that Gelert was missing. When the Prince returned home, he found Gelert lying by the body of his young child. The child had been knocked out of his overturned cradle and mauled to death. Gelert was covered in blood. Glad to see his master, Gelert ran up to the Prince. Overcome with rage, the Prince drew his sword and speared the dog which had killed his child. Gelert dropped to the ground, dying instantly.

Too late, the Prince heard shouting from the house. The Child's Nanny was running toward him, frantically waving at him to stop. The Nanny had left the child unattended for a moment, and when she returned a wolf had knocked the cradle over. From out of the bushes leapt Gelert who bravely fought and killed the larger wolf, but it was too late to save the baby. Looking over at the courtyard, the Prince saw the prone body of the wolf, and then noticed that Gelert's body was covered in wounds. Gelert was not covered with the blood of the baby, but the blood of the wolf. The Prince buried his faithful hound. Gelert's grave can still be found today, at Beddgelert, North Wales.

I can foresee someone making a movie of this tragic story. And who would star? Why, Nigel the Modern Greyhound, of course! That is, unless he's too busy pole dancing....

nigel pole

(The Greyhound art in this post can be found at Adopt a Greyhound.)

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