Dogs at dawn: Canine protectors and proxies in Victorian Britain

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‘We see in this story that sin rarely goes unpunished in this world, and that often it is detected by extraordinary means.”[1]

I don’t know which struck me more forcibly, this blunt caution issued to children by Kind Words for Boys and Girls in 1866, or the accompanying image of a terrified man being seized by a dog before an assembled throng of medieval dignitaries. The fourteenth-century story of the French dog in the illustration, long immortalized in his native land for fighting a duel with the alleged murderer of his human owner, was dusted off and given a British makeover for Victorian audiences. “Le Chien De Montargis” became a British Bloodhound, a pet dog gifted with an instinct for detection and the ability to inflict lethal punishment. I wondered why, in an age when Britons were keen to stress how different the pet dog was from its wild antecedents and stray contemporaries, this violent spectacle from a domesticated hound proved not only popular but a moral parable.

The tourist trail

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English visitors to Montargis in the Loire Valley in the 1860s would have searched out the new stain glass window in the church depicting the remarkable canine-human duel alleged to have occurred in 1371. A guide might have recounted the story of Le Chien de Montargis: how the male dog had witnessed the murder of his master in the dark Forest of Bondy, mourned over the body till hunger drove him to Paris, led his master’s friends back to the body, aroused the deepest suspicions against a certain chevalier by his repeated attacks and, finally and most famously, fought and won a duel against that same chevalier on the Ile de France in front of King Charles. It is possible, however, that British tourists would already have known the story very well.

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The medieval legend was adapted into a wildly popular French melodrama in 1814 by the theatre impresario René de Pixérécourt (1773-1844) and quickly translated into English. Charles Dickens recalled staging his own school-room adaption of The Dog of Montargis in which a particularly talented white mouse starred as the dog.[2] English theatre managers kept the original French setting for the drama, but the star of the show changed nationality and breed. In France, Le Chien de Montargis was popularly imagined to be a Briard, a large and shaggy-coated French herding dog, possibly because one was trained for the first theatrical productions.  It’s not clear to me what breed of performing dog was most often used in the popular British stage version – have a look at the blocky woodcut and make your own guess – but in print the dog was quickly and definitely established as an English Bloodhound.[3]

Tracking terror

In order to gauge the place of the English Bloodhound in Victorian popular culture, I turned to Neil Pemberton’s work on the breed.[4] It turns out that the bloodhound’s ability to track humans unnerved as much as it intrigued Victorian Britons. The central question was this: did bloodhounds express an atavistic trait in humans, a thirst for blood and running a man to ground, or did they align with reasoning and dispassionate modern police work? The Dog of Montargis shows that bloodhounds were associated with the justice system decades before the case of Jack the Ripper prompted the suggestion that the dogs step from the stage on to the London streets. Popular culture of the mid-Victorian period also illustrates how ambivalent that association was. The horror of so-called Cuban Bloodhounds tracking escaped slaves in the United States was brought to England in sanitized but sensational entertainments such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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1881 poster for a touring American minstrel show ©Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The English Bloodhound’s alleged medieval ancestry, heavily promoted by breeders in the late nineteenth century but clearly part of the dogs’ story from much earlier, fused latent violence with fair play. My own research on duelling shows how the Victorian passion for medieval pageantry and trial-by-combat gave a new romance to honour violence between gentlemen. These gentlemen were, of course, the same middle and upper-middle class men who, at the same time, made a great point of their civility and restraint. I think English Bloodhounds are part of this same story of appropriation. Victorian bloodhound fanciers imagined medieval moorland hunts for fugitives as duels between a man and a dog. The chivalric and feudal back-story of The Dog of Montargis, with the dog as the vassal of his human lord, allowed a fictive English Bloodhound to perform savage and unsettling acts with perfect propriety.

Man-eaters

Some Victorianists may be champing at the bit to point out that The Dog of Montargis, as a bloodthirsty early nineteenth-century melodrama, doesn’t reflect later Victorian attitudes towards either canine or human violence. But I compared accounts of the dog duel in The Terrific Register of Dickens’ boyhood with the moralizing, high-Victorian magazine Kind Words for Boys and Girls and also an 1874 article in The Times.  The story remained virtually unchanged over these fifty years. The melodrama also seeped into popular culture. Charles Dickens recycles the tale in ‘A Confession Found in a Prison in the Time of Charles the Second’, a period story told from the perspective of a child murderer. His foul deed is first discovered by two bloodhounds and then he is very nearly executed by the same animals. “Are dogs to hurry men to shameful death?” shrieks the terrified murderer as the bloodhounds strain to set upon him. Dickens leaves this question unanswered.[5]

The debate about the bloodhound’s willingness to shed human blood cuts to the very heart of what made a dog a pet rather than a wild animal. Chris Pearson has blogged here about the Victorian art of separating pet dogs from strays. Pet dogs who reverted to savagery could certainly expect swift retribution. Dickens executed his Irish bloodhound Sultan in 1865 without debate when the family pet bit a little girl.[6] Yet The Dog of Montargis shows that canine violence against humans was more of a grey area than we have perhaps appreciated. A dogs’ capacity for violence, or the leashed threat of violence, was permissible when it was used in defence of the established social order, within certain parameters.

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‘The Adventure of the Creeping Man’. Illustration by Howard K. Elcock for The Strand Magazine  (1923).

The Dog of Montargis is of course not only the enforcer of human justice, he is the complete modern justice system rolled into one. His civility is first established by his role as chief mourner of his slain master, and I’ve blogged before on the peculiar appeal of dogs’ mute grief in the Victorian era. But the Dog of Montargis also ‘plays the game’. He understands and follows the natural laws that govern justice. When the dog transforms into an avenging agent, repeatedly attacking the same chevalier, nineteenth-century retellings stress that the dog makes a civil rather than a savage attack. As Sherlock Holmes would later reason in his tale of a professor-turned-monkey-man, the dog attacked no one else. The victim must be the guilty party.[7] At last free to attack in the context of a formalized ‘dog’ duel, the Dog of Montargis ‘began running round and round [his opponent], avoiding his blows, until at last he seized him fairly by the throat.’[8] The dog’s victory was due to its restraint and strategy. It was not a maddened attack but a legitimate duel.

Moral mutts

A bronze statue of Le Chein de Montargis in the city centre has long since replaced the original town hall fresco. The dog in the statue is much smaller than a Briard, a breed swap I suspect is designed to emphasize the dog’s valour. In Britain, the largely theoretical policing prowess of English Bloodhounds was superseded by Alsatians, which entered the British police force in the 1950s. Today the Belgian Malinois is the preferred choice worldwide for rescue, detection and combat situations. Yet the stories we tell about these working dogs often focus on their role as protective pets. The continued popularity of dogs as detectives and protectors of their human owner is evident in the 2015 film Max where a U.S. Army service dog mourns and then revenges his human handler’s death – all while transitioning from a K-9 soldier to family pet.

 

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© Les Plus Beaux Detours de France

So why do we continue to enjoy stories, both medieval and modern, where good dogs attack bad men? Such tales are appealing because they highlight the loyalty and bravery of our beloved pets. But that is not all these stories do. By sketching the conditions under which a domesticated dog can become violent, we are also proposing the circumstances under which a civilized man can unleash similar savagery. The explicit advice given to children in Kind Words is do not be bad even when you think no one is watching. Yet the popularity of the Dog of Montargis with Victorian audiences of all ages shows that restraint was only one half of the equation. English children should aspire to be actively good. Boys must be prepared that someday being good might necessitate becoming violent.

If a pure-breed English dog could inflict lethal violence in the name of justice, so too could a pure-bred Englishman.

This blog was written by Dr Margery Masterson, a cultural historian of masculinity and a Research Associate at the University of Bristol. Her latest article, ‘Dueling, Conflicting Masculinities and the Victorian Gentleman’, is out now in the Journal of British Studies. You can get in touch via twitter @mm_masterson.

[1] Kind Words for Boys and Girls, 5 July, 1866.

[2] ‘Our School’, Household Words Vol 4, 11 October, 1851. (Vol. 4, no. 81), 49-54.

[3] The Terrific Register, 1825, Volume 1, p. 257.

[4] See also Neil Pemberton, ‘Hounding Holmes: Arthur Conan Doyle, Bloodhounds and Sleuthing in the Late-Victorian Imagination,’ Journal of Victorian Culture 17:4 (2012), 454-467.

[5] Master Humphrey’s Clock (London, 1840) 32. See also Beryl Gray, The Dog in the Dickensian Imagination (Aldershot, 2014), 36.

[6] Philip Howell, At Home and Astray: The Domestic Dog in Victorian Britain (Charlottesville, 2015), 48.

[7] ‘Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Adventure of the Creeping Man’ in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (London, 1927). Illustration by Howard K. Elcock for The Strand Magazine  (1923).

[8] The Times, 23 July, 1874.

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