Ever since people first domesticated a few wolves, the dog has held a special place in our hearts, lives and households. This was as true during the Renaissance as it is now.
Today there are hundreds of breeds of dogs, recognized by kennel clubs around the world. All have been bred to look the way they do for a specific purpose, whether that be as a companion around the house, a talented helper in the hunt, a herder and protector of farm animals, or an exterminator of vermin. Although there were fewer known breeds of dogs during the Renaissance, they served much the same purposes.
A small breed of dog that no longer exists, was known as a Turnspit dog. These dogs were common in large kitchens where a large piece of meat had to be continually turned over the fire to cook evenly. Because they were so common, as kitchens grew more mechanized and Turnspit dogs were no longer needed the breed fell from favor. The last known Turnspit dog, named "Whiskey" is now displayed in a museum.
Protection was a very important function of dogs during the Renaissance. Homes, manor houses as well as flocks of sheep all required protection. Some breeds that served this purpose during the Renaissance are still known today, such as the Mastiff, the Irish Wolfhound, the Norwegian Elkhound and the Bloodhound. It was standard practice for all guests in a castle or manor to be indoors and accounted for before the dogs were let out for the night because the dogs were trained to attack all trespassers.
Dogs were also an important part of sporting events. Hunting with dogs was so popular with English nobility during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I that the number of Greyhounds a person could own depended on their political rank. Common folk were not allowed to own a Greyhound at all. Poodles were also kept for hunting, but were called Water Dogs.
Small companion dogs were not only kept for company, but were also frequently kept for their warmth. What we call lap dogs were commonly used as foot warmers. You can imagine how cold an unheated Gothic Cathedral would be so many people took their small dogs with them to Mass, to lie at their feet and keep their feet warm. Small Spaniels were often kept for this reason as well as the Bichon Frise.
Terriers or "earth dogs" were used to keep the population of mice, rats and moles in check. These little dogs also served as companions and foot warmers.
Dog Works a Kitchen Turnspit Above a Fire
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