Humans and Dogs in the 16th Century

Animals have been living together with humans from times immemorial. For humans, animals are a source of food, helpers in everyday chores and farming, in wars and hunting, let alone pets. Our relationship with animals reveals details of the human nature and underlines cultural peculiarities of different social classes.

As pedigree dog was more expensive than a horse

Dogs were among the earliest assistants for humans in Lithuania. Archaeological findings and written information, dating back to the late 10th century, indicate that dogs have been living in the territory of the present-day Lithuania and in the early Baltic societies since the Mesolithic period. From the mid-13th century to the 15th century, Lithuanian rulers and members of the elite would keep dogs for hunting and protection. In the Middle Ages (since the late 14th century), historical documents began distinguishing dogs by their function, but the earliest information is inconcrete.

The ruling families were among those who could afford keeping dogs in the 16th century. A fine pedigree dog has always had value. Dogs used for hunting on big game were particularly expensive, their prices ranging from 10 to 20 shocks of groats, while the more common greyhounds could fetch from 5 to 10 shocks. The First Statute of Lithuania (1529) valued a labour horse at 10 shocks, a mare at 5 shocks.

Dogs were very popular pets among the nobles, second only to horses.

The classification of dogs was based on the mediaeval traditions originating in the Grand Duchy of Moscow. Categories, groups, types, sections and breeds of dogs that we know today did not exist at that time. The First (1529) and the Second (1566) Lithuanian Statutes listed 15 categories, groups and breeds of hunter dogs and watchdogs, while the Third (1588) Statute named 13 of them. Some people also kept pet (or decorative) dogs.

Men also appreciated women’s traditional darlings

Families of the ruling elite kept decorative dogs from as early as the late 14th century. European traditions prevailed.

Women and children usually took care of pet dogs, while men treated their elite hunter dogs as pet dogs in private environment up until the late 17th century.

Later, wealthy burghers began keeping dogs as well. Historical materials from the early 17th century provide some information on the breeds of that category of dogs.

The image of a white dog resembling a Shih Tzu or a Volpino Italiano features the miniatures dedicated to the 1501 coronation of Alexander Jagiellon (1461–1506) in Pontifical, a book by the bishop of Płock, Erasm Ciołek, released in about 1510. Henry of Valois (1551–1584), the king of Poland and France and the Grand Duke of Lithuania, is famous for his passion for pet dogs. He kept some 200 dogs, mostly Papillons and Shih Tzus, in his court in Paris. Griffin and Sibyl, the hunter dogs whom their master, King Sigismund II Augustus (1520–1572), would allow into his royal halls are probably the most famous dogs in the history of the GDL. Szwan is the name of a huge dog bred in Bretagne or Milan that belonged to King Władysław IV Vasa.

Men eventually started keeping toy dogs as well as the social trends regarding the matter started changing in the middle of the 17th century.

The well-groomed darlings and the ancestors of contemporary mutts

Breeding kennels belonging to rulers of the GDL and the country’s elite families usually housed hundreds of dogs of every breed listed in the Statutes of Lithuania. Representatives of the nobility kept up to several dozen dogs, while some peasants also had dogs whom they often used in illegal hunting or daily work. Beagles and greyhounds were the two dominating breeds, but some families also kept bird-dogs and large molossi. Wealthy dog owners maintained the number of their dogs unchanged by breeding them in their kennels or accepting dogs as presents. Beagles, greyhounds as well as dogs bred in Bretagne and Milan would arrive in Lithuania from a number of different countries, including Poland, Prussia, Italy, England, Livonia, Moscow and, less often, from Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Ordinary nobles would lend, sell or steal dogs.

Royal and elite families usually hired specially trained people to take care of dogs. King Sigismund II Augustus had 20 dog keepers, while King Sigismund III Vasa had eleven of them. Many of them were people from different lands of the GDL, but sometimes kings would hire foreigners as well, including Italians and Germans. It was their job to take care of dogs during hunting and travel and to train them. In addition to that, dog keepers would bath and comb dogs and trim their hair. Short-haired dogs had special attire. Dogs of the wealthy also enjoyed the luxury of veterinary care and balanced diet, which in terms of its energetic value was better that that of the dependant peasants.

The fact that the Statutes of Lithuania single out the category of the housedog and that their prices were stable indicates that housedogs were popular and valuable pets. Housedogs were common in the elite homes, just like in less well-to-do families of the ordinary nobles, city residents and well-doing peasants. They very rarely kept pedigree dogs the majority of whom were mixed-breeds whom we call mongrels today. Some of them lived chained, others ran free and would often attack humans.

Conditional Love

The Lithuanian society of the 16th century has developed a double-edged approach to dogs. The wealthiest families kept large numbers of dogs and could afford giving them enough attention, time and money.

They have not humanised dogs, however, in contrast to their counterparts in other countries of the Renaissance culture where the cult of dogs lead to treating dogs as humans.

In the GDL, even the most dearly loved dogs had animal names, not human. A work by Jan Ostroróg, The Nomenclature of Hounds (Pol. Nomenklatura ogarów), lists in alphabetical order 313 two-syllable dog names used in the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth. Owners would choose names for their dog taking into account their behaviour and functions. Hounds often had names meaning sounds, while greyhounds bore names related to speed and roe-like ability to jump. Bielik (whity) was a small white dog owned by King Sigismund I the Old. Sigismund II Augustus’ hounds were Koler (the fierce), Ferian (ferrous), Pleszan (hairless) and Hala. King Władysław IV Vasa had a dog whose name was Szwan (a thwack).

People pursued a practical approach to dogs. Dogs very rarely appear in paintings, there are no sculptures depicting dogs from that time, there is no mention of dogs in works of fiction and they are very rare in heraldic symbols.

In the everyday language, the word “dog” mainly meant things related to scorning. Proverbs collected in the 19th and 20th century reveal similar trend because dogs appear in proverbs more often (in about 400 instances) than other animals and pets, such as horse (about 300 proverbs), wolf (160) and cat (100). In addition to that, dogs usually appear as negative characters. “Go comb dogs,” “go and let dogs bark at you,” “go and mow hay for dogs,” “do not lap your dog when it’s time to hunt,” “a dog will steal your roast if you cut yourself a long skewer,” “dog can get used even to hanging,” “if you want to beat a dog, you will find a club,” “when hungry, you would even eat a dog.” The Bychowiec Chronicle, written in the environment dominated by the Goštautas family, contemptuously calls peasants “dog blood” and mentions the nobility who swore angrily in 1561 calling each other “villains, dogs and serfs.”

In the second half of the 16th century or perhaps even earlier, the tradition of burying beloved pets started gaining popularity. On the other hand, people became more interested in decorative dogs as their relationship with pets was growing more sensitive. Simultaneously, the Lower Castle in Vilnius became a venue for bear baiting in the 16th century, as these events were popular among the ruling elite. In this respect, the society then was definitely cruel and the relations between humans and animals were difficult to comprehend.

Literature: R. Ragauskienė, „Cave canem“: žmogus ir šuo Lietuvos Didžiojoje Kunigaikštystėje XVI a., Istorija, 2010, t. 80/4, p. 21–49.

Raimonda Ragauskienė