Research on medieval dogs in literature topic of presentation

Abbey Nutter

A WKU English professor led a presentation Tuesday night called “The Medieval Dog Whisperer.”

Approximately 20 people made the trek up to Cherry Hall to hear Alison Langdon, English professor, speak about her research on dogs in the medieval era.

Langdon began by explaining she got started on this research trajectory when she taught Marie de France’s Bisclavret in her medieval literature class.

Bisclavret, or “The Werewolf,” is a 12th century French poem centered around a closeted werewolf named Bisclavret who is discovered by his wife, who stole the clothing that allowed him to transform into a human. Bisclavret eventually bites off the nose of his wife, who ran off terrified with another man.

After a long discussion of this poem a student posed the question: why bite off the nose?

Cutting of the nose was a common punishment for adultery during medieval times, which Langdon said wasn’t the reason agreed upon by scholars. The woman never has romantic feelings about this other man, only used him as an instrument to aid her escape from her husband.

The true significance, according to Langdon, was that the nose can be perceived as the means to tell the truth of someone, and by taking the nose from the wife, the werewolf denies that ability.

Langdon transitioned her lecture by listing the current knowledge of a dog’s nose.

“Dogs have more sensory organs dedicated to olfaction than humans do,” Langdon said. “They have more of their brain devoted to perceiving scent.”

According to Langdon’s research, there are 25 million neurons in human brains devoted to scent and there are 200 million in dogs.

“Our brains are predominantly built around vision, while dogs are dominated by scent,” Langdon said.

Langdon said that these were things that humans living in the medieval era would not know, which prompted the questions that spurred her research along.

“What did medieval people think about dogs?” Langdon said. “What did they know?”

She looked at bestiaries, or encyclopedias of animal lore, that contained both fantastical and mundane animals, pursued hunting manuals and scoured over zoological treatises in pursuit of answers.  

She found out that medieval people were aware of the connection between dogs and wolves but portrayed them as hating each other. They would also portray the dog coming to humans as the animal’s choice.

Langdon spoke about the Aberdeen Bestiary, which portrays the wolf as very hunched and furious looking. The medieval wolf was often associated with the Devil, which Langdon said some bestiaries referred to.

When Langdon moved on to speak about “The Master of the Game,” a medieval book of hunting by Edward, Duke of York, and shared that he had made statements proven to be true.

“He knew that wolves only breed in February,” Langdon said. “He knew that wolves mate for life.”

Langdon also spoke on how the theories about how dogs evolved from wolves have changed over time. Earlier theories suggested that men stole wolf pups and domesticated them, while others suggested that wolves self selected because of their tolerance for humans.

“One of the ways that differentiated dogs in their regard is their tolerance for human beings,” Langdon said.

Langdon returned Edward, Duke of York’s narrative on hunting and stated that dogs take up multiple chapters that educated readers on the proper care and cognitive abilities of dogs.

Langdon said that Edward began his section on dogs by stating: “Dogs are the noblest of beasts.”

“Dogs are known especially for their love and devotion to their people,” Langdon said.

Langdon went to the British Library as part of her research and made records of the kinds of dogs present and what they were doing during the Dark Ages.

“The more scholars you read, the more they mention other medieval texts and you begin to delve into this literary goldmine,” Langdon said.

Langdon concluded her lecture by describing her experience at the Wolf Park sanctuary. The overall feeling of being in a space with five wolves, Langdon described as “pure awe.”

“There is a gratitude that they will tolerate your presence,” Langdon said. “It’s a gift.”

News reporter Abbigail Nutter can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected].Follow her on Twitter at @abbeynutter.