Types of Pets in the Middle Ages
Just like us, medieval people had pets. The most common varieties were, of course, dogs and cats, but, especially among the upper classes, other animals and birds also became popular, in particular parrots, songbirds, monkeys, squirrels, ferrets and weasels, and rabbits. (Medieval Pets by Kathleen Walker-Meikle)
Certain animals and birds, especially those kept as pets tended to have generic names ( a bit like we have Rex for a dog and Joey for a buderigar today). For example, sparrows were often called Philip, monkeys were called Robert and squirrels were named Fouquet. And, of course, one name which carries to the present - Maggie (from Margaret), for the pie bird. Dogs tended to be given more individual names, but for cats, the most common one was Gyb (short for Gilbert). The French equivalent was Tibers or Tibert. I wonder if this is behind the popular cat name today of Tibby?
Aviaries were often part of the gardens of palaces and large manor houses. In them were kept songbirds such as blackbirds, thrushes, nightingales, finches, skylarks and turtle doves. Another attraction were birds that could be taught to talk such as starlings, corvids, and parrots.
Animals didn’t just help saints define their new site, they also helped with cultivating it! The Welsh saints Cadog and Deiniol were lucky enough to have stags to offer to pull their ploughs. And the same also happened to St. Tydecho (where a wolf also helped with the harrowing) and St. Neot in Cornwall.
Parrots were kept as pets and at this time were most likely to be the green coloured Indian rose-ringed parakeet - like the ones commonly now seen in the wild in London today. They were seen as quite holy birds, full of purity, because they supposedly said ‘Ave’ when they squawked, the greeting given to the Virgin Mary by Gabriel. It was also known that they could be trained to speak whatever other words the owner desired.
More Helpful Animals... Possibly
Animals were often used in rather strange ways in the early medieval period. For example, one way of defining the boundaries of a saint’s church, was to let an animal loose and see where it ran. It’s path would then mark the ground the saint could have. Of course if it went in a straight line, there was probably trouble! But, of course, those things didn’t happen in medieval stories!
'Sometimes Strangles Unguarded Boys...'
Monkeys were another often-fancied and expensive-to-keep pet among the rich. They were not always approved of, however. Albertus Magnus, in his ‘De animalibus’, thought them capable of great violence: ‘The monkey is a tricky animal with bad habits. However much it might be tamed, it is always wild and imitates the bad rather than the good human traits. It is playful with the small offspring of humans and dogs, but it sometimes strangles unguarded boys…’ So, the moral of the tale is, if you have a monkey, don’t allow it any unguarded male children!
Cats were at the forefront of animals accused of being witches’ familiars. They were often associated with the devil and heresy. When the Knights Templar were put on trial in 1309, one of the accusations thrown at them was that they worshipped a cat.
The Joy of Cats
Cats were popular as pets in the middle ages and, like today, came in all colours. However, from the pictures of them which survive, the most common one was grey with stripes. The thirteenth-century encyclopaedist, Thomas de Cantimpre delightfully described their purring thus: ‘They delight in being stroked by the hand of a person and they express their joy with their own form of singing.’
Alfonso X 'the Wise' of Castile (1221-84) had a pet weasel, which he seemed to be extremely fond of. It went everywhere with him, kept in a little cage tied to his saddle. The king, known for composing a type of song called a cantiga, even wrote one about how the Virgin Mary saved his pet after it fell under the hooves of his horse, in return for the king's pious devotion.