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English Dogs and Barbary Horses: Horses, Dogs, and Identity in Renaissance England

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2021

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Summary

“THEY call’d us for our fierceness English dogs,” claims Lord Talbot in William Shakespeare's Henry VI part 1 (1.H.VI, 1.7.25). The heroic Talbot, said to fight “with such ferocity that the French [flee] at the very sound of his name,” attempts to rally his men by reminding them of that renowned “fierceness” which he associates with the English dog. In this context, calling his warriors “dogs” is not an insult; instead, it reflects the esteem Englishmen had for their national breeds of dog. Dogs held an important place in Renaissance English culture, both literally and symbolically, particularly in courtly culture; horses claimed a similar status. What is remarkable, and only recently engaged by Renaissance scholarship, is the contribution to national identity that these two domestic animals play in the cultural and political definitions of Englishness. Dogs and horses were not merely other living creatures in this society—they were instead tangible markers of standing in the community and symbols of the strength, courage, and loyalty of the nation. This article argues that the perception of characteristics attributed to breeds of horses and dogs helped define Englishmen's national identity, but that this close identification could be a cause of concern as well as satisfaction. In contrast to the national, and particularly aristocratic, pride in English breeds of sporting dogs, writers of the period exhibit anxiety over the lack of a quality English breed of horse. While authors of literature and animal husbandry specialists lauded the courage and strength of English dogs, they fretted over the fact that England was seen as a nation of “jades” and “nags.”

Both dogs and horses were particularly prominent symbols of English national identity during the Renaissance. Phillip Stubbes wrote in his 1583 book of commonplaces, Anatomie of Abuses, “A common saying amongst all men [is] “loue me, loue my Dogge.” These species were held in particular esteem by the English nobility because they were essential to hunting, to warfare, and to the “country” lifestyle that became foundational to both noble and English national identity.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2015

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