Philobiblon: Philip the sparrow and other pets

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Philip the sparrow and other pets

Women and pets in medieval times proved just as interesting as I had hoped last night. I learnt that while Keith Thomas had suggested that the idea of pets was not invented until early modern times, there's plenty of evidence of a "pet" relationship in medieval times (although the term itself was indeed not invented until later).

Lap dogs, cats, squirrels, monkeys and talking and singing birds were not eaten, kept in the house and given a name - a working definition of what a pet is. Naming conventions, however, were quite different from today, so Philip Sparrow was not exactly unique - all sparrows were called Philip, or so people thought! Similarly a terrier might be called Terri, and apparently the word donkey came from Duncan, that species' generic name.

Giving pets individual "human" names is, however, a 19th and 20th-century invention.

Fluffy white lapdogs, of the sort seen in the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, seem to have been the most popular.

Men and women wrote eulogies when their pets died, and they seem to have been just as attached to them as anyone today.
For example, the mourning owner of the famous sparrow wrote:
"It had a velvet cap,
And would sit upon my lap
And seek after small worms,
And sometime white bread-crumbs;
And many times and oft
Between my breaste`s soft
It would lie and rest;
It was proper and prest.
Sometime he would gasp
When he saw a wasp;
A fly or a gnat,
He would fly at that;
And prettily he would pant
When he saw an ant.
Lord, how he would pry
After the butterfly!
Lord, how he would hop
After the gressop!
And when I said, 'Phip, Phip!'
Then he would leap and skip,
And take me by the lip.
Alas, it will me slo
That Philip is gone me fro!"

(I don't feel so bad about the dog pages of my website now.)

The tomb of Petrarch in Arqua was said to have also contained the body of his beloved cat. An early 20th-century visitor reports seeing in his house in the town what was said to be its mummy, "underwrit by an inscription in Latin which testifies that the cat was the poet's first love, not Laura, and that to her are due the thanks of humanity for saving from the rats his precious manuscripts". Plain-Towns of Italy: The Cities of Old Venetia by Egerton R. Williams Jr.; Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911.

While researching the vital issue of the cat I also found a collection of papers on Petarch here.


Blogger ruinae said...

That was a cool, interesting post!

11/06/2004 01:19:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Thanks Justin - all compliments gratefully received!

11/06/2004 01:41:00 am  
Blogger Ronnie Smartt said...

There was of course Catullus's girl friend's sparrow, which perched arond her lap and bosom, perhaps drawing attention in a faux coy manner to her decolletage, until a sparrow-hawk got it. "O weep ye Loves and Cupids all". If you go back to your Sappho you will rememnber that Aphrodite comes to earth in a chariot pulled by sparrows, so that Lesbia's sparrow, if it was she for Catullus does not name her, may have been a sign like a well-coiffed poodle. There is a painting somewhere of a pair of Venetian courtesans on a balcony
with = perhaps I recall wrongly - sparrows at their feet. Prolific perhaps, like rabbits.

11/06/2004 03:49:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Mmm, interesting, a sparrow as a sex symbol - I guess these things change over the years.
But I was thinking during the talk about this issue of pets. They are certainly not a universal - Thais do not have "pets" in the way we understand them, for example, but there does seem to have been in the ancient Roman world, at least, "pet" relations.
What is the necessary precondition to allow pets? Were there, to tie in with today's later posts, pets in the Paleolithic?

11/07/2004 12:04:00 am  
Blogger Ronnie Smartt said...

Do you remember that when Odysseus got back to Ithaca and came across his very old - twenty years at least - dog Argus, he asked Eumaeus, feigning ignorance, if Argus had been a fast hunting dog or just one of those that their masters feed at table and keep for show? The dog pricked up his ears and died: a story surely sloppy enough for any pet-lover.

11/10/2004 10:41:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I had forgotten that. A dog that is "one of those that their masters feed at table and keep for show" is perhaps not necessarily a "pet", but the sentimentality of the tale certainly suggests the existence of such a relationship between some humans and some dogs.

11/11/2004 03:00:00 am  

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