Urban Dogs at Work in the later Middle Ages

Medieval life for urban K9 are sure a lot tougher, according to Carole Rawcliffe's "Town Tykes and Butchers' Hounds". 

The medieval tradition of categorizing dogs was primarily in terms of status rather than breed.  "This, in turn, depended upon their type of occupation or “office,” with hunting dogs and “gentle” lapdogs taking pride of place over the canine equivalent of artisans and journeymen. Last of all came dogs of the “mungrell and rascall sort,” chiefly notable for their failure to “exercise any worthy property of the true perfect and gentle kind.” Some earned their keep as turnspits in kitchens, rotating the spit by means of a wheel."


"Like the urban proletariat that owned so many of them, working dogs were regarded as an essential but potentially disruptive component of daily life, their activities being tightly regulated and their misdemeanors harshly punished. Concern inevitably focused upon the sturdy creatures kept by butchers, which often seemed as truculent as their masters. Winchester’s butchers were required to keep their hounds securely chained or locked up indoors for all but a fixed time of day, although infringements were common.."

"In practice, a motley assortment of creatures, great and small, did service as guard dogs in an age when policing was often rudimentary"  "Working dogs in general, which sometimes served as ancillary weapons for personal protection, could pose a serious nuisance, and gave rise to a growing number of court cases about the trouble that they caused."

"Contemporary manuscript illuminations confirm that dogs of all shapes and sizes, generally of “the mungrell and rascall sort,” assisted the visually impaired, performing a service that rendered them invaluable."

"Most daunting among these animals, not least in terms of their sheer size, were mastiffs, which were almost certainly the dogs employed to guard London Bridge....More often, though, mastiff s were to be found on duty in workshops, storehouses and domestic premises"

"It is now impossible to tell how many of these working animals received any form of medical care when they fell ill or were injured..... ". "Sick dogs rarely prompted concern unless they threatened to infect others"

"Much of the evidence presented here reflects the “weirdly disjointed” attitude that has characterized human-canine relations throughout recorded history. Greatly valued for its loyalty and usefulness, the medieval working dog was simultaneously viewed with suspicion, being often treated in town and country alike as a disposable commodity to be cast aside once it had ceased to earn its keep"


Link to the full publication: Town Tykes and Butchers' Hounds by Carole Rawcliffe Published by Western Michigan University through its Medieval Institute Publications

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