ENGLISH. On certain designated holidays and festivals, usually in October, boys armed themselves with makeshift weapons and roundly whipped “the unlucky dogs found running in the streets” (i.e., ownerless dogs) (Walsh 341). This public display of masculine violence was enacted upon the bodies of unprotected dogs as an annual ritual, a ritual steeped in a narrative of divine revenge.
In York, the story accuses a dog of having stolen and consumed a sample of whatever food served as the Eucharist for that day’s mass, for which crime “all its brethren were doomed to a periodical flagellation in memory of the sacrilege” (Walsh 341). In Hull, another legendary dog is charged with breaking into the monasterial larder and stealing a joint of meat (which was recovered). In each case, the canine crime is a crime against the so-called natural order of things: dogs cannot, must not, partake of the flesh of Jesus nor of meat designated for human consumption (note that the article describes the joint as being “rescued” for this higher purpose!). And to remind dogs of their rightful (i.e., lower) place, an annual “thrashing” was deemed an appropriate response (Walsh 341).
This logic of this (extremely) ex post facto punishment is quite odd to us now, when we see the dog as rational and sentient, but would fail to see how any dog could be expected to appreciate being punished for an ancestral crime. In the medieval period, animals—sometimes alongside their human coconspirators—would be put on actual trial for alleged crimes, so it would not be a far leap to hold the dog responsible for a crime committed by a long-dead member of its race.
The history of the Church and the animal is a complicated one, as Catholicism (and Christianity) have long invested in the notion of the Great Chain of Being that ranks all heavenly and earthly beings in a rigid and essential hierarchy. Dog-whipping seems to be steeply grounded in the Catholic tradition as an expression of the divine order of things (human > animal)—the emphasis being on order. This is likely why, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, churches “in every county of England” (Pendleton 111) would employ professional “dog-whippers” to “keep order” in their sacred spaces by driving out sleeping humans and errant dogs. The whipping was quite literal: “The whip in question is a stout lash, some three feet in length, fastened to a short ash-stick with leather bound round the handle” (Pendleton 111, also Walsh 342).
These “curiosities” of were being remarked upon and re-recorded in the 1880s, a period steeped in increasingly intimate human-dog intimacies and organized movements fostering “humaneness” towards animals.
Pendleton, John. A History of Derbyshire. London: Elliot, Stock, 1886. Google Book Search. Web. 22 Apr. 2012.
Walsh, William S. Curiosities of Popular Customs. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co. and London: 6 Henrietta Street, 1897. Google Book Search. Web. 22 Apr. 2012.