Medieval Pets

By Brown, Rachel Fulton | The Historian, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Medieval Pets


Brown, Rachel Fulton, The Historian


Medieval Pets. By Kathleen Walker-Meikle. (Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 2012. Pp. x, 179. $45.00.)

Not every animal that lives with human beings is a pet: Some animals are kept for eating, others for riding, others for helping with the hunt, while yet others are kept as curiosities in menageries or zoos. Only a very few, however, are allowed the privileges of pets. Although pet keeping as a practice goes back to antiquity, it is only recently that scholars have begun to pay attention to the history of pets, in large part because the evidence itself is so elusive. Unlike working animals, such as horses, hunting dogs, or falcons, medieval people wrote relatively little about the training and keeping of pets. Rather, as Kathleen Walker-Meikle defines them, pets were animals kept solely as companions, typically collared, that shared domestic spaces with their owners and became--as portraits in books of hours, on seals, and in funeral effigies show--part of their personal identities.

Such animals might have been loved deeply, their owners mourning their deaths in elaborate elegies, but, for the most part, what is known of the practical matter of keeping pets comes from those who complained about them: how fat many little dogs became with the dainties fed to them, how disturbing one's fellow nuns might come to find one's pet bird in the choir during the liturgy (44, 69). According to Walker-Meikle, women and clerics in particular were said to keep pets, though men preferred the more "masculine" animals of the chase and the list. Such gendering of pet keeping was, however, as Walker-Meikle's own examples show, hardly the rule; scholars (not necessarily celibate) kept pets, as did many lords and kings. …

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