This week, September’s theme continues with a discussion of domestic animals. Ever wonder if Anglo-Saxons kept pets? The answer, as you might have expected, is ‘not really’ – animals largely fell into the two categories of ‘functional’ and ‘food’. The Anglo-Saxons weren’t entirely without animal companions, however, and this week’s words offer a little exploration into two of the most commonly domesticated animals: dogs and cats.
Dogs in Anglo-Saxon England were kept primarily for the functions they performed. There were no specific breeds – a fact reflected in the word mongrel, which, though it came into usage in the early Middle English period, can trace its origins to the Old English gemong, meaning a mixture, crowd, or assembly. The largest dogs would have been about the size of modern Labradors or Alsatians, and would’ve resembled modern deer hounds. These would have been used for hunting and guarding. Smaller dogs, similar in size to collies, would have functioned as herding dogs. Occasionally, even smaller dogs were utilised to control the rat population, or as lap dogs for noble ladies.
Dogs were valued work animals, but there is some evidence that they could also be cherished companions. Pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon burials were noted for their not uncommon inclusion of dog bones; this became much less common after widespread conversion, when animals bones were largely consigned to the midden heap, but even then it was not unheard of that a man might be buried with a favourite hunting dog. Textual evidence tells us that dogs were valuable gifts – Ælfred the Great, known for his great love of hunting, is recorded as having given a fine pair of hunting hounds to the bishop of Rheims.
As to the general value of dogs, there is some evidence to be found in 9th century Mercian and West Saxon law codes. A king’s hunting dog, untrained, was worth 60 pence, and a trained dog worth twice that much. Best estimates place that at a modern-day equivalent of something like £1200 for the trained dog, and £600 for the untrained. By contrast, a common house dog or working dog would’ve been worth something like £80. These figures functioned something like a sort of canine wergild, or man-price – a concept we’ll revisit in the future (my master word list tells me it’s on the books for March – stay tuned!).
The most common word for dog in Anglo-Saxon was hund, which we can easily recognise as an etymological forerunner for hound. Interestingly, there did exist in late Anglo-Saxon a word for dog – docga – but it was rarely used, and only came into fashion much later in the Middle English period (usually spelled dogue, dogge, or doge, which alas bears no linguistic relation to internet doge-speak. So spelling, much orthography. Wow.) It’s suspected that docga was considered an informal or un-literary word, and thus we don’t see it often in the remaining texts. ( A note about pronunciation: the cg combination in Anglo-Saxon is pronounced like the dge combination in the word edge.)
Hwelp, the word for puppy, is easily recognised as whelp, and a female dog was a bicce or bicge, from whence comes the word bitch.
Cats in Anglo-Saxon England were less likely to be pets than dogs – aside from being kept as control for the rodent population, cats were used primarily for their fur! There is no evidence, however, that they were ever seen as a common food source, and some cats likely did enjoy a companion-like status. An archaeological dig in Bishopstone, East Sussex revealed the presence of three cats – one of whom had been fed a regular diet of fish, and two who had not. It appears that this cat was fed deliberately by humans, and therefore perhaps kept as a pet, whereas the other two cats were not.
Domestic cats were likely brought to England during the Iron Age; there is archaeological evidence that lynx and wildcats were also present. Like dogs, there were no specific cat breeds accounted for during the Anglo-Saxon period.
Old English distinguishes between male and female cats linguistically, using the words catt and catte respectively.
For more information on the long history of cats in England, Ireland and Wales from the 5th century until the Norman invasion, University of Nottingham researcher Kristopher Poole’s article “The Contextual Cat: Human–Animal Relations and Social Meaning in Anglo-Saxon England” is open access, and available here.
This week’s animals were seen mostly in terms of their function; next week’s discussion delves into that other category I mentioned at the beginning – food! What sort of creatures made up a common Anglo-Saxon diet?