Aleks Pluskowski praises a comprehensive exploration of domestic and captive animals in Britain in the Middle Ages
Reviewed by: Aleks Pluskowski
Author: Kathleen Walker-Meikle
Publisher: Boydell Press
Price (RRP): £25
Although the topic of pets and pet-keeping in the Middle Ages has been touched on by other scholars, this is the first book of its kind, with Walker-Meikle bringing together the fragmented sources into a novel and comprehensive survey.
Drawing on a diverse range of written sources, from inventories and medical texts through to moralising bestiaries and sermons, as well as artefacts and archaeological material, the author surveys the range of species favoured as pets in medieval western European society, with much of the emphasis on British examples. Virtually every aspect of pet-keeping is covered, from the acquisition of animals, their proper (and improper) care, forms of nourishment, reactions to their death and how they were accessorised in a society where visual display was the linchpin of social communication.
A chapter is devoted to the spaces in which pets were kept: these were essentially indoor animals, although much of the evidence for their presence, particularly in monasteries and universities, comes from decrees that forbade their keeping. The final part of the book examines pets in iconography and literature, reading as more of a miscellany, but nonetheless emphasising the association of animal companions with affluence.
The importance of this study is that it draws attention to the historical complexity of human responses to other species, particularly in the case of medieval Christian Europe which has often been regarded as a wholly human-focused society where other species were treated in purely utilitarian terms. Pets were different insofar as they fulfilled the requirements of personalised companionship as well as entertainment.
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Lavish affection was bestowed on a limited range of small indigenous and exotic animals – cats, dogs, parrots, singing birds, monkeys and even badgers – although given the scattered nature of the evidence it is extremely difficult to quantify this in absolute terms.
The familiar relationship between pets and owners that we celebrate and satirise today is strikingly brought out in this richly illustrated dossier of evidence for the medieval west, where women and clerics represented the overwhelming majority of pet-keepers.
In contrast to modern trends of memorialising or even preserving an expired favourite pet, there were no medieval pet cemeteries. However, archaeologists have occasionally encountered whole or partial animal skeletons – which may have potentially been pets – buried in pits, in contrast to the overwhelming majority of carcasses destined to be discarded along with other domestic waste.
Indeed, the difficulty of identifying the remains of pets has led some analysts to deny that pet-keeping was widespread or even a cultural phenomenon in the Middle Ages. Walker-Meikle’s lively and entertaining study challenges this notion: in a society that promoted distinct social boundaries between people, let alone across species, the pet’s status blurred the separation between human and non-human in a way that modern pet owners can undoubtedly relate to. This book is not only a milestone in the history of our obsession with pets, but also furthers our understanding of the complexity of human-animal relations in the past.
Dr Aleks Pluskowski is lecturer in medieval archaeology at the University of Reading