Review: Our Dogs, Our Selves

Gelfand, Laura D., ed. Our Dogs, Our Selves: Dogs in Medieval and Early Modern Art, Literature, and Society. Art and Material Culture in Medieval and Renaissance Europe 6. Leiden: Brill 2016. Pp. xxxv, 446. €170,00 ISBN: 978-9-00426-916-3.

Reviewed by Karl Steel
Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York

[for The Medieval Review]

This fifteen-chapter anthology, originating in several sessions at Kalamazoo’s International Medieval Conference, is self-consciously a labor of love, its author biographies often furnished with photos, not of the writers, but of their dogs. Focused chiefly on the social and especially the art history of medieval and early modern Europe, each of its chapters, if read one after another, tend to be repetitive, as nearly all include a summary of the common features of medieval dog writing: we learn often about standard exegesis of the Bible’s dogs (predictably in bono and, especially on the matter of returning to their vomit, in malo), that dogs were praised especially for their loyalty, that large dogs tend to be coded masculine, small dogs as feminine, and that the status of dogs followed that of their owners. It is, then, the particular content of each chapter, as particular as dogs themselves, that saves the volume from repetitiveness: since so few animals, human or otherwise, can boast such extraordinary variety in size, purpose, and comportment, and since so few can belong so comfortably in so many environments, the possibilities for considering “dogs and x” in medieval cultures may well be inexhaustible. Every reader interested in dogs will therefore feel the absence of their favorites. I wanted considerations of Theodorich of St Trond’s eleventh-century poem for his Pitulus, a little dog praised for having no purpose but to play, or the equally charming dog of the Book of Tobit, the loyal companion of the Middle English Sir Tryamour, the whelp of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, or the tragedy of Guinefort, or, for that matter, the few headstones to pet dogs from the classical world, like the second-century grave stele for Helena at the Getty Museum (Object 71.AA.271) or a Greek example at the archaeological museum of Istanbul (Inv. 411 T), dedicated to Parthenope.[1] But the very fact that I missed all this, yet found so much that I otherwise would not have known to miss, is evidence enough of how much more work we can still do in dog studies.

The volume is sorted into five sections: Literal and Literary Dogs (ranging from Greek encomia, to the urban dogs of England and France, to those of Sufi literature); Signs, Symbols, and Dogs (the Bayeux Embroidery and Barocci’s counter-Reformation painting); Love and Dogs (further art history, with a lapdog in the Morgan Old Testament, Giotto’s dogs in the Scrovegni Chapel, and a set of hunting dogs in a late-medieval marriage allegory); Death and Dogs (three chapters on dogs in funerary monuments); and finally Good Dogs and Bad Dogs (ranging from a survey of nearly two thousand years of Japanese dog culture, to dogs as aristocratic accessories in late medieval Europe, to Walter S. Gibson’s study of the infernal dogs of late medieval Dutch writing and art).

For this reviewer, John Block Friedman’s contribution stands out. Far more wide ranging than its title suggests (“Dogs in the Identity Formation and Moral Teaching Offered in Some Fifteenth-Century Manuscript Miniatures”), its payoff here is less its several conclusions (for example, that the dog was “thought to be far more feudal than cats” and that the collared dog shows “rational control over the instinctual side of nature”) than the fact that it covers much of the same ground as several other chapters in this volume, but so much more thoroughly. As one would expect from Friedman, its footnotes are a treasure.

Alexa Sand provides a satisfying entry on the Morgan or Crusader Bible (Morgan Library, MS M.638), that, like Friedman’s chapter, could happily find its way onto a syllabus. Although this manuscript is typically read for its relationship to chivalric narrative and crusader concerns, Sand finds new opportunities by attending to the presence and absence of a little dog in the arms of Michal, daughter of King Saul and David’s first wife, a victim of dynastic politics. When they first meet, Michal carries a little dog; in her few subsequent appearances, after she has been forcibly reunited with David, the dog is absent. Sand quite rightly takes the dog in the first image as a sign of her courtliness, as, by the thirteenth century, small dogs were among the essential accouterments of noblewomen. However, by reading Michal’s gesture alongside similar gestures of the Virgin Mary holding her infant son, Sand extends the reading to account both for Michal’s childless and ultimately unhappy marriage to King David, and also, more tentatively, for a common plight of noblewomen during crusades, often bereft of their husbands for years on end. In this rich article, then, the dog functions as much a sign of courtier comforts as it does of neglect and sadness.

I was also impressed by the two chapters that mined urban records of dogs for Northern Europe, Emily Cockayne’s on medieval and early modern England, and Kathleen Ashley’s, much more specifically, on the Burgundian town of Beaune. The chapter on England discovered, for example, that whatever the legislative anxiety over the problems of stray dogs, particularly during time of plague, actual human deaths from dogs were quite rare. From police dogs to butchers’ dogs to nuisance dogs of all sorts, Cockayne’s wonderfully recreates the dog-rich environs of English cities. Ashley, by contrast, encounters a surprising paucity of dog records, especially in wills and urban documents, hinting at the need for more comparative work on the varying dog cultures of England and France.

Craig A. Gibson, Nathan Hofer, and Karen M. Gerhart all effectively presented material unfamiliar to a medievalist focused on Western Europe. Gibson summarizes several dog encomia from the ancient Greeks through to medieval Greek and late medieval Latin humanist writings, describing the standard features of an unfamiliar genre: hunting praise is common, but not universal, for example, and some paeans to dogs single out their barking as uniquely meaningful among animal noises. In the 1420s, Leon Battista Alberti even transforms his subject into an exemplar of the humanist itself, famous for its knowledge of Greek, Latin, and Etruscan. Hofer complicates the mistaken notion that Islam is hostile to dogs. After considering several positive references to dogs in the Qur’ān and its commentaries, and after pointing out that while dogs are ritually impure, so too is sleep, Hofer concentrates on Egyptian Sufi storytelling, in which the very degraded position of dogs allows mystics to engage with them as holy fools. Gerhart’s ambitious chapter covers the whole cultural history of dogs in premodern Japan, concentrating on their behavior in the handscrolls of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries: some are comfortable domestic animals; some creatures of the margins, like beggars and hinin (literally “nonhumans,” people who did impure jobs), living off or near the diseased, the dying, and corpses; and some are border figures, associated with figures of the spirit world (European medievalists might be reminded here of the dog of the Irish blacksmith Culann).

In general, I was less convinced by several of the art history chapters, particularly those that sought primarily to discover the “intention” of artists, since I am skeptical about any one-to-one-to-one mapping of artistic intention to symbolic meaning to reception history. Judith W. Mann demonstrates that the animals in Federico Barucci’s counter-Reformation paintings were not painted from life, but then argues that because Barucci was not a “true naturalist,” we might then be allowed to read its dogs symbolically to discover his “intentions,” which, in effect, requires assembling iconographic and doctrinal evidence, alongside currents in doctrinal debates during the counter-Reformation, to fix his canine images as symbols, for example, of unworthy participation in the Eucharist. I am convinced by Jane C. Long’s argument that the dogs of Giotto’s picture cycle of Joachim and Anna recall dramatic conventions, but not by her tendency to read the expressions of dogs and humans both rather straightforwardly as expressing some familiar emotion (“joyful greeting” for example); similarly, at once point, Donna L. Sadler proposes that the “unmistakable smile” of a pair of dogs on a tomb of St Denis “betray[s] [an] unassailable belief in the afterlife” (I liked her suggestion, however, that early modern pleurants may perform the same function as, and be understood as replacing, the dogs of medieval funerary art). Jane Carroll exhaustively treats a late medieval tapestry from Alsace, Die Jagd nach der Treue [The Hunt for Fidelity], in which a husband and wife ride together on a horse, amid a pack of hounds: to solve the problem of how to illustrate the ongoing devotion of married love rather than the successful consummation of courtship, this tapestry features a deer in flight, but not yet captured, by hunters that want only to chase it, so “encod[ing] a fitting summation of traditional marriage” as a balance of “dualities.” Janet Snyder identifies the dogs on Spanish tomb sculpture with contemporary Iberian breeds (the Galgo, Phalène, Alano, Burgos Pointer, Spanish Mastiff, and so on), and then describes the breed-specific traits of these represented dogs to unpack the sculptures’ symbolism: thus the Spanish rat terrier, bred to work in dark wine cellars, is a suitable dog for the tomb of Isabella of Portugal, “who was kept out of the public eye for the last four decades of her life.” I found this approach ingenious but unconvincing, its conclusions too neatly determined by its argumentative approach. I am much more convinced by Sophie Oosterwijk’s study of dogs on tomb monuments: towards the end of her chapter, she suggests that the dead had originally been shown trampling on animal representations of vices and infernal forces, like lions, serpents, and dragons, and that companion animals gradually crowded in on and nudged aside this meaningful symbolic code.

Oosterwijk, however, does not propose why personal dogs might have crowded into a space previously reserved for such a clearly coded piety. This reluctance to speculate a little is indicative of the volume’s larger tendency not to complicate the motives of medieval people or modern scholars, and, more generally, of its disinterest in telling a more ambitious story. For, as a whole, the volume does not aim to shift the way that we think about dogs, the function of animals in medieval or even art history, or, for that matter, what might happen to how we think about ourselves once we think about our companion animals historically. The overall argumentative aimlessness of the volume may stem its near-total disengagement from contemporary critical cultural studies in animals. Such work is mostly concentrated in Elizabeth Carson Paston’s chapter on the Bayeux Embroidery. We would search in vain elsewhere for references, for example, to Donna Haraway’s essential work on play with and the labor of dogs, to her complicated political histories of dogs in American colonialism, environmental activism, and gender (consideration of this work, for example, would counter Pastan’s claims about the Bayeux Embroidery representing King Harold’s preconquest “harmony with nature”). For that matter, Erica Fudge is also missing, despite her decades of scholarship in modeling how to do philosophically savvy studies of early modern animal/human cultures. A fortiori, less obvious but still essential names are missing: Carla Freccero and Colin Dayan on race, dogs, and violence, for example, or Kathy Rudy on the queerness of dog love (which might have offered an interesting counterweight to the marriage tapestry studied by Carroll).

My point in mentioning these scholars is not to ask that footnotes be swollen so that frequently cited scholars garner still more citations. Rather, it is because without critical animal study, and indeed other without critical fields (like affect studies, for example, or even psychoanalysis), the emotional core to many of these works, which are self-avowedly in love with their subjects, is left unanalyzed. This means that one of key thread for the anthology — the dog as alter ego — is often described but its mechanics never considered. Dogs represent loyalty, to the family, to the church, to the honor of the house. We learn of all this, but without much consideration about what it means for humans to identify with animals, or to perform their own preferred identities through this intimate, living property. We encounter the word “pampered” often to describe certain dogs, but no reflection on what this word might indicate: envy, perhaps, or disgust (I was reminded of James Herriot’s unpleasant musings about Tricki-Woo, the overfed, epistolary Pekingese of All Creatures Great and Small). On this point in particular, then, more critical attention would have been especially welcome, even apart from the work of critical animal studies. As alter egos, dogs can be our ideal selves, in their hunting prowess and loyalty, what we would like to be; or they could be our “natural” selves, devoid of custom and manners, the brute self we must overcome to become truly human; or in their “pure grief and devotion,” as Pastan characterizes some of the dogs on the Bayeux Embroidery, they represent “our best selves,” one that no human could ever hope to achieve. In packs, we might say that dogs invite us to “to go with the flow,” at least as they figure in Deleuze and Guattari’s outraged response to Freud’s misreading of his “Wolf Man” patient, an anti-identitarian consideration of dogs so well treated, in a medieval context, in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s reading of both cynocephali and the Middle English Sir Gowther.[2] Gelfand’s capacious anthology has so much material that we might use for further reconsideration of dogs and the self, to burrow further still into how dogs have domesticated us, how we might dream of getting undomesticated through them, and what we might owe the strays.


[1] Gutram Koch “Zum Grabrelief der Helena,” The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal 12 (1984): 59-72
[2] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 120-41.