The Middle Ages and Renaissance

In the period after the fall of the Roman Empire, the bubonic plague, or Black Death, was one of the galvanizing events. It was during this time that the dog acquired its more negative lore. During the plague, in which fleas transported the deadly disease, historian Mary Elizabeth Thurston points out in her book, The Lost History of the Canine Race, that the dog, “with its inborn resistance to the plague bacillus,” was now on its own. Most livestoc. was killed by the disease — cattle, sheep, chickens and others. People were killing each other over food. Few people during this period kept pets. Ownerless, dogs ran wild, usually in packs, eating corpses and killing in groups.

During feudal times, the aristocracy assumed ownership of many fertile lands, especially the great forests in which animals and other natural resources were still abundant. During this time, the hunt became ritualized, and dogs were used to pursue various kinds of game. Lords and barons had different dogs to take down deer, bears, bulls, wolves, large fowl, and foxes, and preferred other dogs for small game, mostly vermin. Others were bred for specific duties, such as tracking, coursing, and retrieving on land and in water.

For centuries, the dog has been more popular than any other pet. From the perennially popular book, The Call of the Wild, to the Disney movie, 101 Dalmatians, to the art of William Wegman (who works with his Wei-maraners), and Charles Schulz, who created Snoopy, humans' love of their canine companions has been celebrated in literature, song, art, folklore, and popular culture.

Thurston points out that Henry I of England had a kennel of 200 dogs for huntsmen to train, care for, and deploy. As the aristocracy grew, so did their land claims. And unless you were someone of rank, you could not take game from a claimed preserve.

It was not until after the fall of the French king in the late 1700s, during the French Revolution, that ordinary people were allowed to hunt in the largest and most heavily stocked game forests. In the early 1800s, many lands across Europe were opened up in an attempt to dissuade the masses from overthrowing various monarchies. These policies were part of larger political agendas, which all worked to varying degrees. However, one thing was an absolute success — hunting became popular to the extreme.

The Victorian Era

Queen Victoria was a devoted dog fancier, and when her husband, Prince Albert, suddenly sickened and died in 1861 at the age of forty-two, the saddened Queen grew even fonder of her gentle pets. In her lifetime she raised more than fifteen different breeds of dogs. According to noted historian Paul Johnson, “She formed passionate attachments to animals when a child, and the vehemence with which she fought for their rights persisted to the end. At her various jubilees, prisoners were released all over the Empire provided that she personally signed their remission. There was only one category she refused: those convicted of cruelty to animals, which she called ‘one of the worst traits in human nature.’” The Queen was especially fond of a favorite spitz, who was actually allowed to jump on the Queen's breakfast table.

Due to Victoria's love of canines, the dog reached an all-time high status. Your choice of dog conveyed whether you were a sportsman or a true lady. Dogs helped people fulfill their aspirations toward a higher station in life. Indeed, it was in this period that many dog classifications began. It was also a time in which many new dog breeds were bred by varying groups, especially hunters.

In the 1700s and 1800s, many of the sporting breeds, such as the German Shorthaired Pointer, Weimaraner, Vizsla and other hunting dogs, were bred because middle-class Europeans had more time for hunting as recreation, and they wanted one dog to perform a series of functions for which the European aristocracy could previously afford to keep several breeds. Likewise, smaller, toy breeds also became more popular, and many breeds which were hitherto unknown came to the fore.

The different species we are so familiar with today are the result of the continuing quest during this time to find the perfect dog. In many cases throughout history, people have bred dogs for different characteristics such as size, speed, hunting abilities, and others, to produce dogs for a variety of uses. This period became the golden age of the dog.

The United States may not be known as the country where dogs are especially cherished — for example, in France almost all dogs are welcome in restaurants, whereas in the U.S. only registered service and therapy dogs are — but that doesn't mean it doesn't have its share of people who adore their canine companions. In fact, dogs have been alongside the settlers of the United States since the country's infancy.

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