Sunday, 2 March 2014

Seventeenth-Century Dogs


While writing historical stories, I have researched a lot of topics, including dogs. I fully admit I'm a dog lover, but I'm also not the sort of writer who will place something into a story simply because I like it. I also aspire to be realistic in my animal portrayal. For instance, I'm a bird lover too, and it annoys me to no end to see parrots shown as nothing more than talking machines that conveniently say the right thing to help solve a plot.

The first time I included a dog in one of my stories was my American Civil War ghost story Whispers from the Grave. A dog also fit into my plot for the modern portion of the story. I have Belgian sheepdogs, and a Belgian personality ideally suited what I had in mind. That made writing the story much easier because I didn't need to research the breed. I called my literary Belgian "Saber" to fit the Civil War themed plot. As it turns out, I now have a Belgian with that name. He, of course, was named after the dog in the book.

After finishing the sequel to Whispers from the Grave, I began writing my Dreaming series, where the setting is in the 17th century. In Virginia, the tribal tidewater Natives, commonly referred to as the Powhatan, had hunting dogs that appeared like a cross between a hound and a wolf. As a group of people, they didn't bury animals, nor keep dogs as pets. But in at least one instance, a dog was found buried with an elderly woman. It was placed in a sleeping position on top of the woman's feet. The dog's skeleton showed no sign of trauma, so it's doubtful it was buried as part of a ritual. Instead, the gesture most likely speaks volumes as to how that particular dog was regarded by that individual woman.

The dreaming in my book is a cunning woman's shamanic journey, and the cunning folk had familiar spirits. Common familiar spirits of the time were hares, cats, toads, and of course, dogs. I discovered my cunning woman's familiar spirit after I had read about John Smith giving the paramount chief Powhatan a white greyhound as a gift.

Ironically, I have read on some greyhound sites that the breed didn't arrive in North America until a much later date. While John Smith wasn't always truthful in his writings, I had doubted the subject of a greyhound making the journey to Virginia would be noteworthy enough for him to embellish. To back my belief, I recently discovered the laws of the First General Assembly of Virginia in 1619. Any dog of quality was not supposed to be given to the Indians. Greyhounds were specifically mentioned in this law.

Besides greyhounds, the English commonly had mastiffs, bloodhounds, and generic looking spaniels. Mastiffs weren't the big, friendly dogs that we commonly think of today. They tended to be kept as guard dogs and were fiercely protective. Spiked collars were common--for protection of the dog from predators, like wolves and bears. They were also used in wars as fighting dogs.

Bloodhounds were tracking dogs, much like they have been throughout the centuries. Unlike today, they came in many different colors. Spaniels were hunting dogs and were bred to flush game from dense brush. During the 17th century, with the development of flintlocks, they specifically became gun dogs. There, of course, were other dog breeds during the century, but I have focused on the ones that I've found mentioned in the writings from Virginia.

Kim Murphy


Alison Stuart said...

Two famous breeds of 17th century dogs spring to mind as I was reading your post, Kim.
Charles II and his spaniels and "Boy", Prince Rupert's poodle that followed him into battle (and was said by his enemies to be his "familiar"). Boy met his end at the Battle of Marston Moor.

Kim Murphy said...

Yes, spaniels were very common--many different types. I hadn't come across any poodles in my research, but I have no doubt they were around. They also wouldn't be like the poodles of today. I'm sure they were working dogs then.

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