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Posts Tagged ‘Alaunts’

Brehm bulldog

Bulldogs of various types have been all the rage. In my immediate area, the most common dog for people to own is some sort of pit bull or American Staffordshire sort of dog, and it well-known that various offshoots of this basic type, called “bullies” are selling at very high prices. The French bulldog is currently the most registered dog in the United Kingdom’s Kennel Club, and the breed is wildly popular in the US as well.  The Sourmug bulldog, which is known as English bulldog or the bulldog, is also quite popular. Boxers, which are type of German bulldog, are also pretty common.

These dogs are popular as pets, but their origins are not well-understood.  Most people understand that bulldogs were used to fight bulls, but the origin of these dogs goes much deeper than late Medieval and early Modern British history.

The beginnings of the bulldog start with big game hunting.  Europe at the time of the Romans was far less densely populated than it is now. Lions roamed the Balkans and Greece.  Moose were found well into Central Europe, and brown bears were common throughout the continent.  Massive wild cattle called aurochs roamed freely, as did herds of European bison. Red deer were far more widespread than they are now.

Europeans used various sorts of dogs for hunting game. Dogs of the laika or elkhound were the aboriginal European hunting dog by the time of the Mesolithic, but the breeds began to diversify over time. Sighthounds became quite prized in much of Europe during the time of the Roman Empire, but it was the arrival of some dogs from the East that would revolutionize big game hunting.

The Alani or Alans were a Scythian people who wandered a vast region from Central Asia. They were skilled horsemen and hunters. They knew animal husbandry quite well, and they produced excellent horses and working dogs.

By the 1st Century AD, they were a major force in the Caspian Sea region. By the 2nd Century, they were in the Caucasus and were raiding the eastern parts of the Roman Empire. They also developed a complex relationship the Huns, a similar westward expanding nomadic pastoralist people from Central Asia.  In the 4th century, their relationship with Huns collapsed, and vast numbers of Alani migrated deep into the Roman Empire. Large numbers settled in Gaul, and with them, they brought their dogs.

The dogs they broad were relatively long-headed and powerful and very adept at gripping and holding dangerous game. The closest thing to these dogs that exists today that I can imagine is something like a Dogo Argentino, though some were more robust and more mastiff-like.  Some of these dogs might have been livestock guardians, while others were big game hunting catch dogs.

In the 5th century,  the Alani in Europe joined forces with a Germanic tribe called the Vandals, and the two peoples raided all over Europe. The Alani left behind some of their dogs, which were crossed with sighthounds, scenthounds, and perhaps livestock guardian dogs. The dogs became famous for their abilities in hunting boars and bears and for gripping aurochs and bison.

Over time, various regional European dogs with this Alaunt dog blood began to develop.  One of these was the Alaunt boucherie, which the English called the Alaunt butchers. It was this dog that became known for controlling half wild and fully feral cattle at butcher shops, and the skills with which these dogs worked the cattle eventually evolved into the wagering games of bull-baiting.

By the Medieval Period, the aurochs and bison had become rare, as had the brown bear.  In England, the boar was extirpated through much of the countryside, and the only real use for these dogs was in butcher shop working and holding recalcitrant cattle and swine.

It is here that we reach the beginning of what we call bulldogs. On the continent, the dogs were still used to hunt big game, while in England, they were used for a very particular purpose that had little to do with hunting. In some ways, the Alaunt dog working and holding the cattle must have reminded them of the days when the English hunted big game with these dogs.  This simple work then evolved into the spectacle of bullbaiting, which was almost certainly a re-enactment of the ancient aurochs hunt.

The Alaunt dog is probably not only the root-stock for the bulldogs. It is also a much more likely source for the mastiff breeds, and here, I’m sure that I’m going to sound quite controversial.

The classical history of the mastiff breeds is they derive from the dogs of the Molossians. This idea can be traced to Linnaeus, who classified the mastiff of England with the dog of the Molossian people.  Linnaeus was not a dog expert or historian by any means, but his classification became the accepted truth of the origins of mastiffs for centuries. Indeed, this idea is so pervasive, that the term “Molosser” is used to describe virtually every broad-headed mastiff-ish dog.

I do not use this term for two reasons. One is that it is based upon bad scholarship.  Col. David Hancock recounts that the Babylonians were hunting with large broad-mouthed dogs, as did the Persians. The Alani were of a people who spoke an Iranian language and were related to the Persians, which may have been where they obtained at least some of their dogs. Hancock contends that the Molossians had two dogs, a livestock guardian and a large boarhound. Hancock conjectures that this boarhound is the ancestor of the Great Dane, but most sources believe that the Great Dane came about through crossing mastiffs with the original Irish wolfhound. However, it is very possible that this sort of dog is the ancestor of the original large wolfhound that spread through Europe and may have indirectly led to the Great Dane. The livestock guardian of the Molossians did become celebrated in Roman times, but it seems that this breed is the ancestor of something more like the Maremma and other livestock guardians.

The second is that we have good DNA studies on dog breed phylogeny now. Bulldogs and European catch mastiff share a common ancestor, which means they form a clade.  The most recent one also disagrees with Hancock, placing the Great Dane as early offshoot of the bulldogs and catch mastiffs that is a sister breed with the Rhodesian ridgeback. So the Great Dane is also descended from the Alaunt dog, if we assume that the Alaunt dog is the ancestor of this bulldog and mastiff clade.

Further, all the various broad-headed dogs that are called “Molossers” are not related to each other. The Newfoundland dog is much more closely related to Labrador, golden, and flat-coated retrievers than to any catch mastiff or bulldog, and the Great Pyr, Kuvasz, and Komondor fit into another clade. The Great Pyr is not the sister breed to the Komondor and Kuvasz. Indeed, these dogs fit into a clade that includes the Pharaoh hound, the Afghan hound, and the saluki.

So if historical scholarship and genetics are pointing in the same direction, then the bulldogs and catch mastiffs derive from the dogs of the Alani.

I know that such an assumption needs more verification, but it seems pretty likely. All of these dogs clearly do derive from a common ancestor. Perhaps we will have better DNA studies soon that also include a molecular clock and samples from ancient and Medieval dogs that are of the mastiff or bulldog type, and this question can be fully answered.

However, for the purposes of this series, I will point to the Alaunt dog as the ancestor, and the dichotomy between the butcher dogs of England and catch dogs of the continent as the focal point for the next part of this series.

So this piece may not have reached the true bulldog yet, but we are almost there.

 

 

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It has been a long time since I have writing a comprehensive breed history series, but I have decided that it is time for me to return to some subject matter that generated lot of readership and discussion in the past. This first part will be released free and published here on the blog, but Part 2 will be released as part of my Premium Membership program. Starting in August 2020, members will receive two exclusive blog posts that will not appear on the main page for at least six months. To get these exclusive blog posts, subscribe to the Premium Membership plan. It costs only $2 a month, and it helps produce quality content on this blog. All your information will be held in confidence through Stripe

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