Posted in Medievalists.net
June 9, 2022

Man’s Best Friend: Love for Dogs in the 10th century


Dogs are often praised for their loyalty and friendship – the same was true 1100 years ago, according to The Book on The Superiority of Dogs over many of Those who wear Clothes.

The Baghdad resident and writer Ibn al-Marzuban (d.921) is the author of this book, known in Arabic as Fadl al-kilab. It is written as if it’s a letter to a friend, where he begins by complaining about how human beings are getting worse – you can no longer trust or depend upon them. However, he soon shifts to talking about dogs, which the author finds to be better than man in many ways.

Ibn al-Marzuban’s work is a collection of dozens of stories and poems about canines, with the purpose of showing “the dog’s natural faithfulness, his innate friendliness, and staunch defence of his master; also his experience, patience, nobility, wonderful resourcefulness and his exceptional usefulness.”

The stories often reveal that dogs were often kept by people in the medieval Middle East – in many cases as guard dogs or to use in hunting, but also as companions and pets. We learn how dogs love to wag their tales, or are given names like Muq and Mismar. One section talks about how they play with people:

Both dogs and cats know their masters well and respond to their own names and know where their homes are. They feel at home in their own particular place. If they are driven away, they come back. If they are starved, they bear patiently and if they are treated badly, they put up with it. Amongst the dog’s virtues is that he comes and faces his master, looking him in the eye, and that he loves his master and he comes right up close to him. Sometimes the dog even plays with his master and with his master’s children by biting them playfully without hurting them or leaving any mark on them, although he has these canine teeth which would certainly leave a mark, where he to plunge them into a tree.

Many of the stories related by Ibn al-Marzuban are about dogs who saved their owners’ lives. For example, he reports about an official from Nishapur who relates that one time he was returning home from a trip with his dog, when he was attacked and robbed. The man had his hands and feet bound tightly and left to die in a dry ravine. He goes on to explain:

I gave up all hope of survival. Now this dog sat down with me, then he left too and went off. But he soon returned to me, bringing a loaf of bread and putting it in front of me. I ate the loaf and crawled gradually to a place where there was some water which I drink. The dog remained with me all night, howling until morning. Sleep overcame me. I could not see the dog, but he was soon back bringing a loaf for me to eat. I did the same as I had done on the first day and then, on the third he went off. I said to myself, “He is gone to bring me a loaf.” Soon he came back with a loaf and threw it down to me. Before I had finished eating the bread, my son was standing there above me, weeping. He said, “What are you doing here? What has happened to you?” He came down, untied my bonds and got me out of the ravine. I said to him, “Who guided you here and how did you know where I was?” He replied, “The dog came to us every day, so we put out a loaf for him as usual, but he did not eat it. He had been with you and we were surprised to see him come back without you. He would take the loads in his mouth, but without eating it, would set off at a run. We were surprised at this, so I followed him until I found you.” This is my story and that of the dog.

Ibn al-Marzuban offers many more accounts like this, where devoted dogs protect their owners, or are so dedicated that they won’t leave their graveside after they have died.

Dogs chasing an intruder in this 16th-century manuscript – British Library MS OR 5302 fol. 76r

Other stories praise dogs who were good for hunting or guarding a home. Many of the accounts note the usefulness of dogs at night, when they would stay up and watch for trespassers. One man from Medina even wrote this poem about his dog Muq, praising him for his martial-like abilities:

O Muq, may you never taste the misery life can bring!
May you never have to drink muddy water!
His compact head is like a seed mill
and his claws can tear bellies to pieces!
HIs silence shows anger, his barking ferocity;
even if he is hungry, he will not be lured into friendship.
His intention is to bit and his assault is death itself;
anyone passing through his territory will be overwhelmed!
He springs into action faster than the sword and lance;
he is more effective than arrows and javelins.
The dreaded Turks, the Daylami,
the Zanj after them, also Byzantine generals –
This whole host, if they pass into his territory,
will he scatter!
Or if any army of heroes passes by him,
then their she-camels crouch down in fear of him.

One of the more interesting accounts involves a dog who protected a baby from being attacked by a serpent:

A friend of mine told me that the wife of one of his friends had died and left a young son. He also had a dog whom he had personally reared. One day he left his son in the house with the dog and went about his business. After a while he returned and saw the dog in the porch, his face in the whole of his muzzle dripping with blood. The man thought that the dog had killed his son and eaten them. Before he went into the house he attacked the dog and killed him. Then he went in and found the boy asleep in the cradle. At the side were the remains of a viper as long as a plank of wood which the dog had killed and some of which he had eaten. That man was full of remorse for having killed the dog and gave him a proper burial.

The story is very similar to one from 13th century France – the dog known as St Guinefort – and the editors do note that this particular tale seems to have a long history, dating back to ancient India.

Overall, Ibn al-Marzuban was keen to show the many good qualities dogs have, and he reveals how they are man’s best friend. As one medieval poet says:

O you who hate dogs! Listen to me;
pay attention and do not close your mind to what I say.
The dog – note well – is reckoned
to have five noble qualities:
He protects those who are good to him; he shows loyalty
to those who keep him for the hunt and for guarding;
He keeps an eye on his master’s baggage, even when
brave men are afraid to speak out.
He is a help to the man who imitates barking from afar,
seeking protection through the nearness of the dog, when
evening comes.

The Book of The Superiority of Dogs over many of Those who wear Clothes, by Ibn al-Marzuban, is edited and translated by G.R. Smith and M.A.S. Abdel Haleem. It was published by Aris & Philiips in 1978. Click here to buy it on Amazon.com

See also: Medieval Pet Names

Top Image: British Library MS OR 2265 fol. 157v

Medievalists.net June 9, 2022 at 12:52AM

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