IMS Open Lecture Online: "Medieval Dog Love: Grieving Hounds and Frames of War"

On Tuesday 28th April, the online IMS Open Lecture, on the subject of "Medieval Dog Love", was led by Professor Robert Mills (Head of History of Art, UCL).

This online session was led by Professor Robert Mills (UCL), on the subject of “Medieval Dog Love: Grieving Hounds and Frames of War.” This session marks the first ever virtual seminar hosted by the IMS, and attendance reached a staggering 120 participants, with 170 orginally having signed up. Attendees were counted from 23 different countries spanning over an incredible 21 time zones, including Austria, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, South Africa, Spain, Turkey, the UK, and the USA.

This exciting event was adapted for the online session from Mills’ inaugural lecture of professorship at UCL. Before the talk began, Mills shared a sentimental anecdote that his very own beloved canine companion, George, had been with him during the original speech, whose presence was sorely missed at its second incarnation.

The subject of the lecture, as summarised by Mills, was “a talk about grief and mourning”. The talk began with the Bayeux tapestry, in which the events of Norman invasion of England in 1066 are illustrated in embroidery. In the scene depicting Edward the Confessor’s funeral, Mills focused on the image of a howling dog directly below the coffin, standing next to some ringing bells as part of the mourning procession. Later in the talk, Mills highlighted that in the margins, where one would usually find animals in medieval artwork, the Bayeux tapestry shows fallen soldiers.

These examples were discussed within the framework of Judith Butler’s “Frames of War” (2009), wherein Butler discusses what constitutes a life worth mourning. Mills exaplained that the howling dog at Edward the Confessor’s funeral demonstrates Edward’s superior humanity, such that even dogs mourn his death; On the other hand, the dead soldiers in the margins may be seen as “ungrievable” by the artists, since they have been demoted to the position usually occupied by animals.

Further examples used in the lecture included the Life of St Edmund, in which a docile, “dog-like” wolf guards Edmund’s corpse, and also Roger of Wendover’s Lothbrok, in which a greyhound protects the body. Mills noted that both stories used a “dog in wolf’s clothing”, in which the loyal animal protects their fallen master, leads others back to the body, and identifies the murderer. Once again, these examples were used to demonstrate how lamenting animals indicate the superior humanity of the person being mourned.

Mills concluded with the assessment that “by attributing agency and empathy to dogs, it allows us to widen our frame of reference regarding what is human and worth grieving.” After the lecture, participants in the online lecture were invited to take part in a short Q&A session, during which Mills answered a variety of questions, including subjects such as mourning and the gender binary, the representation of different dog breeds, and dogs playing a Christ-like role.

The event was a huge success and participants were keen to express their enthusiasm for similar online lectures and workshops to take place in the future. This virtual lecture was a first for the IMS, but definitely not the last, and plans are underway for the IMS to host further online events: as always, future events will be posted here on the IMS website.