Bloodhound History

by Mac Barwick

II   The Beginnings

BUT FROM WHERE DO WE TRACE THE BEGINNING?

There are and have been many dogs more or less large, keen scented, with ears that hang rather than stand erect.  They may very well share a common ancestor, and this may have existed in Mesopotamia or points east in the year dot.  That does not make them Bloodhounds.  I take it, too, that any stories about Bloodhounds existing in Britain in the time of the Romans, (or being brought here from the sack of Troy even!) are irrelevant.  Such traditions have too little support and are too unspecific. 

The most persistent notion is that the Bloodhound was brought over from France by William the Conqueror in 1066.  I do not know of any reputable source for this idea 3.  However, there is one sense in which it is almost bound to reflect, if not the truth, at least a part of it.  After the Norman Conquest the royalty and the nobility of England and the upper ranks of the church were French, while the subject population was English.  And the Normans were fanatical lovers of hunting; hunting and falconry were the major peacetime pursuits of knighthood.  England was not culturally isolated before the conquest, and hunting and hunting hounds existed among the English royalty and nobility who were displaced, but there could hardly have been enough to satisfy the appetite of the new aristocracy, so numbers of hounds must have been brought over from Northern France during the century after the battle of Hastings.  How many, and whether the specific ancestors of the Bloodhound were among these, or whether hounds already resident gave rise to our breed, 2 or whether it came from a mingling of French with native stock, is impossible to say.  The highly specific idea that a particular, pure breed of hound, the St Hubert, was brought over by William, and continued to be kept virtually pure over here till modern times, certainly lacks any basis in any early source that I have been able to find, and I shall look at the idea again when considering later evidence. For many generations after Hastings the upper reaches of society spoke Norman French, while the lower classes spoke English.  As contacts with the Continent were gradually broken over the following centuries, the French speakers were assimilated.  This is famously demonstrated in the middle of the 14th Century, when French, which had been the language of the law courts, was replaced by English, because French was  much unknown in the said realm.  [Statute of Pleading, 1362] Until recently it was thought that the earliest surviving use of the word ‘bloodhound’ was in about 1350, but in 2012 the update to the Oxford English Dictionary on line gave a new source, the Auchinleck MS (c1330) of Guy of Warwick, a popular verse romance.  The poem is believed to have been written about 1300.  The hero, Guy, is a young man who falls in love with a woman of higher social standing and must succeed in various chivalric enterprises to win her hand. At one stage he takes part in a hunt for a wild boar, which ferociously turns on the pack and kills over a hundred of the pursuing hounds. 

The extract reads:
Alle  e houndes  at folwed him  ere
O ain turned o er ded were.
Wi outen blodhoundes  re
All the dogs that followed him (the boar)
there turned again (=turned back) or else were dead,
except for three bloodhounds.

The boar has escaped, but Guy follows it alone and kills it eventually with his sword. It is likely that it would be assumed that the three bloodhounds helped him to find it, though they are not mentioned again. Until this source was identified the earliest known instance was in William of Palerne or William and the Werwolf 1 This romance was written in English about 1350, at the command of Sir Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford. It was a translation of a French romance Guillaume de Palerne, of about 1220. The original French model of Guy of Warwick is not available, but I wondered if a comparison of French and English texts would be illuminating, and I managed to borrow a copy of the original Guillaume de Palerne, and find the corresponding passage.2 What one finds is that the English translation (if indeed that is the correct word for it) is very free, and that the French contains no word equivalent to  blod-houndes , the nearest being  chiens . How boring! However certain inferences may be drawn, tentative perhaps, but everything has to be tentative when one is dealing with such slender threads of evidence. In the first place it is clear that there is no term in the French text obliging the English writer to use the word  blod-houndes . It can only have been his own sense that the word was appropriate to the context of the story. Bloodhounds, fascinatingly at this early date, are seen as careful hunters, and on the trail of two human beings, albeit ones disguised as bears. Secondly, this and the use in Guy of Warwick show that the word and its meaning must have been familiar to his English audience, not as a translation of chien de St Hubert, or anything of the sort, but in its own right. The fact that these are the first recorded instances means nothing more than that earlier texts in which it appeared have not survived, or have not been noticed, and that the word, like most words, was familiar in the spoken language well before it was written down. Both  blood  and  hound  are English words from common Germanic roots, and do not occur in French. They could have been put together to form a compound at any time there appeared an animal that needed to be named, including before the Norman conquest. We can be pretty sure that well before 1300, there were bloodhounds in England, recognised and named as such. How much earlier they may have existed here is pure conjecture.1 The other instances that I have quoted in earlier articles reinforce this view. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Bloodhounds announce the presence of a great boar hidden in a thicket, which rushes out on being discovered. This is very little later than William of Palerne, and suggests something of how the bloodhound was used. In Morte Arthure written down by Robert Thornton maybe about 1440 King Arthur calls his hated enemies  bloodhounds . The fact that he uses the word as a metaphor again suggests its familiarity to his audience. There is nothing to suggest that bloodhounds were excessively fierce at this time   indeed, as I will suggest later, it seems they were not used to attack anything as a rule   and so it seems likely that Thornton was just exploiting the implication of what the word meant    dog for blood  or  blood-seeking dog  - to label the villains of his story.2 Another early source in the OED, Catholicon Anglicum c1475-83, is an English-Latin vocabulary. In it the translation of  Bloode Hownde  is given as  Molossus . This we usually equate to the large mastiff type of dog of which the Romans were supposed to have imported some specimens from Britain. What this means is that at least one very significant thing about the bloodhound of the 15th Century was its size. It is also worth noting that there is no suggestion that  Canis Sancti Huberti  is an appropriate translation. Indeed there is nothing anywhere in what I have found to suggest that the St Hubert dog was known, or known of, in England before it is described in Turbervile in 1575.

The first recorded use of the word 'Bloodhound' occurs in English in a poem called William of Palerne or William and the Werwolf.  This romance was written in English about 1350, at the command of Sir Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford.  It was a translation of a French romance Guillaume de Palerne, of about 1220. 

It is a story about a baby prince brought up by a werwolf.  When the prince grows up he elopes with the daughter of the Emperor of Rome.  The couple, who are wearing white bear skins as a disguise, are tracked by “blod-houndes bold”, but when the werwolf sees they are in danger, he runs in front of the hounds and draws them off.

This shows that Bloodhounds were familiar to the English reader before 1350, and fascinatingly at this early date, they are seen as careful hunters, and on the trail of two human beings, albeit ones disguised as white bears!

There are also two poems written later, Barbour's The Bruce 1375, and a poem by Henry (“Blind Harry”) the Minstrel on William Wallace, about 1470, in each of which the hero is tracked by a ‘;Sleuth-hound’;.  Both these incidents would have taken place by 1307, and whether true or not, show that the Sleuth-hound was known to the writers as an animal existing at that time, which could be used to track people.

Origins

So we know there were Bloodhounds in Britain in and before the 1300s.  Where they came from, and how long they had existed — perhaps 50 years, perhaps centuries — we do not know.

There have been speculations about the origin of the Bloodhound, but that's what they are - speculations, not supported by evidence.  There are and have been many dogs more or less large, keen scented, with ears that hang rather than stand erect.  They may very well share a common ancestor, and this may have existed in Mesopotamia or points east in the year dot.  That does not make them Bloodhounds.  I take it, too, that any stories about Bloodhounds existing in Britain in the time of the Romans, (or being brought here from the sack of Troy even!) are irrelevant.  Such traditions have too little support and are too unspecific.

William the Conqueror

The most persistent notion is that the ancestors of the Bloodhound, or even the Bloodhound itself, were brought over from France by William the Conqueror in 1066. 

No evidence for this has ever been published in the accounts of Bloodhound History; nevertheless I have even seen the claim that there were Bloodhounds on the field at the Battle of Hastings!

What does this claim amount to? After the Norman Conquest the royalty and the nobility of England and the upper ranks of the church were Norman French, while the subject population was English.  And the Normans were fanatical lovers of hunting; hunting and hawking were the major peacetime pursuits of knighthood.  The Anglo-Saxons had also hunted with hounds but there could hardly have been enough to satisfy the appetite of the new aristocracy, so numbers of hounds must have been brought over from Northern France during the century after the battle of Hastings.  But how many, and whether the specific ancestors of the Bloodhound were among these, or whether hounds already in England gave rise to our breed, or whether it came from a mingling of French with native stock, is impossible to say.  The Medieval term for a scent-hound, 'rache', is from an Old English word.  It was thought of as a large dog ('molossus'), and indicates that an ancestor of the Bloodhound, perhaps the Bloodhound itself, could very well have existed in Anglo-Saxon England.

The highly specific idea that a particular, pure breed of hound, the St Hubert, was brought over by William, and continued to be kept virtually pure over here till modern times, certainly lacks any basis in any early source that I have been able to find.  Indeed, Gerard Sasias, writing, in French, in Encyclo-Chien on the St Hubert, says even the name of the St Hubert was unknown to the Normans. 

At any rate, by the Mid 14th century, the English had a large, keen-scented hound, sometimes used to track people, which they called the ‘;Bloodhound’;.  Both ‘;blood’; and ‘;hound‘; are English words from common Germanic roots, and do not occur in French.  They could have been put together to form a compound at any time there appeared an animal that needed to be named, including before the Norman Conquest.  The first recorded use in William of Palerne is in a translation of a French poem.  The fact that this is the first recorded instance means nothing more than that earlier texts in which it appeared have not survived, or have not been noticed, and that the word, like most words, was familiar in the spoken language well before it was written down.  The French word the writer translates as ‘;Bloodhounds’; is simply ‘;chiens’, not ‘;chiens de St Hubert’;.  The translator uses ‘;Bloodhound’; because he knows what a bloodhound is, and does, and he thinks it is appropriate to the situation the poem describes.  He probably would not have known what a St Hubert hound was. 

Conclusion: dogs called Bloodhounds appeared in England at some time in the period from before the Norman Conquest up to about 1300.  We don't know when.  We don't know what dogs went into their making.  We don't know how like the modern Bloodhound they were, but as there is no evidence of discontinuity from then on in the history of the Bloodhound in England, we are safe in assuming that they, or some of them, developed into the modern breed.