Domestic animals and private spaces in the early modern period

Many of us have seen the stereotypical image of a peasant house: the lack of divisions, people sleeping all together, sharing the same space with their cattle and other animals. For us at the Centre for Privacy Studies, that representation is often brought up as a way of claiming that there could not be privacy in the early modern period. However, this image was mostly based on medieval reconstructions, and even then, it was not the case for every house – although space was mostly shared, temporary boundaries could be created with less permanent materials, and geographical differences applied to the structure of the house. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, peasant buildings tended to encompass room divisions (although still shared), and a separation between the space for animals and living areas for people was usually the norm. That being said, this separation was not necessarily strict, and a few animals had a better chance of mobility between spaces. A primary example is the dog.

Adriaen van Ostade, Peasants in an Interior, 1661.
Jakob Seisenegger, Emperor Charles V with Hound, 1532.

Dogs could be found inside the houses of people of all social strata. From the sixteenth century onwards, it was common for European nobles to posed for portraits with their dogs. The portrait of Charles V with his hound, painted by Jakob Seisenegger in 1532 (and reinterpreted by Titian in 1533), displays him holding the collar of his hunting dog, who looks at him devotedly. Particular hunting dogs were considered a luxury and were exchanged as presents between nobles. Although being particularly bred for outdoor activities, these dogs could be found inside the houses as well. Keith Thomas, in his famous work Men and the Natural World, gave us English examples of how hunting dogs were indulged, usually eating better than the servants.

Barthélémi Hopfer, Portrait d’une famille strasbourgeoise, c. 1660-1670.

Women were also portrayed with their dogs, hunting and lapdogs alike, although usually they were depicted with smaller dogs. Dogs were also considered great companions to children. Companion dogs, in particular, had broad access to more private spaces: Charles II, known for his love of dogs, had his Spaniels following him everywhere, including the bedchambers of his mistresses.

However, more research is required to know the nuances of the access thresholds for dogs. Another English example described by Thomas shows that it was not unusual for animals to share the table or the bed with their humans, but it was not exactly a well-seen practice: a sixteenth-century woman in her deathbed regretted having spoiled her female dog, saying “Good husband, you and I have offended God grievously in receiving many a time this bitch into our bed” (p. 40).

Hans Asper, Portrait of Cleophea Krieg von Bellikon, 1538

I am very curious about the spaces occupied by animals in the early modern home. Feel free to get in touch if you encountered any interesting historical sources talking about domestic animals in private spaces!