Universiteit Leiden

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Guide dogs: anything but a modern invention

For a long time, even many researchers thought that guide dogs were a relatively modern invention. An accidental encounter with archival material showed university lecturer Krista Milne that guide dogs helped their blind owners as far back as the Middle Ages. Milne now has received an NWO XS grant to explore this often-forgotten area within disability studies.

The discovery that prompted the research was an image of a thirteenth-century guide dog in a digitalised manuscript (ed. see the image in the banner). But how do you even know if a guide dog is depicted versus any other dog? To take the image that sparked Milne's interest as an example, there are three contextual clues that suggest it depicts a blind person with their guide dog. ‘The person has their eyes closed, which is a sign of blindness in medieval iconography. They are also using a stick to support themselves and the dog appears to be leading him,’ she explains. In other visual representations that Milne has already identified, some guide dogs also carry a bowl in their mouths so that people can put donations in it. This got Milne thinking about medieval people perceived and represented guide dogs, but existing literature was sparse. ‘We want to get a sense of how these animals were represented back then.’

Great solution

In order to identify the full scope of the phenomenon, Milne will use a mixed media method that includes the analysis of text as well as images. Although the research focuses on a topic from more than 600 years ago, she doesn't think there will be a great difference between guide dogs back then and today. While existing literature doesn't show medieval guide dogs in a positive light and implies their training was poor, Milne's preliminary research suggests that people were very content with what guide dogs had to offer. ‘In some cases, blind people and people with other visual disabilities were guided by another person who could help them out, but this was obviously a huge time commitment for that individual, so a guide dog could have been a great solution,’ says Milne.

Furthermore, by studying these texts and images, we might also learn more about the people who used these guide dogs. ‘I hope to learn more about the social status these people had and what might have caused the owners blindness,’ Milne sums up. For example, many of those depicted seemed to suffer from leprosy. ‘This disease often blinded people during medieval times,’ she explains. It is therefore possible that people associated the use of a guide dog with leprosy, and all the connotations that came with it.

Reflecting on practices

While it's certainly interesting to further map out the journey of man's best friend throughout the centuries, the research can also tell us a lot about ourselves. ‘Shedding light on medieval approaches to disability helps us reflect on our own practices. The project links up with a broader trend within the field of looking at the lives and histories of people with disabilities.’ The research can also help us understand the development of assistive technology and support. ‘There's this notion that assistive technology is something modern,’ Milne says. ‘It's true that there have been a lot of advancements in terms of assistive devices and technology over the past century, but it's hard to imagine that dogs weren't doing in the medieval period what they are doing now.’

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