by KARL STEEL
(Lead lid from mirror case: Tristan and Iseult receiving the love potion, King Marc on the right, and Husdent, Tristan's dog, underneath. Inscription: MARCVIS TRISTREM:ISOVOC +ME:PORTERA:DE:IOIE:MEM:FAWDRA:IE:SVRIE:NE:ME (Kunera object 13968) For another Tristan and Iseult and Dog scene, see Kunera 03713)
First read this post on What's the Worst Thing You Can Do To Shakespeare?, if you haven't already.
Nearly 7 years ago (!) I wrote something like the following:
In the Middle English Ser Tristrem, as in many other versions of the story, Tristan and Iseult fall in love because of a magic potion. In an odd, funny touch, Tristan's dog, Hodain, also has a taste of the love potion. Here's what happens:
Tristrem in schip lay
With Ysonde ich night;
Play miri he may
With that worthli wight
In boure night and day.
Al blithe was the knight,
He might with hir play.
That wist Brengwain the bright
Thai loved with al her might
And Hodain dede also. (1684-94)
Maybe this isn't where you expected the scene to end. If we like, we can just read it as "And Husdent loved them too," because dogs are paradigmatically the loyal animal. Except Husdent, being a dog, hardly needs a potion to be loyal.[Tristan lay in the ship with Iseult every night; playing merrily with that worthy lady in her chamber night and day. The knight was entirely pleased that he could have sex with her. So knew Branwen the Bright also. They loved with all their might, and Husdent did also]
He needs the potion for some kind of extra kick:
An hounde ther was biside
That was ycleped Hodain;
The coupe he licked that tide
Tho doun it sett Bringwain.
Thai loved al in lide (see 2(a))
And therof were thai fain.
Togider thai gun abide
In joie and ek in pain
In ivel time, to sain,
The drink was ywrought.(1673-84)
This scene may be about loyalty, and the varieties of love too: Tristan and Iseult love each other (erotically) and love each other (as allies), and their love cleaves them together even while it cleaves them from court. Likewise with the dog, maybe, forming a menage à trois, or, if we count Branwen and Tristan's friend Governal, a menage à cinq, a group attracted by the gravity of a massive globule of erotic love and amicitia, friendship.[There was also a dog there named Husdent, who licked the cup as soon as Branwen set it up. They all loved each other and were pleased with that. Together they remained, in joy and also in pain, which is to be regretted (see note 1681 here). In an evil time, that is, the potion was made]
That's a unembarrassing, apologetic reading, but I'm emboldened by the embarrassment of a recent editor ("even more important is the blatant absurdity of including Hodain in the sentence about the ardor of their love") to take the scene, if you'll pardon the language, straight.
Our editor, Alan Lupack, thinks it's parodic, like the rest of Sir Tristrem, what with its uncourtly attention to warriors banging their heads into things. And maybe it is.
But it's also about recognition: we've maybe all had a dog's cold nose meet us where we'd rather be left alone. It's also about the way that love loves where it loves, not because its object loves back (certainly not in the love between Mark and Tristan), not because its object is the right species ("what is it you see in me?" "Well...you're human. There's that."),1 but for some strange extra incognizable quality, beyond calculation. As we all know from reading Pearl, love needs grace, which means that love needs that monstrous extra something that just doesn't fit.
Because if it adds up perfectly, it might be perfect alignment of demographic variables that catalyzes an Internet date, or it might be a tax writeoff, but it's hardly worth being called love.
This is why any good depiction of Tristan and Iseult needs the dog too. Husdent's a sign of loyalty, of Tristan's sylvan or even wild masculinity (as Husdent's such an able hunter), but he's also a sign of the excess of love, the bit that won't stay, roll over, or play dead.
The dog's also a sign of interior, private space. As Kathleen Walker-Meikle tells us, little dogs are appropriate for well-off women, nuns, and scholars, people who didn't get out in the world that much, at least compared to warriors and dogged hunters. They're as much a sign of being inside as, say, a couch or a reading desk. Getting into Iseult's pants, so to speak, thus also means getting into Iseult's chambers, even if by means of a shaggy go-between. Hence the presence of the dog.
Which is why, I suggest, dogs show up in medieval erotic scenes not infrequently, at least so far as I can tell from an initial search of the Kunera database of medieval badges. Like this one:
Lead pin. "Lady of Vergi: well with copulating couple on one side and man watching and pointing and dog drinking on the other side" Inscription: :A: M: O: V: R: S (backwards) [Belgium, Unknown Date. (Kunera 06865) (see also Kunera object 00611).
The dog's nose knows its place. Look to your bottoms, lovers.
(for introducing me to the Kunera database and for an excellent argument, thanks to Ann Marie Rasmussen, "Moving Beyond Sexuality in Medieval Sexual Badges," in From Beasts to Souls: Gender and Embodiment in Medieval Europe, ed. E. Jane Burns and Peggy McCracken (U of Notre Dame P, 2013), 221-47). For more on badges, see The Medieval Badges Foundation.
And I know I'm not the first person to come up with my title.
1. Thanks to my wife, Alison Kinney, for this idea. She's working on an enormous project that's, in part, about just this point. ↩