Greyhound History in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance



Middle Ages

Greyhounds nearly became extinct during times of famine in the Middle Ages. They were saved by clergymen who protected them and bred them for the nobility. From this point on, they came to be considered the dogs of the aristocracy. In the tenth century, King Howel of Wales made killing a greyhound punishable by death. King Canute of England established the Forest Laws in 1014, reserving large areas of the country for hunting by the nobility. Only such persons could own greyhounds; any "meane person" (commoner) caught owning a greyhound would be severely punished and the dog's toes "lawed" (mutilated) to prevent it from hunting. The value of a Greyhound exceeded that of a serf, and the punishment for causing death of a Greyhound was equivalent to the punishment for murder. In 1066 William the Conqueror introduced even more stringent forest laws. Commoners who hunted with greyhounds in defiance of these laws favored dogs whose coloring made them harder to spot: black, red, fawn, and brindle. Nobles by contrast favored white and spotted dogs who could be spotted and recovered more easily if lost in the forest. It became common among the English aristocracy to say, "You could tell a gentleman by his horses and his greyhounds." Old paintings and tapestries of hunting feasts often include greyhounds.

Hunting in Europe and Asia with specially bred and trained dogs was the sport of nobles and the clergy, in large part because they owned or controlled much of the land suitable for hunting. There's little evidence that the common man in the Middle Ages used dogs to hunt. Hunting with sighthounds in this era hadn't changed much since the time of Romans like Arrian. It was a sport, not the serious pursuit of food, which pitted the hounds against the hare and against each other.

Dogs in general were at times looked down upon in the Middle Ages, while greyhounds were highly valued. Vincent of Beauvais, in the mid- thirteenth century, identified three types of dog: hunting dogs, with drooping ears, guard dogs, which are more rustic than other dogs, and greyhounds, which are "the noblest, the most elegant, the swiftest, and the best at hunting."

The greyhound was used as an emblem, often in tombs, at the feet of the effigies of gentlemen, symbolizing the knightly virtues (faith), occupations (hunting) and generally the aristocratic way of life. Where tombs are concerned, the greyhound always was associated with knighthood (along with the lion, symbolizing strength) and never with ladies, who generally were associated with the little lap-dog (symbol of marital faithfulness and domestic virtue).

The greyhound is the first breed of dog mentioned in English literature. The monk in Geoffrey Chaucer's 14th century The Canterbury Tales reportedly spent great sums on his greyhounds:

Greyhounds he hadde as swifte as fowel in flight;
Of prikyng and of huntyng for the hare
Was al his lust, for no cost wolde he spare.

Edmund de Langley's Mayster of Game, AD 1370, describes the ideal greyhound ( read an excerpt). Langley presented this book to the future King Henry V of England. Henry reportedly was a big fan of greyhounds; perhaps Shakespeare knew this when, two centuries later, he had Henry speak the quote below.

We don't know for certain where or when the term greyhound originated. It probably dates to the late middle ages. It may come from the old English "grei-hundr," supposedly "dog hunter" or high order of rank. Another explanation is that it is derived from "gre" or "gradus," meaning "first rank," so that greyhound would mean "first rank among dogs." Finally, it has been suggested that the term derives from Greekhound, since the hound reached England through the Greeks. A minority view is that the original greyhound stock was mostly grey in color, so that the name simply refers to the color of the hound.



Image: Desportes, Portrait of the
Artist in Hunting Dress Renaissance artists considered the greyhound a worthy subject. The works of Veronese, Uccello, Pisanello and Desportes, among others, depict greyhounds in a variety of setting from sacred to secular, with an emphasis on the hunt. The image to the right is "Portrait of the Artist in Hunting Dress" by Desportes.

Coursing races, with dogs chasing live rabbits, became popular during the sixteenth century. Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603) had Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, draw up rules judging competitive coursing. These rules established such things as the hare's head start and the ways in which the two hounds' speed, agility and concentration would be judged against one another. Winning was not neccesarily dependent on catching the hare (although this did earn a high score). Often the hare escaped. Wagers were commonly placed on the racing dogs. Read the Renaissance rules of coursing, taken from a sixteenth century book by Gervase Markham, with interpretations of their meanings. These rules were still in effect when the first official coursing club was founded in 1776 at Swaffham, Norfolk, England. The rules of coursing have not changed a great deal since this time.

The English sport of coursing -- hunting by sight instead of scent -- has roots in ancient Greece, and is a sport valued for the contest more than the catching of the prey. The Greek historian Arrian wrote more than 1800 years ago: "For coursers, such at least as are true sportsmen, do not take their dogs out for the sake of catching a hare, but for the contest and sport of coursing, and are glad if the hare meets with an escape."

Unlike Elizabeth, King James I (1566-1625) preferred hunting to hard work. He was an avid fan of greyhound coursing. Having heard about the strength of the local hares, he brought his greyhounds to the village of Fordham near the border of Suffolk and Cambridge. This was not a public exhibition, but a private competition between the king's greyhounds observed by James and his court. He stayed at the Griffin Inn in the nearby town of Newmarket. He enjoyed the coursing there so much that he built a hunting lodge in Newmarket. To maintain the quality of hunting, in 1619 he ordered the release of 100 hares and 100 partridges every year at Newmarket. Races between the horses of his followers became as important as the matches between the king's greyhounds. This began the tradition of competitive racing in Newmarket.

Dr. Caius' notes to the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner, written in 1570, describe the appearance and abilities of the English greyhound (read an excerpt). In the late sixteenth century, Gervase Markham wrote that greyhounds

are of all dogs whatsoever the most noble and princely, strong, nimble, swift and valiant; and though of slender and very fine proportions, yet so well knit and coupled together, and so seconded with spirit and mettle, that they are master of all other dogs whatsoever.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) mentioned greyhounds in a number of his plays. In Henry V Henry's speech to his troops just before the Battle of Harfleur compares people to coursing greyhounds:

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start.
The game's afoot.

By the close of the sixteenth century, the world had changed significantly. Feudalism had ended allowing commoners freedom of movement unknown for a thousand years. City dwellers increased in number. By this time many more people were able to own game dogs such as greyhounds. As the number of middle class persons expanded, so did the need for cleared land. Dense forests and swamps were giving way to planting land, pastures, and towns. These new fields brought infiltration by hares, foxes, and badgers. The need to exterminate unwanted animals led to breeding of cast-off greyhounds (and other breeds) of the upper classes.


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