Dr Walker-Meikle thank you so much for joining us. Would you please tell us how and when you first became interested in the medieval world, and also something of your studies to date?
I’ve always been history-mad, since a very young age, reading as much as I could get my hands on. Growing up in the Southern Hemisphere, the world of medieval Europe was one that I could only read about in books, but that did not make it any less fascinating. Later, as I was teaching myself Latin, I liked the idea of reading texts that practically no one else had read for centuries, especially ones that might only be accessible in the original manuscript form. Since my PhD, I have worked on various research projects, researching subjects as diverse as fifteenth-century Irish Latin, fifteenth-century magic, late eleventh-century pharmacology, poison treatises, and recently animal and human skin from 1450-1700 on the Renaissance Skin project at KCL.
Medieval Pets was first published in 2012. How does it feel to have it appear in paperback at last?
Very excited, I have always been very proud of the book, and I hope it delights more readers and inspires more scholars to study animals in the Middle Ages.
Going all the way back, what inspired you to write it?
Many readers assume that I was inspired by my own pets. Although I was brought up with dogs and cats, I was pet-free when I started my PhD at UCL. I had become fascinated with medieval animals during my MSc in Medieval Studies at Edinburgh (bestiaries are an excellent gateway drug to this obsession by the way) and I initially had planned to work on a medieval natural history themed PhD (something along the lines of Pliny the Elder in the Middle Ages, I recall). In my first official PhD supervision meeting, my supervisor Professor David d’Avray went off on a tangent and asked me if they kept pets in the Middle Ages. I answered that I didn’t know. He told me to go and find out. A few days later, I popped into his office unscheduled, and with a photocopy of some manuscript illuminations excitedly announced that there were tons of pets, but nobody seemed to have studied them. ‘Why don’t you do that, then?’. And there it started….
How did you go about researching it? Was evidence of pet keeping hard to find or had it simply been overlooked other researchers?
Since I started research, animal history has gone from strength to strength. There are conferences, seminar groups, and considerably more scholarship on the subject. During my PhD I often felt quite defensive and frustrated of getting told that it wasn’t a serious subject of study, just because it hadn’t been studied in detail before. I remember my heart sinking after giving a paper on gender and pets early on and the first and only question being ‘Do you have a pet?’ Scholars of medieval warfare or monasteries are not asked if they practice those subjects as hobbies! As there wasn’t much secondary literature to get me going, I started mining almost all every printed source I could find and then began on manuscript and archival material. So, it meant going through as many accounts I could access easily and trying to spot pet accessories purchased or going through chronicles trying to find pets, usually never indexed. But it meant I could find some jewels, such as the thirteenth-century Franciscan chronicles Salimbene noting that a furrier told him how he been able to trap large numbers of very tame pet cats with fine fur in towns in Northern Italy sacked by Frederick II. There was considerably less digitised material available at the time, so searching for iconography might mean just calling up many books of hours in the British Library and looking for pets in the marginalia.
It’s long been a steady seller and a popular favourite at conferences. Do you have any sense of its reception in the years since?
I’ve always been delighted to see in on display at conference stalls and for people telling me that they’ve read it and found it both knowledgeable and entertaining, which was always my aim. I wrote it so it could be read by a wide readership, basically by anyone keen on the Middle Ages, animals, or both! I would be intrigued to know if it’s on undergraduate reading lists. I do suspect that it is purchased usually by pet-owning medievalists….
Have any of your views on the subject changed in the intervening years?
Not substantially. I have at times wished that there was a little sticker on the book proclaiming ‘Early Renaissance Pets As Well!’ as I have met so many early modernists talking about animals who are not aware that the book has plenty of early Renaissance pets. This was due to two factors, firstly I spotted that by the fourteenth century, the two big pet-keeping groups, women, and clerics, are joined by male humanist scholars. If you are reading and writing all day, you naturally tend to have a little dog by your feet or a cat nibbling your papers! They also left a huge collection of Latin elegies written for their pets or their friends’ pets, only a fraction of which are in the book for space constraints, and I cheerfully went up to Justus Lipsius (d. 1606). Secondly, I was awarded a fellowship in Venice for four months and spent a great deal of time in the Gonzaga archives in Mantua and couldn’t resist including all the buying of brown tabby cats from Damascus or the elaborate cat and dog funerals at the court. Besides, as a medievalist who always has cheerfully sneaked into the sixteenth century, I’m not a big believer in the rigid temporal divisions between the two periods.
Was pet-keeping something that all classes did or was it restricted only to the affluent?
I will freely admit that most of the material in the book pertains to the aristocrats and urban middle classes, but I do believe that merely the lack of written sources on pet keeping by people of a low social-economic status does not discount that they may have kept pets. However, by its very nature a pet is animal that you are not eating (!) and keeping mainly for companionship so that does rather restrict it to those who can satisfy basic needs.
What does the keeping of pets in the Middle Ages tell us about life at the time?
I consider the study of pet keeping in any historical age / geographical area, whether it be Qing China or 18th century France, a very useful source regarding social and gender norms and behaviour, emotions, and animal-human relationships. Studying pets in the Middle Ages opens a window onto an important aspect of domestic life and lets us know how people categorised and treated animals differently, from specialist food and expensive accessories to expressions of grief when they died.
Were there such things as vets in the Middle Ages? Or did animals live shorter lives….?
Yes, there were animal care professionals, but they were dedicated to the care of horses. There are instructions and recipes for ailments and afflictions affecting dogs in hunting treatises and for trained birds of prey in falconry texts. There are also references to the care of livestock in agrarian treatises. However, it is very difficult to find sources discussing medical treatment for pets, beyond feeding and sleeping arrangements. Zooarchaeological studies has unearthed skeletons of medieval dogs with fractures that have been set or elderly infirm animals that were being cared for despite their frailty. For pet dogs, they most likely received the same treatment as hunting dogs when ill and it is probable that household pets might have received similar household remedies as the human members of the household. Although not medieval, I did write a blog about a 17th century household recipe book that gives a recipe for mange to be used for both humans and ‘little dogs’. The humans got the remedy in a glass, the pets a spoonful!
Can you tell which animals were most popular as pets? I imagine you must have found some exotic examples? Do you have any favourites?
Dogs dominated the sources, followed by cats, squirrels, monkeys and apes, and singing or talking birds. The latter included blackbirds, nightingales, and parrots. Regarding parrots, they were all ring-necked parakeets (psittacula krameri), which is the same species that is now a common sight wild in London. Only by the sixteenth century you start to see other parrots kept as pets, including ones from Brazil and the African Grey. I was always very reluctant to include most of the very exotic animals under the rubric of pets, as the majority were kept as menagerie animals. Favourite ‘unusual’ examples of include Charles VIII of France’s pet marmots (there is an account entry for a little red and tan velvet jacket for one) and the Italian artist Giovanni Antonio Bazzi self-portrait with his two pet badgers at his feet, wearing very stylish red collars with silver studs!
Do pets and animals feature in your current work, or might you return to them one day?
Animals invariably feature in my scholarly work, as I find the subject very rewarding, whether researching animals in medieval medical preparations and magical texts or medieval medical conception of animal toxicology and animal bites. In fact, my interest in the latter began when I started collecting sources on domestic dogs attacking their owners…when medieval pets go bad! Whether it is the goose of the First Crusade that many held as sacred or a saints’ helpful wild animal assistant, the sources are always so wonderful and rich. On a popular note, I have published some little books on the subject (Cats in Medieval Manuscripts, Dogs in Medieval Manuscripts, The Dog Book: Dogs of Historical Distinction, The Cat Book: Cats of Historical Distinction, and The Horse Book: Horses of Historical Distinction) and it has been rather fun to look at pets in different historical periods (I do run an animal history-focused twitter account @Medieval_Badger).
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. Naturally, we hope you have stayed well throughout the last year but how has your work been affected by lockdowns and restricted access to libraries and archives?
In 2020 I was awarded a Wellcome Trust Secondment Fellowship at the V&A which was a wonderful opportunity to work with different departments and exhibition teams, working on subjects as diverse as creating public engagement material for the museum’s social media team or writing reports on objects as diverse as Islamic talismanic shirts to 18th century court dress. I’m currently back for a few months on KCL’s Renaissance Skin project, and very glad that libraries and archives are starting to open again! During lockdown, the huge strides of digitisation that many libraries and archives have undertaken was a huge help.
Dr KATHLEEN WALKER-MEIKLE gained her PhD at University College London. She is a specialist in the history of animals and medicine in medieval and early modern Europe.