A post for my mother (who keeps Spaniels)

This is the opening to Virginia Woolf’s, ‘Flush: A Biography’. Flush was the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Cocker Spaniel, or, in the parlance of the day, a Spaniel from a distinguished Cocking family.

My mother’s dogs are, I am certain, from equally distinguished families: Cavaliering and Springing respectively…

It is universally admitted that the family from which the subject of this memoir claims descent is one of the greatest antiquity. Therefore it is not strange that the origin of the name itself is lost in obscurity. Many million years ago the country which is now called Spain seethed uneasily in the ferment of creation. Ages passed; vegetation appeared; where there is vegetation the law of Nature has decreed that there shall be rabbits; where there are rabbits, Providence has ordained there shall be dogs. There is nothing in this that calls for question or comment. But when we ask why the dog that caught the rabbit was called a Spaniel, then doubts and difficulties begin. Some historians say that when the Carthaginians landed in Spain the common soldiers shouted with one accord ‘Span! Span!’ for rabbits darted from every scrub, from every bush. The land was alive with rabbits. And Span in the Carthaginian tongue signifies Rabbit. Thus the land was called Hispania, or Rabbit-land, and the dogs which were almost instantly perceived in full pursuit of the rabbits, were called Spaniels or rabbit dogs.

(Blog author’s note: our street is alive with cats so by that rationale and if we had been lucky enough to be invaded by Carthaginians I should live in El Gato-del-Mar.)

There many of us would be content to let the matter rest; but truth compels us to add that there is another school of thought which thinks differently (Blog author’s note: tautology? surely not). The word Hispania, these scholars say, has nothing whatever to do with the Carthaginian word span. Hispania derives from the Basque word espana, signifying an edge or boundary. If that is so, rabbits, bushes, dogs, soldiers – the whole of that romantic and pleasant notion must be dismissed from the mind; and we must simply suppose that the Spaniel is called a spaniel because Spain is called Espana. As for the third school of antiquaries which maintains that just as a lover calls his mistress monster or monkey (really?!), so the Spaniards called their favourite dogs crooked or cragged (the word espana can be made to take these meanings) because a spaniel is notoriously the opposite – that is too fanciful a conjecture to be seriously entertained.

Passing over these theories, and many more which need not detain us here, we reach Wales in the middle of the tenth century. The spaniel is already there, brought, some say, by the Spanish clan of Ebhor or Ivor many centuries previously; and certainly by the middle of the tenth century a dog of high repute and value. ‘The Spaniel of the King is a pound in value’, Howel Dha laid it down in his Book of Laws. And when we remember what the pound could buy in the year AD948 – how many wives, slaves, horses, oxen, turkeys (oh no Virginia…, turkeys!) and geese – it is plain that the spaniel was already a dog of value and reputation. He had his place already by the King’s side. His family was held in honour before those of many famous monarchs. He was taking his ease in palaces when the Plantagenets and the Tudors and the Stuarts were following other people’s ploughs through other people’s mud. Long before the Howards, the Cavendishes or the Russells (blog author name check) had risen above the common ruck of Smiths, Joneses and Tomkins, the spaniel family was a family distinguished and apart. And as the centuries took their way, minor branches broke off from the parent stem. By degrees, as English history pursues its course, there came into existence at least seven famous Spaniel families – the Clumber, the Sussex, the Norfolk, the Black Field, the Cocker, the Irish Water and the English Water, all deriving from the original spaniel of prehistoric days but showing distinct characteristics, and therefore no doubt claiming privileges as distinct. That there was an aristocracy of dogs by the time Queen Elizabeth was on the throne Sir Philip Sidney bears witness: ‘…greyhounds, Spaniels and Hounds,’ he observes, ‘whereof the first might seem the Lords, the second the Gentlemen, and the last the Yeomen of dogs,’ he writes in the Arcadia.

But if we are thus led to assume that the Spaniels followed human example, and looked up to Greyhounds as their superiors and considered Hounds beneath them, we have to admit that their aristocracy was founded on better reasons than ours. Such at least must be the conclusion of the anyone who studies the laws of the Spaniel Club. By that august body it is plainly laid down what constitutes the vices of a spaniel, and what constitutes its virtues. Light eyes, for example, are undesirable; curled ears are still worse; to be born with a light nose or a topknot is nothing less than fatal. The merits of the spaniel are equally clearly defined. His head must be smooth, rising without a too-decided stoop from the muzzle; the skull must be comparatively rounded and well developed with plenty of room for brain power; the eyes must be full but not gozzled (que?); the general expression must be one of intelligence and gentleness. The spaniel that exhibits these points is encouraged and bred from; the spaniel who persists in perpetuating topknots and light noses is cut off from the privileges and emoluments of his kind. Thus the judges lay down the law and, laying down the law, impose penalties and privileges which ensure the law shall be obeyed.

Vriginia Woolf & Vita Sackville-West with what look suspiciously like… spaniels

Posted on October 11, 2012, in Dogs, Words and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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