Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Animal Companions

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.

Anglo-Saxon dogs probably resembled modern deer hounds.

Anglo-Saxon dogs probably resembled modern deer hounds.

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.


There is no linguistic linkage between Anglo-Saxon and Lolcat.

There is no linguistic linkage between Anglo-Saxon and Lolcat.


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?

vanilla-flavoured cat, anyone?

My cat, Lilly, has a habit of falling asleep on the edge of the kitchen counter. Usually she does so well away from any food, but apparently the other night she curled up in the lid of a carton of vanilla ice cream. Her fur is still a bit sticky, and my mom and I have taken to calling her Lilly Vanilli.

Other exciting news? Actual shelves in the library!! It’s slowly starting to look like something more than a hodgepodge of boxes. …Of course, having a place to put them only makes me want more books.

new feline friend

So, I think I made a new friend last night. This adorable little black cat that I’ve seen around the neighbourhood came charging right up to me while I was out walking, sniffed my hands, and then decided I was ok to pet her. I sat down in the street and played with her for a while, until she decided chasing crickets would be more fun. But when I got up to head back towards the house, I noticed I had a shadow; I’ve decided to call her Eurydice, because she kept following me all the way home, only darting away when I looked back at her.

She followed me right up to the front porch and I even managed to coax her into my lap for a while before I had to go in and get to bed. Fortunately she didn’t show any signs of wanting to follow me inside, because I’m fairly certain she already belongs to one of our neighbours.

Nice to have a kitty to play with, even if she’s not mine.

Hear me now, o thou bleak and unbearable world…

This thing has been making me smile all day:


I have learned today that the theme montage from Return of the King still has the power to make me cry or laugh or both together, that Beethoven’s Pathetique can calm me instantly, and Rhapsody in Blue still reminds me of my freshman year of college and the intimidating-amazing (intimidazing? amazidating?) Dr. Wood. (All the first year theory students where teeeerrified of him and theory 2, but strangely, he’s not the ogre he appears; he once said that his greatest fear was the day his students learned what a pushover he really was.)

My music gets me through the day.

Well, that and adorable cyber-kittens.

They didn’t teach this in Fight Club

So a few weeks ago some my family – my grandmother’s brother and two of her neices – came to visit. I hadn’t seen them since a funeral several months before, so it was nice to get together and have a good meal and talk for a while – when a man is 93, you know you probably don’t have too many chances left to do that. Anyhoo, the day had been jsut lovely and was getting ready to wind down (they were heading home to Pulaski) when we heard this terrible cat-screetching from outside. Lily had been outside that morning and hadn’t come back yet, so I ran for the door. After searching around the yard a few times, I didn’t find her, but I did find the neighbour’s huge cat hiding under our bushes – this cat bears an odd resemblance to Lily, by the way, except for being bigger and a little fluffier.

I went back inside and mom told me that Lily had come running in the front door just after I left and was hiding under the couch. I coaxed her out, picked her up to see if she was hurt…and discovered that she was Covered. In. Pee.

That hairball peed on my cat!

The weirdest part? They’re both females. 

Fortunately for me, Lily likes water, so I dumped her in the tub – and then jumped in with her, since I was urine-scented too from holding her. Bleh.

I’ve never heard of female cats spraying before.

here and there

There is a cat asleep on my foot right now. She was nuzzling, and drifted off. Thought you’d all want to know that. (Lilly has fallen asleep on her back with her feet on a pillow and her head on my foot. Now Arthur comes in, plops down in the same pose, and meows expectantly. Pet me, please?)

She was on my lap earlier – a fact of which my allergies are still reminding me. Got to work today and was greeted with the lovely smell of floor stripping chemicals; it has not been a good day for my nose.

I’ve started making my very first quilt. It’s very simple, just little squares – 280 squares to be exact, my shoulders felt every one of them – but it should be big enough to fit on my bed when I’m through.

personal bubble

{Lilly is hiding behind the computer monitor. I only know this because I can see her little white paws. )

Stayed up way too late last night, trying to soothe a headache that was threatening to either implode my brain, or re-enact that scene from Alien and send slimy creatures shooting out the front of my skull. Finally conqured it with some Dayquil (because if I’d taken the night-time variety at 2:30 in the morning, I’d have slept through class.)

Opera rehearsal today. I got there early and had the accompanist all to myself. I was going to wait for the others, but she advised me to take advantage of the individual coaching, since all the others had had the chance so sing alone, and I hadn’t. She said I had an absolutely scrumptious voice. I think I like that word…scrumptious. It feels yummy.

Turned my brain off today and went to the park and played on the swings till I got queasy, and now I am home. All the way, in Nashville, not the crazy dorm room half-way house. I have cats, fried chicken, and a whole blank evening ahead of me. It’s been a fuzzy, goose down-comforter of a day.

And I really needed it.