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THE DERIVATION OF THE WORD ‘BLOODHOUND’   continued

THE IDEA OF BREEDING IN THE MIDDLE AGES AND RENAISSANCE PERIOD

MEDIAEVAL/RENAISSANCE SOCIETY was an aristocracy, dominated by the idea of rank and birth in humans.  The notion of an innate or natural hierarchy of rank was extended to other spheres, including animals.  Dogs had greater or less nobility, according to their breeding, and in the early accounts of choosing dogs for hunting, importance is given to their parentage and pedigree, just as it would be today.  All dogs for hunting were carefully bred.

The word ‘gentle’, meaning ‘of excellent breeding’ (as originally in ‘gentleman’) was used of animals from as early as 1300.  In 1523 Skelton writes: “A ientyll hownd shulde neuer play the kurr” meaning a nobly bred hound should never act like an ill-bred dog.

Caius in De Canibus Britannicis, translated by Abraham Fleming as Of Englishe Dogges, divides dogs into three kinds: a gentle (‘generosam’), a homely (‘rusticam’), and a currish (‘degenerem’) kind.  All hounds, and other dogs used for finding game were of the ‘gentle’ kind, that is nobly bred animals.  He considered the greyhound as ‘simply and absolutely the best of the gentle kind of hounds.’  And this leads him into a mistaken and farfetched etymology of ‘Greyhound’ as ‘(de)greehound’  ie hound of high degree. 

So, it is not impossible that someone who thought the bloodhound was the most nobly bred of all hounds should have given it a name conveying this, though they would probably have used ‘gentlehound’.  What is not possible is that if this had been an available interpretation of ‘bloodhound’ anyone at the time could have been unaware of it, or if it had been the original meaning of the word that awareness of it would have been lost, given the mind-set of the whole period.  If it had been a possible derivation of ‘bloodhound’, Caius, who so stressed the value of good breeding, and who devotes a separate section of his book to the names of dogs and their origin, would have been delighted to acknowledge it, but as far as he is concerned there is only one conceivable explanation.

I have also seen the suggestion that ‘blood’ refers not to the breeding of the dog, but of the people who owned it.  The idea that the word could mean ‘dog owned by people of noble blood’ makes the connection between the blood and the dog even more remote and far-fetched.  In any case, all dogs used for hunting were the property of kings and noblemen who had exclusive rights to hunt game in the forests, chases and parks.   There would be no reason to pick out the bloodhound.