You might associate lapdogs with Instagram models but they've been a popular thing for far longer than you might think. Some medieval people kept animals just for practical reasons, dogs for guarding, horses for transportation, sheep for wool and meat, hawks for hunting.
Dogs as found in the stars, Canis Major and Canis Minor
But more exotic pets were surprisingly common. Three types of birds were raised as companions. Passeriformes (sparrows, canaries, and finches), Columbiformes (pigeons and doves), and Psittaciformes (parrots.)
Possession of a parrot meant you were moving up in the world as they needed consistent warmth all year round and fresh food, not easy to provide in a world without Walmart or central heating!
Not everyone approved of the keeping of pets. People often took their animals to church services, the sound of the pets causing such raucous noise that one guide to nuns from the 14th century forbid the sisters from taking their parrots into church any longer, writing:
"Unless need compels you, my dear sisters, and your director advises it, you must not keep any animal except a cat…Now if someone needs to keep one, let her see to it that it does not annoy anyone or do any harm to anybody, and that her thoughts are not taken up with it."
Medieval nun with pet dog
The 13th century scientist and philosopher Albertus Magnus wrote a book On Animals that tells us dogs must not be fed the food right off the dinner plate or be petted constantly else:
Merchants and shepherds tended to keep mongrel dogs but purebreeds were the domain of the upper classes. 14th century hunter Gaston de Foix wrote:
“I speak to my hounds as I would to a man…and they understand me and do as I wish better than any man of my household.” Lords might even employ dog-boys, servants who lived with the dogs in special kennels, cleaning them out daily and keeping fires lit to keep them warm. The dogs themselves were required to be taken out twice daily for walks and allowed to play “in a fair medow in the sun.”
An illustration from Gaston's guide to hunting
Lapdogs were also common in the Middle Ages, though some saw such dogs as sinful. One 16th century writer accused lapdogs of:
“being instruments of follie to play dailies withal in trifling away the treasure of time, to withdraw women’s minds from more commendable exercises.”
Medieval writer, Christine de Pizan with laptop by her side
"these canines will keep one eye on the door and one on the generous hand of the master.”
If you'd like to learn more about medieval pet keeping, this paper contains about as much information as you could ever need!
I've a daft as a brush border collie who might fail to pass medieval guard dog standards but does keep me entertained nonetheless.
Do you have any pets at home? Feel free to share a pic on my Facebook page. I'd love to meet them!