What Dogs have to do with Medieval Public Health


Dr Janna Coomans, University of Amsterdam

Although the idea of the late medieval city as the apex of disease, chaos and dirt still looms in textbooks and popular culture, a range of recent publications have made efforts to ‘clean up’ the Middle Ages. This was not an era from which things gradually improved in any linear progression towards the ‘true’ birth of public health in the nineteenth century. The medieval conception of communal health was shaped by different yet fascinatingly consistent views of medicine, the cosmos, religion and society. It was at once more environmental and more spiritual-holistic than its modern Euro-American counterpart. The essential contention was that bodies could become ill through exposure to bad air or food and drink and thus needed clean environments to thrive. At the same time, these physical and material requirements were closely linked to ideas on morality and community. While this encompassed measures on a very wide range of aspects, less obvious agents and targets of public health policies equally deserve our attention, in this case: dogs.

In 1455, a certain Reynier Henrickssoen had confessed to the urban law court of the Dutch town of Dordrecht to unspecified ‘indecent behaviour’. To mend his ways, he had to stand in the pillory for two hours, and he had to serve as the town’s dog slayer (in Middle Dutch called hontslager) until further notice. And although everybody was free to taunt him when displayed on the pillory, he was not to be assaulted during his work of culling dogs.  While the custom of using it as a punishment was rather unique, the office was well-known throughout the region. The function appears to be a fifteenth-century novelty in most cities of the Low Countries, although Ghent’s accounts list compensations to five of them as early as 1336 – thus preceding the Black Death – for patrolling the city for dogs for two weeks.

How are we to understand these elaborate efforts to cull dogs? Animals were a routine and valued presence in premodern cities and an important type of property. Both inhabitants and governing elites were careful to protect their investments in them, as the potential devastation of cattle diseases was well known. At the same time, the movements of two animals in particular, namely pigs and (stray) dogs, were associated with miasma, disease spread and harm in cities. In addition to pigs and their stench as a source of spreading the plague, urban authorities targeted dogs as potential plague carriers. They were killed in large numbers during incipient outbreaks and as a preventative measure.

Dogs were therefore a common object of contestation. Compared with horses, cows and pigs, dogs had looser connections with humans, crossing all too easily from private to public realms. Around 1450, a woman demanded in Deventer’s municipal law court that her neighbour Herman repay the damage allegedly caused by his dog, which had come into her house and snatched meat and bread from the table. According to Herman, he could not be held accountable for the incident, and regarded it even as unlikely that it actually had been his dog, because ‘more dogs than his walk the streets and into houses’. The case – which Herman won – illustrates the openness of households and the presence of roaming animals in and around domestic environments. At the same time, townsmen and women regarded roaming dogs as a health risk. The solution, according to many authorities, lay in eradicating their presence from the city altogether – with several class-based exceptions.

A dog slayer’s club

The dog slayer, tasked with realising these public health measures, had a messy, undesirable, and indeed unhealthy job. First, it involved killing large numbers (dozens, if not hundreds) of dogs, which could be bloody, difficult and dangerous; not least because the dogs themselves were thought to transmit disease. Perhaps many dog slayers used an instrument similar to that depicted in an illustration to a bylaw forbidding anyone to assault the dog slayer of Kampen, which looks like a club with nails.

Finally, several bylaws prohibited anyone, including children, from harming the dog slayers or impeding their work by hiding dogs or chasing them away. Such additions suggest that it was common for there to be angry responses from owners or residents who felt sympathetic to these animals.

Policies on dogs had a strong social bias. Indeed, people above a certain income threshold, or who owned horses and used dogs to hunt, were exempted from bans on dogs. Conversely, animals kept by itinerant poor people, were likely perceived as more prone to pose risks or carry diseases. The association between stray dogs and vagrants went so far that beggars would in some cities not be eligible for alms if they had dogs with them. Thus, these examples of health policies on animals give striking insight in social hierarchy and boundaries; who was part of an urban community and who ought to be placed outside of it based on conceptions of the health of the community.


Community, Urban Health and Environment in the Late Medieval Low Countries is published by Cambridge University Press


About the Author:

Janna Coomans is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam in the ERC-funded project ‘Healthscaping Urban Europe’. She defended her dissertation at the same University in 2018, which resulted in the monograph Community, Urban Health and Environment in the Late Medieval Low Countries (Cambridge University Press, 2021). In 2020, she received a VENI grant by the Dutch Research Council (NWO) for the project ‘(In)flammable Cities: Rethinking Crisis, Resilience and Community 1200-1650.’


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