Mediaeval Collars for the Modern Dog
by Alianora Munro

"Tourney dogs" are a frequent feature of SCA events, even those without tournaments. It is not always possible (and frequently inadvisable) to select one's dog based upon the existence of its breed within SCA period, since many mediaeval breeds are extinct, and many modern breeds are nineteenth-century arrivals or developments. However, it is possible to give even the most modern dog a more mediaeval "look" with reproductions of mediaeval collars and leashes. These are easier to make than many clothing projects, and can be made from scrap materials, so financial outlay is minimal.1

Dog collars often appear in the inventories of the wealthy nobility, and were frequently made of valuable materials. One that belonged to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, was of "crimson velvet embroidered with two shields [bearing the duke's arms]" and had the duke's motto worked on it in small pearls.2 Others were made of silk or other cloth, and were embellished with ornaments of silver-gilt and other metals and gems.3

Manuscript illuminations and tapestries depicting the hunt show a number of different fastenings for collars, the most common being:

1) Buckles, such as are used on modern dog collars and human belts.

Buckled Collar. Detail of a Florentine engraving, c. 1465-1480.
Buckled Collar. Detail of a Florentine engraving, c. 1465-1480.

2) Clasps, similar to cloak clasps and some belt clasps. These were sometimes outfitted with a ring for attaching the leash or coupling to the collar. All collars had rings for this purpose, but not always at the fastening.

3)Lacing, although the mechanics of this particular technique are not entirely clear. Lacing seems to be how the collars in the border of an illumination depicting an allegorical hunt in the late fifteenth-century Livre d'Echecs Amoureux are fastened.

The buckle closure is probably the most secure fastening for these collars. The most clear examples of buckled collars I found were intended for unicorns, not dogs. However, it seems reasonable that unicorns' collars were modelled on existing collars in use on more commonplace animals.

To make a buckled collar, you will first need to measure the dog's neck at the place where the collar will rest. You should be able to slip two fingers between the dog's neck and the tape measure -- any more will be too loose, any less will be too tight. Cut a length of fabric six inches longer than the dog's neck measurement, and about three and half to four inches wide. The precise width of the collar will depend on the size of the dog, the width of the available buckle, and should include a 1/2-inch seam allowance. Mediaeval collars were normally very wide, but they were also worn by large hunting dogs.4 A smaller dog will need a narrower collar. Embroider, bead, and otherwise embellish with your initials, arms or badge, motto, et cetera to your heart's content. Remember the seam allowance and leave space for eyelets. Caveat: velvet and other fine fabrics are often ravel-prone. Be careful to finish your edges.

Interface (I use non-fusible interfacing) and line the collar with a heavy, sturdy cloth. Leave a few inches at the buckle end open to attach the buckle and D-ring more easily.

The collar before the buckle and d-ring are attached.
The collar before the buckle and d-ring are attached.

Affix the buckle and D-ring for the leash to the buckle end, and then mark the placement of the eyelets on the tail of the collar. The first eyelet should be the distance of the dog's neck measurement from the buckle, and the rest at 1 or 1.5 inch intervals beyond it.5 I come down firmly on the side of sewn eyelets in the sewn v. metal eyelets debate; in addition to being more authentic, they are more durable, more flexible, and less obtrusive than metal eyelets.

Though our mediaeval predecessors seem to have used leashes only to keep hounds from starting the chase too early, we are bound by courtesy and sometimes law to keep our pets leashed. The leashes used for hunting hounds are described in La Chasse de Gaston Phoebus, Comte de Foix, where the count says that the leash should be three and half fathoms (about seven yards) and made of well-tanned horsehide.6 Seven yards is rather a lot of leash, and most will probably want to reduce it substantially. With my own dogs, I have found leashes six to ten feet in length are the most manageable. Leather leashes are the most durable and least punishing to the hands. Most of the leashes depicted in period sources appear to have been tied directly to the collar, but for security's sake I would recommend the addition of a small loop at one end that can be looped around the ring of the collar.

Attaching the leash to the D-ring on the collar.
Attaching the leash to the D-ring on the collar.

A dog might be leashed singly, or it might be coupled with another, using a length of rope about a foot long called a coupling (preferably made of horsehair rather than wool or hemp, says Gaston). The coupling was normally tied to each of the dogs' collars and the leash tied to the coupling.

Two chiens courants coupled with a leash and coupling.
Two chiens courants coupled with a leash and coupling.
Detail of the first of the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries.

I also found some examples of dogs being coupled with the leash alone; the leash was affixed to the ring of one dog's collar, then threaded through the ring of the second dog's collar. This variant coupling appears several times in the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries in The Cloisters. Coupling is a wonderful thing for those travelling with a plurality of dogs, since it reduces the opportunities for "leash weaving."

Two sighthounds coupled with a leash.<br>Detail of the sixth tapestry in the Hunt of the Unicorn series.
Two sighthounds coupled with a leash.
Detail of the sixth tapestry in the Hunt of the Unicorn series.

If you need inspiration in designing the ornamentation of a collar, depictions of mediaeval hunting, like the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries in the Cloisters Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are a treasurehouse of examples. Books on daily life and mediaeval hunting practices often contain both the tapestries and a variety of manuscript illuminations depicting the hunt, which are useful for the marginalia as well as for the miniatures. For example, the Livre d'Echecs Amoureux, in addition to the collars that were apparently laced closed, also show collars with scalloped edges and coiled leashes and couplings in the borders surrounding a hunt scene.

Notes:

1. My first collar was made, for example, from fabric left over from an Italian Renaissance court dress and lined with a scrap of cotton duck from an old corset. The buckle and D-ring cost less than five dollars.

2. Margart B. Freeman, The Unicorn Tapestries (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1976), 95.

3. There is ample evidence for leather dog collars in the Middle Ages, and a few spiked metal collars used in bear and boar hunting still survive. Photos of some sixteenth-century iron collars can be found in Four Centuries of Dog Collars at Leeds Castle (Leeds Castle Foundation: Maidstone, Kent, 1991).

4. The width of the collars served to protect the throats on the dogs in heavy underbrush.

5. The presence of more than one eyelet is not strictly authentic; most depictions of buckled collars show only one eyelet. However, I have noticed that the collar size of some dogs, especially those with thick double coats, may vary seasonally, and the extra eyelets allow adjustment for that. Since the size can be adjusted, the collar can also be used on dogs other than the one for whom the collar was originally made.

6. Freeman, 95. The French royal kennels used plain cowhide. See John Cummins, The Hound and the Hawk: The Art of Medieval Hunting (New York: St Martin's Press, 1988), 24.


Images from some early French hunting manuals are available online:

Gaston Phoebus, Book of the Hunt, Bibliothèque Nationale MS Fr 616 (15th c.)
Jacques Du Fouilloux, La Venerie (1561)

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