Friday, December 3, 2010

Parting Thoughts and Dogs in Heaven

When studying the radically different world of the Middle Ages, we are often taken aback by the incongruities that confront us. We run into concepts that simply don’t jibe with our understanding of the world, of culture, of society, of what it means to be human. How can we wrap our minds around the concept of a Crusade? Of wandering bands of flagellants? How do we explain this mysterious invention of historians: the ‘medieval worldview’? It seems to me that in order to solve the equation that is the medieval thought process, we need to isolate a constant. For us, that constant has been animals. The history of humanity is tied in with the history of animals. To be colloquial about it: we’re all in this mess together. In examining how animals were used (symbolically, functionally, and otherwise), we’ve been able to, if not understand completely, at least empathize with the ideas and ideals of our medieval predecessors. To be truthful, we’ve covered so much ground that I don’t even know how to begin to wrap things up. So just for fun, I thought I’d take a small modern cultural production involving animals as a point of comparison now that we have run the gamut of the medieval world’s usage of creatures. Has anyone ever seen the movie All Dogs Go to Heaven?
If you haven’t, here is a preview:
First of all, yes, it really is that trippy. But the most important part of the movie for our purposes is the heaven part. Can you picture anyone in the medieval world we have been studying so closely writing the treatise: Omnes Canes Eunt ad Caelum? They would be excommunicate before you could say mea culpa. Indeed, despite the multifarious uses and understandings of animals throughout our chosen time period, there was never anyone that I found who would dare to assert the presence of an immortal soul in an animal. Even St. Francis (or, more accurately, the card-carrying ASPCA version of St. Francis that comes through in the many stories told about him) was far from claiming salvation for animals of any kind. In fact, in one story, after a nightingale bests St. Francis at a ‘who can praise God longer’ contest, he remarks: “Poor me! I must admit, Brother that I have been defeated by a nightingale in praising God. Although I am made in the divine image, redeemed by the Blood of Christ, and destined for the glory of heaven, I cannot continue to praise my God with this little bird that has none of those privileges but will cease to exist when it dies.”[1] So such an idea – animals going to heaven – would be blasphemous and just plain absurd.
However, where we might connect with our predecessors is in why all dogs supposedly go to heaven. Unlike people, dogs are, by nature, loyal. In fact, the only way it is possible for a dog to go to hell is (as is the case in the movie) if it finds its ‘life watch’ (I told you, trippy) and sneaks back onto earth. Gaston Phoebus and the rest of the hunting nobility of medieval Europe would likely identify with the inherent loyalty of dogs. If you asked them, they might have been just fine with the idea of all dogs going to heaven for this admirable quality. Stories of dogs’ loyalty to their masters abound throughout all periods of European history: the dog guards its owner’s corpse, outs its owner’s murderer, sacrifices itself for its master. Dogs could even be martyrs in the popular eye (though officials would condemn such an idea). We still have these stories today, updated for the modern audience. The dog somehow dials 911 and saves its elderly master or drags a child out of a burning house. We spend so much time talking about the differences between ourselves and our friends in the Middle Ages. It’s how we define things: in opposition. But every now and then we learn that we do not simply empathize with the people living half a millennium ago. Rather, sometimes we outright agree. And it is in this rare moment that all the periodization melts away, and we realize that despite the hundreds of years of economic, political, social, cultural, and religious development, we are still connected in some way to the medieval world through something as simple as our understanding of the loyalty of dogs. It’s been real everyone. Thanks for the amazing discussions and blog posts. Let’s try to keep this thing going as much as possible.

[1] Fifty Animal Stories of Saint Francis as told by his companions, transcribed from the Early Franciscan Chronicles by Raphael Brown (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1958), 38-39.

Dan F


  1. Really nice summary post! ADGTH creeped me out as a kid and it still does today. I wonder if the film's creators ever read Neruda:

    "My dog has died.
    I buried him in the garden
    next to a rusted old machine.

    Some day I'll join him right there,
    but now he's gone with his shaggy coat,
    his bad manners and his cold nose,
    and I, the materialist, who never believed
    in any promised heaven in the sky
    for any human being,
    I believe in a heaven I'll never enter.
    Yes, I believe in a heaven for all dogdom
    where my dog waits for my arrival
    waving his fan-like tail in friendship..."

    By the end of the poem, Neruda abandons the concept of heaven, for dogs or anyone else, but there it is again, the notion of a canine afterlife. I guess it's just hard to let go.


  2. And yet, it seems the only reason that Neruda is able to think about dogs going to Heaven is precisely because he thinks he won't. Or, more accurately, that nobody will. How much is our present willingness (trippy as it may be) to imagine dogs going to Heaven dependent upon the cultural if not personal loss of conviction that even human beings have immortal souls? This is akin to the question that we had about dragons: medieval Europeans believed that dragons were real; ergo, dragons worked as powerful symbols of evil. We don't believe dragons are real, but want them to be--so much so that we deny them reality when it is hypothesized (big snakes, fossil dinosaurs). Likewise, medieval people were clear that human beings had immortal souls; ergo, it was possible for them to see animals' behavior as pointing to the divine. Modern people have difficulty believing that even human beings have immortal souls; ergo, we imagine that all animals (should) have them. Yet another example of the ways in which our thinking about animals reflects and intensifies our thinking about ourselves.

    FWIF, that trailer did *not* make me want to see the movie!


  3. Popular opinion in the Middle Ages wasn't always with St Francis and the church (at least regarding the souls of animals). The people had a habit declaring their own choices for a saint and these didn't necessarily have to be human. For example:

    + St. Murgen was a 6th century mermaid
    + St Guinefort was a 13th century greyhound
    + Saint Christopher was a saint who’s story somehow got combined with the story of Anubis. There are a few different versions of the story but in most of them, he has a dogs head either from birth or because God gave it to him.

    And just FYI:

    St Joasphat was a Christianized version of one of the legends of Buddha’s life so the Buddha is a Catholic saint!

    of course most of these have since been rejected by the catholic church when a formal canonization system was implemented but they are still there in stories and place names and such.