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Pets in the Middle Ages: Evidence from Encyclopedias and Dictionaries

By Kristen M. Figg

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When trying to gather reliable information about animals as pets in the Middle Ages, modern scholars immediately come up against a major cultural barrier. As Klaus Weimann points out in his preface to the volume Middle English Animal Literature, medieval people “lived … in close contact with several species of animals both wild and domestic,” but because they believed in a hierarchical scheme of existence with animals on a parallel plane below humans, they tended to think about animals as if they were a counterpart to human society (vii). Thus they wrote about them most often in ways meant to instruct, describing them in bestiaries, fables, or tales like the Roman de Renart with a moralizing intent, rather than conveying information as if they had interest in the animals themselves. While we are able to find images in art and references in hagiography and narrative literature to many animals who lived in close proximity with their owners and whose relations with humans suggest that they had special status, the examples tend towards the exceptional or even the symbolic, so that we are never sure that we are seeing a dependable representation of how people in general thought about animals that we, today, consider to be “pets.” Indeed, the lack of a word for pets, which extended well into the modern period, suggests that we may be taking for granted a lexical domain that did not exist, as such, in the Middle Ages. Thus, it is instructive to see what we can find out from looking directly at early dictionaries, word histories, and medieval encyclopedic works, where animals are discussed in ways that might more closely suggest their roles in relation to human society in the High to Late Middle Ages.


Katie Carroll

Date 2013
Publication Title Enarratio: Publications of the Medieval Association of the Midwest
Volume 18
Pages 23
Publisher The Ohio State University
Language English
Additional Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal roles
  2. Animals in culture
  3. Animals in literature.
  4. Books
  5. Encyclopedias
  6. History
  7. Pet ownership
  8. Pets and companion animals