By Danièle Cybulskie
Medieval dogs were very useful creatures, helping their masters to hunt, leading the blind, pulling carts, or just being sweet, furry companions. In one story from the Gesta Romanorum, however, an unfortunate dog is put into the service of being an aspiring lover’s best friend because no one in any time period can resist the sad eyes of a dog.
Once upon a time, there was a knight who was called away on business, and in what might be the heaviest bit of foreshadowing ever, said to his morally upright wife, “I leave you no guard but your own discretion; I believe it to be wholly sufficient.” A medieval audience, hearing this, would have known immediately what was to happen, because such a good, upstanding knight is destined to fall victim to the evil weaknesses of womankind. The wife, for her part, “continued at her own mansion, in the daily practice of every virtue,” because the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
One day, when someone had twisted her arm, the lady went to a festival and a young nobleman immediately became smitten with her. This is when the trouble began (and the reason she should never have gone to a festival in the first place while her husband was away).
[The young man] became violently enamoured of her, and despatched various emissaries to declare his passion, and win her to approve his suit. But the virtuous lady received his advances with the utmost scorn. This untoward repulse greatly disconcerted the youth, and his health daily declined. Nevertheless he visited the lady oft, which availed him nothing; he was still despised.
As the young man dragged himself to church one day, he was “accosted” by an old woman “who by pretended sanctity had long obtained an undue share of reverence and regard.” She asked him why he was so depressed and ill, and he confided that it was because of his unrequited love for the noble lady. The old woman promised to help him and immediately put her plan in action, with the help of her unfortunate dog:
It seems she possessed a little dog, which she obliged to fast for two successive days; on the third, she made bread of the flour of mustard, and placed it before the pining animal. As soon as it had tasted the bread, the pungent bitterness caused the water to spring to its eyes, and the whole of that day tears flowed copiously from them.
Armed with the weeping dog, the old woman set out to the noble lady’s house and was immediately received on account of her (falsely) holy reputation. The lady couldn’t help but notice the crying dog and naturally asked about it. The old woman protested that the story was too sad to tell, which (of course) made the lady want to hear it all the more. Finally, the old woman, with pretended reluctance, told the story:
That little dog was my daughter – too good and excellent for this world. She was beloved by a young man, who, thrown into despair by her cruelty, perished for her love. My daughter, as a punishment for her hard-hearted conduct, was suddenly changed into the little dog…. [D]egraded from the state of humanity, she exists only to pine away in wretchedness, and waste her life in tears. She can receive no comfort; and they who would administer it can but weep for her distresses, which surely are without parallel.
Predictably, the lady gasps and tells the old woman that she, too, is beloved by an admirer, but has so far refused him. The old woman tells her that the only way to avoid this fate is to give in to the young man. “And so, through the old woman’s means, the lady was led to adultery.”
A medieval audience would have seen this as a straightforward and funny story, without experiencing all that much sympathy for the noble lady who allowed herself to be fooled by an older woman – always a character to be suspicious of. Modern audiences may (understandably) find it disturbing to see the relentlessness of the young man, the noble lady being blamed for his ill health, and her being berated for both being too cold and too warm (not to mention the fate of the poor, weeping dog).
The moral of the story for a medieval audience is simple: beware of “the execrable devices of old women”. Perhaps the lesson modern people can take from this story is a broader one: be careful of people who try to bend your morals with a convenient story and sad looking puppy-dog eyes. They may just be the type of meanie who would feed a dog a mustard sandwich.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: British Library MS Additional 18852 fol. 405v