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Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Dogs of the Medieval/Renaissance Hunt

Renaissance and Medieval hunting; the hunting dogs of the period. 

There were two forms of hunting; with stable and bow, and ‘par force de chien’, by the use of dogs.
Stable and bow meant that the hunters rode out to try to bring down their quarry with bows and arrows; it was not considered as prestigious as hunting par force which involved the huntsmen tracking the deer or other quarry by its spoor to know where to go and then setting the dogs to chase it down while the noble ‘hunters’ followed on. It was considered good sport if the chase was long, though I hate to think what all that adrenaline and hard running might have done to the meat even without our modern minds considering the cruelty of this method.  However, this was a means to fill in the idle hours for the idle rich and pragmatic consideration of the state of the meat probably did not enter into it.
The hunt was so popular that it was often celebrated in song, some of which songs, like ‘Blow thy Horn Hunter’ were allegories of the pursuit of romance in which the huntsman is in hot pursuit of a doe, harrying her until she gives up at which point he can stick his weapon in her.  Hmm, very romantic. [I’ve put the lyrics at the bottom of this blog, an excellent version may be had from Tania Opland]. Incidentally, there are a lot of medieval illustrations as tapestries and in supposedly devotional books etc which show the hunting of the unicorn; this mythical beast symbolised purity and virginity so showing it hunted is a pretty fair indication of what was intended for that as an ideal.  Unicorns, like foxes and otters, were hunted only for sport not the table.

Again, as plenty has been written about the hunt, beyond this brief introduction I thought I’d write about the dogs involved, each breed optimised for a particular quarry.  Note: there was no formal writing about breeds until 1570, so there was no particular regulation of any breed and there is a lot of uncertainty about the precise nature of many.  What may be certain is that the hounds had kennels far superior in warmth and comfort to the homes of many peasants and tender medical care few but the wealthy might hope to receive.

Alaunt/Alan  A large dog introduced from Spain, mentioned by Chaucer; were used against bears or boars.  Originally coming from central Asia they spread through Europe with the onslaught of the Vandals with the Alans which gave the dogs their name, Alaunt being applied to a working dog more than to a specific breed initially. However being bred as war dogs, protectors of families and hunters of large game a general body type became set. There were three distinct types in Medieval Europe; the Alaunt Gentil, a lither, faster variant with much in common with the greyhound; the Alaunt de Bucherie, used to guard livestock, and the Alaunt Vautre [Veantre], an aggressive hunting dog, also known as the running mastiff or as a boarhound. It was a cross between the lighter Gentil for its speed and the heavy de Bucherie.   The Alaunt de Bucherie is the progenitor of the mastiff and bull breeds. 

Basset  bred by monks in France to hunt rabbit in heavy cover where their short legs and powerful bodies were an advantage. ‘Bas’ means low.

Beagle This breed predates the Romans and may be very ancient indeed.  It was used to hunt the hare which does not go to ground as the rabbit does.  The beagle’s tendency to ‘sing’ when it has the scent of its prey enabled a canny hunter who knew the terrain to guess where the hare might double back.  Glove Beagles were an affectation of the 14th and 15th centuries, small enough to fit in a glove and were kept as packs; Pocket Beagles, 9” tall at the withers, were ladies’ hunting dogs and could ride in front of their mistress on the saddle.  Possibly from the Gaelic ‘beag’ meaning ‘small’.

Griffon see spaniel.

Harrier described as ‘like a beagle on speed’; similar to the foxhound, the first documented pack was in 1260, but this breed was mostly confined to Western England and Wales.

Irish hound/ Wardog/wolf dog [Irish wolfhound] A breed whose origins are lost in the mists of antiquity, probably the hound which features in Irish folktale.

Kenet/Kennet   MAY be the Beagle. The name derives from the diminutive of ‘Chien’[Norman French ‘ken’ cf Picard ‘kien’], a dog, therefore being ‘little dog’. The word ‘kennel’ derives from the same source which is Old Norman French where the ‘ch’ has a hard sound.

Levrier [Greyhound]  A very ancient breed; in earlier times a greyhound was worth more than a serf.  They were used for hunting and coursing because of their speed.  

Lymer [Bloodhound] Used to hunt wild boar and stag, though sometimes replaced after 1526 by the Spanish Mastiff.  It was mostly prized for its scenting ability.  Originally called a Lymehound, the Lymer was the leash securing it to the harbourer or dog handler. 

Spaniel/Barbet/Water Dog The European water spaniel was bred and refined between about 1300 and 1600.  It was used to flush game for falcons or for hounds and retrieved water birds being adept swimmers.  The original ones had the characteristic floppy ears and were black and white or liver and white.  From this was developed the Springer Spaniel around 1576. The water spaniel is a heavier bodied dog than later breeds with a coat that is more dense and may be curly rather than silky. This is logged in 1758 as the difference between a spaniel and a barbet, that the spaniel has long hair and the barbet has curly hair, though earlier there may have been no differentiation.  The barbet is a progenitor of the poodle originally called Pudel and included as one of the water dogs . A sub species of the spaniel types is the Griffon which does not have curly hair.  The illustration is usually tagged as poodle. The name Spaniel derives from the French l’espagnole, as the water dog originated in Spain and may have been developed by the Moors. 

Talbot Hound brought to England from France during the Norman conquest and are considered the ancestors of the Southern Hound, the modern Beagle and the Foxhound. It was also a name often used as a given name to a dog. It is extinct today and appears to have had much in common with the bloodhound, and was probably white, being heavier in build than its descendants.

Terrier Very little different to a modern terrier.  Used to control pests like rats, rabbits and foxes; larger ones were used to hunt badgers. 

Blow thy Horn, Hunter

Blow thy horn, hunter, and blow thy horn on high.
There is a doe in yonder wood, in faith she will not die

Now blow thy horn, hunter, now blow thy horn jolly hunter.

Sore this deer stricken is, and yet she bleeds no whit,
She lay so fair, I could not miss. Lord I was glad of it...

As I stood under a bank the deer shoff on the mede
I struck her so that down she sank, but yet she was not dead...

There she goeth, see ye not how she goeth o'er the plain,
And if ye lust to have a shot, I warrant her barrain...

To the covert both they went, for I found where she lay.
An arrow in her haunch she hent for faint she might not bray...

Here I leave and make an end now of this hunter's lore
I think his bow is well unbent, his bolt may flee no more...


  1. Oh man, this was fascinating!! So I have a few questions...first, I'm intrigued by the way all the names that stuck for these animals are in old French or other vernacular Eurpean languages, despite the evidence that some protocols of the hunt have to have been much earlier than that (think of the Roman legends of Diana, & the Greek legends of Artemis..clearly the customs of hunting, and even the class element to it were way do we have the Latin and Greek for any of these dogs???

    Second, I apologize for this refers to an earlier post, but I got a query today from someone who was wondering about the warning against playing chess that is included in a Hanseatic league manual for young prospective merchants...that is, they are warned aginst gambling and women, and CHESS...and my question is, do you have any idea why chess would be on the "don't" list???

    back to the dogs...wondering whether this is part of the way dogs are considered worthy animals, in comparison to cats, who are associated with sexuality, when they are brought into upper and middle-class homes as pets in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries...and if there is a rationale for which dogs are likely to be further domesticated into non-hunting companion pets, as opposed to dogs that, even today, are understood to be primarily hunting animals...

    anyway, thank you so much for this great post!!!


    1. There certainly is much literature about dogs and hunting in the roman and greek antiquity. Just to cite two, the greek Xenophon's Cynegeticus a short treatise on hunting, and the roman/greek Arrian, also known as "The younger Xenophon, who also wrote a Cynegeticus, this time on coursing with the Celt Hound (the greyhound), An interesting book with a huge amount of citations (and an english translation of Arrian) can be found here:

      Antonius Canis Leporarius

  2. As I understand it, French was just upper class, English the despised Saxon lower class, English was not spoken at court until Henry IV was the first King to take his oath in English. Militarily this linguistic apartheid may be seen too since the ranks of the officers are essentially French and other ranks are essentially English. Hunting was an upper class activity so the language was chosen accordingly. Moreover books on hunting of the time were written in French and so it was just common to use the terminology from the books. Notably the animal with a Latin name, the terrier [from Terra, earth, because of digging out rats and rabbits] is NOT a prestigious dog [and was probably used as pest control initially by monks, hence the name?]

    I can't say for certain but I should imagine that the warning against chess playing was probably to do with gambling associated with it as gambling was often associated with any competitive pastime. Being a game of the intelligentsia I'd hazard a guess that the stakes would be higher than more common forms of betting too. The chess pieces were pretty massive too, and grievous bodily harm or murder by chess piece was not unknown if tempers ran high.

    Dogs and cats alike had long been domestic pets as well as working animals in the medieval period [like the little dog of the Prioress in Canterbury tales], cats as vermin catchers in their working role. The whole hysteria about cats probably arose from the way cats are independent and will stare disconcertingly leading to all sorts of superstition, especially about black cats; backed by the likelihood that the old woman most likely to be accused of witchcraft was likely to have a cat as a companion because a cat is a perfect pet for someone a little infirm as it will take itself for walks. Even today pet shelters find it harder in to shift black cats; and if you go look on 'I can haz Cheezburger' you'll find captions on black kitties about being minions of evil...

  3. Murder by chess piece, really???

    Norman French lives on in the language of common law, of course...reminding us that when we say justice is inflected by power relationships we are speaking literally as well as figuratively!!!

    I had forgotten about the prioress's dog...but once again, many thanks for this informative post, and your learned reply!!!


  4. Hello Sarah, I'm so glad you commented on my blog because it brought me to yours! It looks wonderful-I'm going to thoroughly explore it and check back often.

  5. Sarah could you link the sources for the hunting dogs info because i need to cite this for a school project.

  6. hey i need the websites for the hunting dog article so i could cite of a school projet!

  7. Sources:
    I should have done this to start off with, the trouble is I accumulated a load of stuff from different sources and scrawled it into my research file...

    Geary, Michael: Purnell's Pictorial Encyclopaedia of Dogs Purnell Books, Maidenhead 1978

    Chaucer, Geoffrey: Canterbury Tales, various editions [Alaunt and greyhound]

    Edward of Norwich: The Master of Game c1400 available as a pdf here:

    Spartan Dogs [spaniels] some about Greyhounds

    I did use Wiki as well

    I also used a printout about the values of animals in the middle ages [for purposes of fines if hurt or killed] which I had before my last computer died and I can't find the wretched thing.
    aha! gottit! animal-prices-msg - 3/27/00 Lists of the prices/value of various ...

    hope that helps, I haven't found all the sources but I think this covers most

  8. thank you so much

  9. You're welcome! Good luck with your project.

  10. I realize this blog is almost a year old, but felt compelled to comment on the use of hunting as a "means to fill in the idle hours for the idle rich." Hunting was a bonding experience for the men (and dogs and horses) and accustomed them to blood letting and the concept of hunting as a metaphor for warfare. Everyone (and every animal) had a specific place in the hunt, just as everyone had a place on the battlefield. Basically it re-inforced the religious medieval view of the world--everyone has their place and one aspect of your way to heaven was to do what God had ordained for you to do. Consider it was also a social bonding event with other rulers; and, if a man is good at hunting he will be good at warfare and someone you can trust to get your back. A great deal of the medieval period was chaotic and wandering knights/knaves who had no affiliation to God or country(manor or kingdom) could be dangerous to every element of society.

  11. Thank you for an interesting addition!

  12. Amusingly enough, your blog post here popped up because I'm working on a project around medieval Wales (specifically 14th C). It's amusing because I keep forgetting to follow this blog after reading your fanfic for years! (I've now fixed that...)

  13. I hope some of it was useful... there IS somewhere on the net a list of fines for killing/maiming beasts which is from 13th century Wales IIRC which I used to extrapolate some prices/values. I have it in printout [and amazingly I DO know where that is] so if you can't find it and desperately need it, pm me on FF and I'll let you have my email and I'll scan and send it.

  14. I have plans to send Felicia and Robin - ok, original fic not fanfic - to Shrewsbury at some point so I will be doing more research but that will be later, of course, 16th century. I already named someone they met Cordelia from the Welsh Cordula. In book 21. Ok, so I'm preparing to publish book 3....

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  17. thank you, glad you enjoyed

  18. Sarah,
    In the painting of the Bear Hunt, the two black and white dogs at far left are a kind that often appear in 17th c. Flemish hunt scenes. Can you tell me what kind of dog it is?

    Many thanks!

  19. So far as I am aware, all the large dogs in that picture are Alaunts of some kind. I cannot find a larger picture to be sure, enlarging it looks as though they are the same body and face shape as the others. They are a kind of mastiff, so that may be what is being depicted.

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  24. You have shared here great point here, thanks

  25. Just a note here, I've looked at working dogs of the hunt, we all know about sheepdogs, but a little-known working dog developed in the renaissance [possibly in response to the lack of cheap labour after the plague?] was the spit dog - here is an excellent article regarding the same.