Domestic Bestiary: A Medieval Guide to Buying A Pet

So you’ve finally given in to little Isabel’s constant whining and Tristan’s threats of setting the manor on fire and you’re getting a pet. But which one? With a large selection to chose from, how does a Lord or Lady decide just which pet is appropriate for their little darlings?

To help you make this important decision, we’ve compiled a short list of the more popular pets, along with the pros and cons of ownership.


Everyone’s favourite and a good starter animal for any family, noble or not.

– they are entertaining – they will chase balls, bits of string, and their own tails (adorable!)
– they will help to keep your rodent population down – cats love to chase mice, in fact the good Lord Himself put these creatures on earth to do just that

– they will most certainly get into your stuff


Cat paws in a fifteenth-century manuscript (photo taken at the Dubrovnik archives by @EmirOFilipovic)

– cats are a little too ambitious and they may try to take the crown, forcing us to become their slaves and serve them spiced mice all day


Antonius von Pforr, Buch der Beispiele, Swabia ca. 1475-1482 Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 84, fol. 227v


Some say a truer friend cannot be found; such is our fondness for dogs.


– loyal
– loving
– good at hunting
– love music (although their choice of instrument may be questionable)


Book of Hours, Walters Manuscript


– can be messy
– time must be devoted to training a dog
– they hog the bed


Wikimedia Commons


Such mischievous little creatures, almost like the serfs who live in the village! Only cleaner!


– intelligent
– funny
– will help keep the snail population under control


Sloan Manuscript, British Library – London, England


– can be messy
– you MAY wake to find your pet monkey and your best hog both missing



Stowe Manuscript, British Library – London, England

– they love to drink – it is recommended you keep your ale under lock and key


Roman d’Alexandre, Tournai, 1338-1344. Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 94v


The most magical of beasts but surprisingly suitable for a young family.


– you can stable them with your horses
– they are quite the status symbol – make your neighbours jealous!
– they are delicious!!


Geoffrey Fule Cookbook, British Library – London, England


– the horn may skewer members of your family, resulting in visits to the local barber-surgeon
– they are picky eaters (fine oats dipped in sugared cinnamon and hay mixed with the golden locks of a virgin)
– they are a little TOO friendly with young women – unwanted attention can be avoided by marrying your daughters off early


Flemish Book of Hours


The rascals of the rodent world, rats are intelligent and inquisitive.


– easy to care for – a cage, some of grandfather’s beard hair and you’re all set
– they’re easy to feed – they eat just about anything


– they are known to steal boats and go for joy rides – it’s said they often row by the king’s palace and hurl insults at the garderobe window


Pontifical of Guillaume Durand – Avignon

– they cause plague (but who can hold that against them when they wiggle their whiskers!)


Wikimedia Commons


Rabbits are fun to raise and fun to watch for everyone in the family.


– fluffy and just SO cute
– entertaining – they can be taught to play a wide range of instruments


Macclesfield Psalter – Cambridge, England

– they taste great in a stew
– two words: fur hood

– they may murder you – for no other reason than their lettuce was five minutes late last Thursday


Smithfield Decretals, British Library – London, England

– they will almost certainly use you for target practice


Smithfield Decretals, British Library – London, England


The noblest of God’s creatures, the bee feeds us, heals us, and nurtures us.


– honey – to eat, to use on wounds, to sweeten
– bees are a perfect example of what good morals, clean living, and hard work and dedication can achieve – the perfect visual example when lecturing your children and much more effective than a bible page


– they are a bit more high maintenance than dogs, cats, or unicorns
– they sting
– itinerant scholars squatting on your land, trying to lecture the bees, can be a big problem. You’ll need to chase them off your land before they leave their used parchments and broken quills scattered around your apiary


Virgil Observing the Bees, Paris

We certainly hope this list proved helpful and informative, and that it set you on your way to picking your perfect pet!


Copyright © 2019 Kelly Evans

4 thoughts on “Domestic Bestiary: A Medieval Guide to Buying A Pet

  1. That’s a really logical pet list also explains why unicorns are no longer on the modern pets list…… Did enjoy this

    1. Thank you! I enjoyed writing it, and all of Lady Matilda’s articles!

      1. This is great! Is it your dissertation project?

      2. No, just something I enjoy doing. I may gather them together and publish them at some point, but right now they’re just a bit of fun! Lady M is also on twitter, btw – @LadyMatilda_ – she often answers follower’s questions.

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