If you resisted the temptation to purchase a dog for Christmas why not consider buying one now? Here is a selection of those that you can even date back to our period of interest. There are many others of course: some like the Dalmatian had gone out of fashion and some were only to be found in other countries at the time, like the Labrador that existed only in Canada. The famous poodle ‘Boy’ that accompanied Rupert on his campaigns, though a German dog by descent deserves a special mention. There will of course have been many mongrels too.
The three most mentioned dogs of the period - hounds, greyhounds and spaniels - are introduced here by the great Bard himself:
Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men; As hounds, and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs, Shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves, are clept All by the name of dogs: the valued file Distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle, The housekeeper, the hunter, every one According to the gift which bounteous nature Hath in him closed. Macbeth Act 3, Sc. i
Dame Juliana Berners (Barnes or Bernes), a prioress from St Albans, wrote the earliest list of breeds to be printed in English in 1486. " Thyse ben the names of houndes, fyrste there is a Grehoun, a Bastard, a Mengrell, a Mastiff, a Lemor, a Spanyel, Raches, Kenettys, Teroures, Butchers' Houndes, Myddyng dogges, Tryndel-taylles, and Prikherid currys, and smalle ladyes' poppees that bere awaye the flees." There is not much attempt at classification, but her treatise illustrated the importance attached even at that time to certain breeds of dogs and their purpose. We can still recognise the nomenclature to this day, though keeping a puppy (poppee: meaning a small dog such as a lap/toy dog) to fend off the fleas may seem a little odd to us now.
So popular was Juliana's book that it ran to several impressions throughout the sixteenth century. During this time Dr. Johannes Caius’ learned contribution was published in 1570. His was the earliest attempt at a complete classification of dogs: De Canibus Britannicus. Caius was the physician to Queen Elizabeth I and the founder of Caius College Cambridge. The book, originally written in Latin, was translated into English in 1576. Caius created the classifications of Venatice, and Aucupatorii for hunting dogs: "The first findeth game on the land. The other findeth game on the water”.
Venatice were used for hunting beasts:Leverarws, or Harriers (originally foot hounds for hunting rabbits and later adapted to fox hunting).Terrarius, or Terrars (from terra firma or ‘earth dog’: terrier)Sanguinarius, or BloodhoundsAgaseus, or Gazehounds (sight hounds)Leporanus, or Grehounds (greyhounds)Loranus, or Lyemmer (chosen hounds kept on a ‘lyam’ (leash) and used to scent out prey or criminals, before launching the running hounds)Vertigus, or Tumbler (small lurcher that strikes when level with prey and not from behind like the traditional lurcher)Cams furax, or Stealer (?)
Aucupatorii were used for hunting fowl:Hispaniolus or Spaniell (spaniels with ‘red’ spots or French ones with lots of black spots)Index or Setter (pointer/setter)Aquaticus sevinquisitor or Water Spaniell or finder (poodle)
Spaniell Gentle, or Comforter (toy dog, spaniel)
Canis pastoralis, or the Shepherd’s Dogge
Canis Villaticus or Carbenarius, the Mastive, or Bandogge.
Mongrels: Admonitor, or Wapp (?)Vernepator or Turnespet (turnspit)Saltator or Dauncer (Dancing/entertaining dog)
We have illustrations from the period that depict all of the above but here I can only include a selection. I have included a photograph of the spaniel as that is better than any I can find in period paintings.
This dog was the choice guard dog for centuries. Particularly obsessed with change, the dog would become quite agitated and bark whenever the status quo was compromised. Though big and strong, it is a gentle giant and would rarely bite intruders, preferring to sit on them instead. In the picture it appears to be three times the body weight of the seven-year-old future Charles II, who makes the regal gesture of placing his hand on the head of the mighty beast.
Anthony Van Dyck, Children of Charles I, 1637
Looking on is the King Charles spaniel, a favourite of the royal family. This toy dog is very popular even today.
Barnaby Googe writes of the mastiff in 1631: The mastie that keepeth the house. For this purpose you must provide you such a one as hath a large and mightie body, a great and shrill voyce, that both with his barking he may discover, and with his sight dismaye the theefe, yea, being not seene, with the horror of his voyce put him to flight. His stature must neither be too long nor short, but well set; his head, great, his eyes sharp and fiery, either browne or grey; his lippes, blackish, nether jaw, fat and comming out of it on either side a fang appearing more outward than his other teeth, even with his neather, not hanging too much over, sharpe and hidden with his lippes; his countenance, like a lion; his brest, great and shag hayrd; his sholders, broad; his legges, bigge, his tayle, short; his feet very great. His disposition must neither be too gentle nor too crust, that he neither faune upon a theefe nor flee upon his friends; very waking; no gadder abroad, nor lavish of his mouth, barking without cause.
The name comes from Espaniole, or ‘Spanish’. The Elizabethans brought these useful hunters over from mainland Europe and there are many references to them during our period. King James made a proclamation on entering England that he should have a spaniel for hunting. Though Dr Caius categorises them as water dogs, they have come to be used for small ground game and bird shooting now that weapons are more accurate. It is common now for them to have docked tails but I can find no mention of that in the period at all but there is a mention to 'red' patches and not brown. Since the common modern description is 'Liver and White' I assume the early references meant a reddish brown rather than red proper.
In days when weapons were less accurate the greyhound was like a guided missile. Point it in the right direction and it will chase down a rabbit at full pelt. They need little general exercise and eat only what they require to remain fit. Such a dog was economical and sleek.
The ancient Britons had crossed smooth-coated greyhounds with heavier dogs to produce large rough-coated animals that could catch up with and bring down a deer. The dogs of Queen Elizabeth’s day made entertaining sport to watch, and she loved to watch greyhounds coursing deer. The greyhound was always seen as an aristocratic animal; nobles would allow them into their private rooms and even take them to church with them. At varying times throughout history people who were not of noble birth were not allowed to own one. Some were sight hounds that could see prey from a gread distance and others could sniff out a trail. The one pictured is a fairly typical grey hound that can be found today.
James Stuart, Duke of Richmond and Lennox, Anthony Van Dyck 1634
Sometimes prey will go to ground, and underground game hunting requires small robust dogs like terriers. The dog in this picture looks like such a dog. Many small dogs like these were known as ratters or rat catchers. Being small, they probably prevented more food from being stolen by vermin than they ate themselves.
Le Nain Brothers, The Peasant Meal, 1642
Nicholas Cox (The Gentleman’s Recreation, 1667) suggests that the working terrier as a sporting dog could be divided into two types, one having a shaggy coat and straight legs, the other a smooth coat and short bent legs. Blome wrote in the same publication, “some will say that the terrier is a peculiar species of itself. I will not say anything to the affirmative or negative of the point."
Mongrel or Turnspit
Le Nain Brothers, The Supper at Emmaus, 1645
We know that many stray dogs were rounded up and killed during the Great Plague, and if dogs wandered freely, there must have been many mongrel types. One type was commonly known as the ‘turnspit’, whose job was literally to turn the spit so that the meat was evenly cooked. The work was long in a warm kitchen, so the dogs were small, muscular and short-haired. They usually worked in pairs on alternate days, in specially-designed wall mounted large versions of a hampster wheel. Since one dog would work a specific day such as Monday, Wednesday Thursday and Saturday, the Turnspit is thought to be the source of the phrase ‘every dog has its day’. The breed died out in the early nineteenth century when such work became obsolete.
Dr. Caius wrote of the turnspit that 'when any meat is to be roasted they go into a wheel, where they, turning about with the weight of their bodies, so diligently look to their business that no drudge nor scullion can do the feat more cunningly, whom the popular sort hereupon term Turnspits.'
In this seventeenth century religious scene a mongrel dog has been chosen to complete the picture with a circle of faces around the central table.
The famous dog ‘Boy’ was given to Prince Rupert by the English Ambassador to Vienna when he was imprisoned in the castle at Linz. With no access to hunting, the poodle may well have been a perfect ‘comforter’ for the incarcerated Prince but was it a toy dog? Certainly the Roundheads would not have wanted to promote the fact that they had killed a cute little comforter at the Battle of Marston Moor, and the propaganda engine got to work on the witch that turned herself into a white poodle when Rupert swore allegiance with the devil. Rupert was said to sleep with his dog and also discuss tactics during his campaigns. The dog was ‘seen’ to snatch bullets out of mid-air when aimed at its master and one attempt to kill it found the dagger slipping off the dog’s back as though wearing metal armour. Many thought the decline in Rupert’s success after Marston Moor was down to the loss of his evil canine counsellor and protector.
A picture says a thousand words however, and in this etching on a London pamphlet we can see the dog is an average-sized poodle of the time. It is not a toy dog or a large hunting dog, and is more likely to be the kind described by Dr Caius as a dog for hunting water fowl and ‘namely powlde and notted from the shoulders to the hindermost legges, and to the end of his tayle, which I did for use and customs cause, that being as it were made somewhat bare and naked, by shearing of such superfluitie of heare, they might atchive the more lightness, and swiftnesse, and be lesse hindered in swymming.’
Markham adds that the perfect water dog (poodle) should have ‘all his four feet spacious to the claw, like a water duck’ and ‘cutting or shaving him from the navel downward….or backward… is two ways well to be allowed of: that is, for summer hunting, or for water. Because these water dogs naturally are ever most laden with hair on the hinder parts … yet this defence in the summer time by the violence of the heat of the sun, and the greatness of the dog's labour is very noisome and troublesome ... And so likewise in matter of water, it is a very heavy burden to the dog, and makes him swim less nimbly and slower.”
I have tried to avoid focusing too much on hunting because it can sometimes offend the modern ear, but early classification was based very much on the function of a dog rather than the companionship it gave. Dr Caius commented however that ‘Nobles, Lordes, Ladies, &c., who make much of them vouchsafeing to admit them so farre into their company, that they will not onely lull them in theyr lappes, but kysse them with their lippes, and make them theyr prettie playfellows.’
People in the twenty first century might be surprised to hear that a Puppy (small dog) is ideal to ward off the fleas and that a Turnspit is a dog that keeps the joint turning. There are many books about the modern characteristics of these dogs that have survived as breeds for centuries. With an understanding of the abilities of such dogs, alongside their seventeenth century personae, a great seventeenth century dog could be chosen for life.
Berners, Juliana, The Book of St. Albans. Reprint of 1496 edition. New York, 1966.
Caius, Johannes, Of Englishe Dogges, the Diversities, the Names, the Natures, and the Properties. Trans. Abraham Fleming (1576). Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1969.
Cox, Nicholas, The Gentleman’s Recreation (1677). Yorkshire: E.P. Publishing, 1973
Markham, Gervase, (1621), Hungers Prevention: or The Whole Arte of Fowling by Water and Land, pp. 29; 32; 67-88.
Rogers, Katharine, First Friend:A History of Dogs and Humans. St Martins Press, 2005.