British historian Kathleen Walker-Meikle collects centuries-old examples of canine representation in her succinct but illuminating work Medieval Dogs, published by the British Library. While there has been considerable research into the earliest beginnings of the human/canine relationship, and countless looks into how dogs and people complement each other today, it is fascinating to look at the ways dogs were portrayed in what is considered to be a less enlightened historical time.
Brilliantly illustrated and well captioned manuscripts and paintings from around Europe are featured, along with brief but telling text. The pre-Renaissance art, without linear perspective, speaks to a bygone age. Stories of how dogs were part of abbey life among monks and nuns show a push/pull acceptance of the animals. In some cases, dogs were happily allowed to run free throughout abbeys, while in other cases, they were more grudgingly permitted — aside from sanctuaries and dining areas. As with medical treatment for humans, veterinary skills during the medieval years were basic and often fraught with suggestions that are chilling today. It's surprising to see how many breeds from our era, such as Greyhounds, terriers and spaniels, were already classified as early as the 16th century.
Loyalty is shown in many drawings of canines that remained with their fallen masters after a battle. Representations of the dogs in these and other illustrations (such as the many lapdogs depicted in royal settings) show how people of the period valued their animal companions. While rampant superstition during medieval times did not always portray dogs in the best light, their frequent appearances within the art and manuscripts of the period show the evolution of the human/dog relationship to what it now has become.