The medieval well-heeled loved keeping small pets, even though the habit raised eyebrows, says Steve Farrar
The small dogs, caged birds and tame squirrels were much loved by the medieval nuns of St Sauveur in Evreux. They were given names, fed on the choicest morsels and generally pampered by the French women. But Eudes Rigaud, archbishop of Rouen, did not share their sentimentality. When he encountered the animals during a visit to the convent in 1250, all he could see was evidence of moral decay. And before he left, the reprimanded nuns were told their pets had to go.
The nuns of Holy Trinity in Caen were no better. That same year, Rigaud was moved to forbid them from keeping caged larks. Such behaviour, he felt, was as scandalous as wearing secular dress or consuming rich food. It had to stop. Yet for all of his righteous fury, the archbishop's crusade seems to have made little impression on his animal-loving flock. On his return to St Sauveur in 1258, Rigaud was forced to issue another pet-banning order - and again on his third visit in 1269. The Holy Trinity, meanwhile, got its second warning in 1256. One ex-prioress who was told by Rigaud in 1268 to get rid of a bird whose squawking was disturbing some of the older nuns at Villarcreaux replied in a fashion that "greatly displeased us".
It seems our passion for pets has been strong for centuries. Kathleen Walker-Meikle's pioneering study of pet-keeping in the late Middle Ages - the subject of her doctoral research - has unearthed many such anecdotes. Little dogs and squirrels appear in clerical records and romances. Cats and songbirds feature in sermons and funeral monuments. Take a look around any collection of medieval art and the chances are that a veritable menagerie of pets will be peering back at you. "The moment I started looking for pets, I found them everywhere," says Walker-Meikle, a PhD student at University College London. "The National Gallery, for example, is infested with them."
The overwhelming majority seem to have been little dogs, varieties of terrier, spaniel and hound that were easily portable. There were also tame birds, such as larks and starlings, rabbits and cats, and squirrels were also very popular. Parrots and monkeys were fashionable among the rich few who could afford them.
Of course, domesticated animals were enormously important in the Middle Ages, providing food, transport and help with hunting. Pets, though, served no particularly useful purpose. They did nothing, except provide companionship. But for women and the clergy - and ultimately for the newly emerging secular scholars - this was a much cherished quality. Kept indoors, played with in gardens and sometimes fed from their owner's dining table - they were doted on.
"Pet owners invested a huge amount of emotion and often a lot of money in them," says Walker-Meikle.
Such practices disturbed many. John Bromyard, the 14th-century Dominican preacher, railed against pet owners and accused the priests who kept them of loving their animals more than their parishioners. The 13th-century Franciscan chronicler Salimbene de Adame rebuked cardinals: "You take delight only in little lapdogs."
Pets could be status symbols, displays of wealth. Walker-Meikle has found much evidence of owners kitting them out with luxuries and accessories. A dog might wear an extravagant decorated gold collar, a squirrel might have silver bells, a cat would sit on brocade cushions, and all would be fed on food that most people could only dream of eating - meat, milk and the best bread. This caught the eye of Geoffrey Chaucer, the 14th-century English writer, who wrote in The Canterbury Tales about the prioress Madame Eglentyne:
"Of smale houndes hadde she that she fedde
"With rosted flesh, or milk and wastel-breed."
Likewise, the late 13th-century chronicler Richard of Durham recounted how Robert, Bishop of Durham, kept two spoilt pet monkeys that he fed on peeled almonds. He added that this practice was customary among high prelates.
Their rich diets could put some pets at risk. The 13th-century scholar Albertus Magnus felt moved to include a guide in his encyclopaedic De Animalibus on how to help dogs overcome constipation brought on by the wrong sort of food. But for the ostentatious owner such a display of extravagance was irresistible.
Predictably, pets were popular with royalty. Queen Eleanor of Castile, consort to Edward I, was given parrots in 1289 by the Princess of Salerno. Indeed, even kings submitted to the temptation. It was not generally acceptable for a man to keep a pet. He could form a strong emotional attachment to a favourite hunting dog or warhorse. But a pet was a slur on his masculinity.
Richard II's excessive love for a greyhound, which he allowed to sleep in his bed, was much commented on by his contemporaries. But the fact that Alfonso "The Wise" of Castile was accompanied everywhere by his pet weasel - he even tied it to his saddle in a little cage when he was out riding - was overlooked because the eccentric monarch was both pious and a great patron of scholarship.
At the other end of the economic scale, there is little evidence of pet-keeping. The peasantry may not have been in a position to feed an animal that did not contribute to the household in some material way. As society changed, though, new sorts of pet owners emerged. Among them were the humanist scholars. These men were exempt from the traditional taboo on men keeping pets in the same way as the clergy were. The two professions had a great deal in common, but as far as pet-keeping was concerned, the most important aspect was that scholars' work kept them indoors and away from manual labour. Pets made ideal companions for the lonely academic.
Walker-Miekle notes: "From the 15th century onwards, it seems everyone who calls themselves a humanist is writing about their dogs and cats." From scholars' letters emerges a picture of devotion to their animals that was especially evident in the event of their deaths.
Latin pet epitaphs were circulated in the learned community and might often have prompted replies that continued the eulogies for the deceased animal. In one case, a single dog was celebrated in ten verses contributed by the friends of the scholar who had once cared for it.
Petrarch, the earliest of the great Renaissance humanists, wrote a short Latin epitaph for his dog Zabat. But that pales in comparison to the pages of verse penned by the 12th-century abbot Thierry of St Trond, who was moved to write: "Weep dogs, if you have time to weep, if you are able to weep, weep dogs: the pup Pitulus is dead... Who was Pitulus? The chief concern and grief of his master... What was his function? That his large master should love a small dog - that was his duty, to play before his master. What was the use of that? There was none, if not laughter... Whoever saw you, whoever knew you, loved you and grieves now over your demise."