Louis the Pious and the Cynocephalus

As all learned folk of the Middle Ages knew, monsters were warnings, their twisted forms messages from a nature at war with itself, a dread portent of the evil men do writ large in their debased flesh. Hybrid beings such as cynocephali, men with the heads of dogs, broke down all the safe barriers that made life secure, unsettling the hierarchy that placed humans above their beasts. But warnings prompt the wise to observe what needs to be noticed. The writers of the middle ages found instruction in these unnerving transgressions. In the stories they told about people with the heads of dogs we can hear the echoes of their thoughts on those with the heads of apes. The land that lies between human and animal, fact and fiction, is often fertile, even if it produces curious fruit. It is in this country that I find myself walking with this post.

In the year 814, the recently crowned Carolingian Emperor Louis the Pious was presented with a dog-headed man.  That this extraordinary incident is not better known is entirely due to an error in our primary source, the Treatise of Signs, Prodigies, and Portents Old and New of Jakob Mennel, which is a historical survey of portents and omens produced in 1503 for the Emperor Maximilian I.:

In the year 914, a monster having the head of a dog and other limbs like a person was presented to Louis. And well could it represent the monstrous state of that time, when people without a head wavered in their loyalties hither and yon barking like dogs.

Mennel reported the incident faithfully, but accidentally dated it to 914, a time when there were no monarchs called Louis. As the previous portent in Mennel’s catalogue refers to the age of Charlemagne, we can reasonably assume that the jurist intended to refer to Charlemagne’s son before an accidental slip of the pen made the very idea of Louis the Pious encountering a dog-headed man seem ridiculous.

A visual depiction of Louis’ meeting with the cynocephalus illustrating Mennel’s Treatise of Signs, Prodigies, and Portents old and new, Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek cod.4417 f.9v, also containing the text quoted above [Ed: the source won’t let us link directly to the page, so if you’re curious it’s image number 27/60]. Note also the evidence that Louis the Pious invented vaping.

Establishing that the emperor met a cynocephalus is thus trivial. The hard part is determining what this encounter meant. Mennel was well aware that monsters are messengers, delivering signals from the heavens. As Isidore of Seville tells us in his Etymologies (11.3.15):

omens (monstrum) derive their name from admonition (monitus), because in giving a sign they indicate (demonstrare) something, or else because they instantly show (monstrare) what may appear.

Mennel interpreted the cynocephalus as a prediction of the vacillating character of the people of the age. Anyone who has ever had to study the twisted accounts from the Field of Lies in 833 will feel some sympathy for this assessment of the reign of Louis the Pious.

However, if we are to truly understand this moment, we need to go a little deeper into the nature of the dog-headed man. Charlemagne had been widely celebrated when in 802 he had received an elephant from the ‘Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid. Likewise, as I may have mentioned once or twice, Louis’ son Charles the Bald was to receive camels from the Emir of Córdoba. It’s not hard to imagine that Louis was aiming to continue that tradition. Exotic animals provided rulers with an opportunity to demonstrate their power over nature and the respect held for them by far off peoples. By demonstrating their special relationship with distant lands, kings built a sense of magic and glamour about themselves.

That the cynocephali were beasts is attested by a number of authorities. Isidore of Seville said of them that ‘their barking indeed reveals that they are rather beasts than humans’ (Etymologies 11.3.5). The Liber Monstrorum, composed in the late seventh or early eighth century in a southern Anglo-Saxon context, tells us that they ‘do not imitate humans but the beasts themselves in eating raw flesh’ (1.16). Classical authorities placed the cynocephali in the far east, with Ctesias and Pliny locating them in India. The dog-headed man might therefore have been a gift from the ‘Abbasid Caliph, the follow-up to the elephant.

There are problems with this hypothesis. First, it is difficult to attribute an eastern origin to the cynocephalus. In these years the Caliphate was in the midst of a civil war between the sons of Harun al-Rashid, who all had better things to think about. Further, our sources from the Carolingian period strongly suggest that the cynocephali population of the period were more strongly concentrated in Scandinavia. The Cosmographia of Aethicus Ister locates them in the well-known island of Munitia, which lies in the North Sea, where they traded with German merchants. Likewise, the letter written by the missionary Rimbert to Ratramnus of Corbie places the cynocephali in Scandinavia, close to the people Rimbert was attempting to convert.

The correspondence between Rimbert and Ratramnus raises a further issue for the assumption that Louis was attempting to compete with Charlemagne’s elephant, because they clearly demonstrate the humanity of the cynocephali. Rimbert provided Ratramnus with an ethnographic description of the dog-headed people as reported to him. Ratramnus used this to demonstrate that the cynocephali must be rational, thinking beings, organised in cities with laws, crafts and a sense of morality. This rationality was the key factor in deciding whether the cynocephali were humans. As Augustine noted in City of God (6.18), evidence of rationality would reveal even those ‘Cynocephali, whose dog-like head and barking proclaim them beasts rather than men’ to be human beings. As Ratramnus commented, by these criteria the dog-heads of Scandinavia were clearly rational and therefore human. This is reinforced by the evidence that St Christopher was in fact dog-headed, something traditionally downplayed in modern accounts (in yet another example of the erasure of the cynocephali community from history).

Understanding this gets us a little closer to what was happening in 814. Far from being a present from Baghdad, the cynocephalus brought to Louis the Pious was clearly an ambassador sent by the dog-headed people of Scandinavia. Relations between Charlemagne and the cynocephali had been strained. As Notker the Stammerer tells us (2.13), the dog-heads allied with the Danish king Godfrid (r.804-810) when he invaded Frisia in 810. Following Godfrid’s retreat, Charlemagne is said to have bemoaned that he ‘was not thought worthy to see my Christian hands dabbling in the blood of those dog-headed fiends’. We know that Louis was much concerned with northern affairs at the start of his rule. His earlier career had been primarily based in Aquitaine, but in 815 he visited Saxony for the first and only time in his reign. The death of Charlemagne provided an excellent opportunity for Louis the Pious to reset Frankish relations with the cynocephali.

The same year that the dog-headed man made his appearance, Harald Klak, one of the struggling contenders for the Danish throne, also came to the court of Louis the Pious. Having been driven out of Denmark, Harald sought Louis’ aid in order to be restored to the throne, which Louis agreed to, helping him return to power in 819. Given the Scandinavian location of the polity of the cynocephali and their past association with Godfrid, it seems plausible that the dog-headed man may have been connected to Harald, although in what capacity is unclear. Perhaps the cynocephalus was a supporter of Harald.

Alternatively, the collapse of the Danish polity into warring factions at this point may have convinced the cynocephali that they needed to find new allies in a wider world. Aachen could be extremely generous to northern peoples who made themselves useful. The Slavic Abodrites in modern Pomerania had been rewarded with land and gifts for supporting Charlemagne in his wars against the Saxons. Louis may have had ambitions of converting the cynocephali. Much of his diplomatic activity in the northern lands was aimed at making things easier for his missionaries. Certainly, the interest of later writers such as Rimbert and Ratramnus lay in their desire to know whether they should attempt to bring the word of God to the dog-headed men.

This seems to me to be the best way to understand the material presented by Jakob Mennel. One could of course tell a different story, in which dog-head, signifying cruel stupidity, was an ethnic slur applied to Scandinavians, which over the years was taken increasingly literally, until a Danish prince at the court of Louis the Pious lost any vestige of being a human, and instead joined a menagerie of curiosities intended for the amusement of a much later emperor. Perhaps that was the tale I should have told in this post, the story of how a man became a monster. But I must confess I have never had much patience for such accounts. So instead, I shall walk a little further into the strange country, looking for men within monsters.

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