The articles and books I’ve been reading lately explore pets in the past. They ask and answer questions like: Were pets in the Middle Ages only kept for rodent control and protection or did their owners bond with them and shower them with the same affection we do today? What did Renaissance Italians name their pets?
According to the sources listed below, Middle Age and Renaissance women, scholars, and members of the clergy were the primary pet-keepers. Non-clerical males also kept pets, but preferred animals that reflected the characteristics they wished to be seen in themselves such as loyalty and strength (so horses, hunting hounds, and hawks were popular for them and kept in stables, kennels, and mews). For women, academics, and clerics, though, the pets were companions, sleeping in the home and only going outside with their owner. The most popular animals kept as pets were small dogs, cats, monkeys, birds, squirrels, ferrets, and rabbits.
The Italians were fond of their pets and grieved for them when they passed away. Isabella d’Este, a famous Italian lady and also a ruler of Mantua, was so melancholy over the loss of her lap-dog she mourned for months. After a year her son Federico sent three kittens to help his mother focus on caretaking rather than grieving. Isabella showered the kittens with affection and made little beds for them to sleep in her room.
There are beautiful pet tombs with epitaphs at the Este Castello in Ferrara as well as the Gonzaga’s palace and Palazzo Te in Mantua. The Este family is documented to have had funerals for their pets, borne in lead caskets into elaborate little tombs. Isabella d’Este owned a cat named Martino who was greatly mourned when it died in 1510. The courtier Mario Equicola delivered the sermon at the funeral. By all accounts her favorite pet dog and her son’s dog were present to pay respects. The fact that this kind of burial for a pet was not seen as out of the ordinary in the letters that document it speaks to the typical bond the humans had to their pets. Isabella received letters of condolence from her friends and acquaintances, and epitaphs from writers and scholars.
I’ve always been curious about the names they would have given their beloved pets. Leon Battista Alberti, the Renaissance philosopher, said his dog was sired by a dog named Megastomo (Big Mouth). Ludovico Gonzaga, ruler of the city of Mantua from 1444 to 1478, had at least two dogs – Rubino and Bellina. When Rubino died, he was buried in a casket and Ludovico made sure that the animal would also get a tombstone.
Isabella d’Este was known to have many little dogs, two of which were named Aura and Mamia. Her son Federico kept a little dog in his early teens named Zaphyro and others later on named Viola and Ribolin. The Italian scholor Antonio Tebaldeo had a dog named Borgettus. Other dogs from the Italian court were named Famia, Mognone, Violina, and Orsina. Italian dog names for the populace included Bembino, Balbina, Saphyrus, and Mopsus.
The picture below is of Il Sodoma (Giovanni Antonio Bazzi) with his pet badgers (notice the pretty collar) in a fresco at Abbazia territoriale di Monte Oliveto Maggiore.
An Environmental History of the Middle Ages, by John Aberth (Routledge, 2013)
The Medieval Natural World, by Richard Jones (Harlow, 2013)
Medieval Pets, by Kathleen Walker-Meikle (Boydell, 2o12)
Medieval Dogs, by Kathleen Walker-Meikle (London, 2011)
Medieval Cats, by Kathleen Walker-Meikle (London, 2011)