Reigning Cats and Dogs

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Monday, April 27, 2015
A History of Pets at Court Since the Renaissance
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THE TASTE FOR UNNECESSARY PETS began at court. During the Renaissance they reflected the desire for conspicuous display and were items of prestige, adding lustre to a princely house. Above all, they constituted an important, and generally uncontroversial, emotional outlet. As the most loyal of all subjects, pets were incapable of betrayal and disinterested in their affections. They alone had constant access to the royal ear. As Axel Munthe, the celebrated author of The Story of San Michele, put it:

The dog cannot dissimulate, cannot deceive, cannot lie because he cannot speak. The dog is a saint ... A dog gladly admits the superiority of his master over himself ... He looks upon his master as his king, almost as his god ... He knows by instinct when he is not wanted, lies quite still for hours when his king is hard at work, as kings often are, or at least ought to be. But when his king is sad and worried he knows that his time has come and he creeps up and lays his head on his lap. Don't worry! Never mind if they all abandon you, I am here to replace all your friends and to fight all your enemies.

Most monarchs were raised with pets from birth and, in the loneliness of their privileged childhood, formed a lifelong bond. They helped reduce the strains of office and fill the vacuum at the heart of monarchy. They countered the ennui and artificiality of court life with its insistence on etiquette and protocol. A species unto themselves, monarchs sometimes felt such a strong symbiotic attachment to their pets that the lines distinguishing humans from animals became blurred. For men, and more especially women, pets frequently acted as surrogate children, receiving the parental affection denied to their biological issue. Pets were not merely humanised; they were superior to man.

Children

Royal children came into contact with animals from birth; indeed, Princess Victoria narrowly missed entering this world among lapdogs when her eight months pregnant mother, the Duchess of Kent, reached England in 1819 aboard a travelling coach brimming over with them. Familiarising their young with animals was natural for royal parents, themselves devoted to pets, but it was also policy. Princes had to learn to hunt, in order to train them for war, to overcome fear and harden their hearts against the dangers and accidents to which kings were prone. Their first riding lessons frequently took place astride dogs, progressing to ponies generally at the age of four. Princes were necessarily separated for much of their youth from children of their own age and were discouraged from forming close attachments to the few with whom they came into contact. This affective void was exacerbated by parental neglect. As the Duke of Windsor observed when recalling his own childhood: `Kings and Queens are only secondarily fathers and mothers.' Emotional deprivation frequently resulted in psychosomatic disorders to which pets alone remained indifferent.

The eldest son of Henri IV of France and Marie de Medici, the Dauphin Louis (Louis XIII, 1601-43, reigned from 1610), was hunting the stag by the age of six, accompanied by his page, Bompar, and could already discuss the subject with authority. By the age of seven, Louis was hunting with the King. Most of his early training took place indoors: young game would be released in the galerie at Fontainebleau or the salle de bal at St Germain and small dogs, generally his own pets, set upon them. Both the quarry and the dogs were transported to wheresoever the Prince happened to be. By the age of nine, when he succeeded to the throne, Louis was hunting three times a week and was considered proficient enough to pursue wild boar, although this did not prevent him from continuing to chase hare in his bedroom with his `petits chiens'.

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