Do animals have souls?

In my current book The Apostates (due out early November), the reformer John Calvin features. My character Will is very happy to be learning at the feet of the great man, his sister Bethia, a Catholic, less so and her sister in law, who is determined to return to the faith of her ancestors, Judaism, even less so.

I was curious to learn about Calvin, a Frenchman who had a big influence on the Scottish Reformation, even though he never visited Scotland.

John Calvin

In the very early 1500s Geneva had a name as the dirtiest city in Europe. Calvin closed the gambling houses and brothels, introduced education for all, including girls and generally cleaned up the city.

Inevitably this didn’t make him popular with everyone, especially if they’d previously enjoyed gambling or made their living from manufacturing playing cards. Some Genevans derided Calvin, claiming they were being taken over by a Frenchman, and making his life difficult in many ways including: misnaming him Cain; ringing handbells beneath his window at night; playing skittles outside the church while he was preaching; and naming their pets after him.

The mention of pets named Calvin or otherwise left me wondering. Did people keep pets in the 1500s? Of course I knew they kept working animals, and we see enough of them in portraits: the hounds, hawks, horses and so on. But what about lap dogs or cats (other than those used as mousers or for their soft pelts)?

Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine

And it seems they did, although small dogs were considered the province of women and clergy For a non-celibate man to keep a pet indicated a lack of manliness and Henri III of France’s strong attachment to his lap dogs was derided as a sign of weakness unsuitable in a king.

King Henri III of France, and dog lover

However, putting King Henri’s affection for his dogs to one side, one of the main purposes of keeping pets (and an animal becomes a pet at the whim of its owner, i.e. is kept indoors, is not eaten and is given a name) was to reinforce status. Only the wealthy could so indulge themselves. Their pets were fed the best quality food and were allowed into spaces where servants were forbidden or constrained. Indeed animals are often present in paintings of childbirth. Some medical texts of the period even recommend that those suffering pain of the belly should press their pet dog to their chest to ward the pains off.

Increasingly too, scholars kept a pet as their muse, to lie quietly at their feet while they worked and to provide a welcome distraction from study … much as the internet is a constant distraction for me, I should imagine.

When the animal died elegies were written, often in Latin, in their memory, as well as epitaphs on their tombstone. Here’s Robert Hendrick (1591-1674) ode to his deceased spaniel.

Now thou art dead, not eye shall ever see,
For shape and service, Spaniell like to thee,
This shall my love doe, give thy sad death one
Teare, that deserves of me a million.

Although it became common for bereaved pet-owners to erect tombstones and pen elegies, not everyone agreed that this was appropriate, indeed some considered it blasphemy. Others, like Aldina, the Dutch philosopher, talked of his dog’s little soul crossing into the underworld. And soon a debate arose as to whether animals did have souls.

St Augustine, and Dog, by Carpaccio

In the late 1500s Montaigne wrote that not only were animals moral and rational, they were more moral and rational than humans. He considered that, because they live in accordance with the dictates of nature, beasts possessed reason, affection, jealousy, hate, joy and grief and that those passions arise out of knowledge.

Followers of Aristotle disagreed, saying that animals have only a sensitive soul while humans have a rational soul. Descartes waded in denying that animals have the ability to reason and, although they have passions, they are no more than bodily functions. Beasts die because the body decays, humans die because the soul leaves the body.

Tug of War

So the jury is out on whether animals have souls but I’ll leave you with a photo of my neighbour’s collies playing tug of war – a very determined, if not soulful, pursuit.

Ps The Apostates will be released on 15 November.


Late Medieval Pet Keeping: Gender, Status and Emotions by Kathleen Fiona Walker-Meikle

The Virtues of Animals in Seventeenth-Century Thought by Peter Harrison

What did it mean to be ‘worth your salt’?

In my saga The Seton Chronicles the family make their money through trade. I spent a fair amount of time trying to unpack just what Scotland would be trading across the North Sea (which was known as the German Ocean until just after WW1 ). In the 1500s hides, wool and fish were the main exports but increasingly salt became important too.

National Library of Scotland – An illustration by William Brownrigg showing 18th Century salt making

The production of one ton of salt required six tons of coal to keep the fire beneath the iron pans, which contained the sea water, burning over several days until the water evaporated. Several villages dotted around the Forth Estuary in the east of Scotland had the perfect combination of sea and coal seams needed.

Culross Palace home of Sir George Bruce, a salt entrepreneur of the 1500s

In Culross, the coal was mined from beneath the sea, always a dangerous process but even more so in the 16th century. The owner of both mine and salt pans, Sir George Bruce, invented a horse drawn bucket and chain system that continually drained the seawater from his underground mine allowing the coal to be extracted. It was such a curiosity that visitors, including King James VI, came to Culross especially to see it.

Sir George Bruce of Carnock

Culross has become part of the Outlander tour circuit since scenes from the series were filmed there, so welcomes quite different visitors from the time of Sir George’s invention. Although the geographical information being given to Outlander tour groups seems a little hazy; visiting Culross the other day I came across a lovely American who was under the impression that she was in the Highlands.

Inevitably the salter serfs, who worked the salt pans had a hard life. The 1606 Act placed both salters and colliers in permanent bondage to their employers and anyone who absconded was to be punished as a thief – which could mean anything from having their ears chopped off to a hanging. Not only were they bound to their place of work for life, but any children they had were too. They were paid in salt and if you visit Culross palace you will see the small window they reached their cupped hands through to receive their ‘handful of salt’.

However to be worth your salt is an expression that pre-dates the poor salter serfs of Culross. It goes back to Roman times when their soldiers were paid in salt, and buying salt was seen as a shrewd investment. The origin of the word salary harks back to then. Sal was the Latin for salt, the soldiers month payment was called a salarium, which in French became salaire and then in English, salary.

Ornate Salt Cellar 1660

To sit below the salt refers to your lowly status. As a valuable commodity, the salt cellar was placed on the high table of the Lord of the Manor and was readily available to him and his high ranking guests. And salt cellars were often very ornate underpinning the value of the commodity and the status of its owner.

The first mention of status defined by the salt cellar is credited to Bishop Joseph Hall, in verses he penned in 1597 …

A gentle Squire would gladly entertaine
Into his House some trencher-chapelaine,
Some willing man that might instruct his Sons,
And that could stand to good Conditions:
First that He lie vpon the Truckle-bed,
Whiles his yong maister lieth ore his hed;
Second that he do, on no default,
Euer presume to sit aboue the salt.

But writing satire was a risky business as the good bishop discovered when, in 1641, his levity led to a charge of high treason and he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.


The Scottish People 1490-1625 by Maureen M Meikle

The Salt Industry and its Trade in Fife and Tayside c1570 to 1850 by C A Whatley


A reader writes to ask what is a caitchpule — and I realise I have made an assumption. In The Castilians I mention King James V’s fondness for the game of caitch, which he regularly played at Falkland Palace. Growing up nearby I was always aware of the famous tennis court at the Palace, and so I wrote as though readers would understand what I was talking about when I mentioned the words ‘caitchpule’ and ‘Falkland Palace’ in the same sentence.


 What I didn’t know, before I wrote the novel, was that real tennis was called caitch and the tennis court a caitchpule. The game is the precursor to lawn tennis played at Wimbledon since the the 1800s.

Real Tennis Court – the Caitchpule

Real tennis is more like squash in that it uses the walls surrounding the enclosed court and the sloping roof above the viewing gallery, to bounce the ball off.  Lawn tennis, although played differently, copied the same scoring system as real tennis.

Viewing Gallery at Falkland Palace

James’s uncle, King Henry VIII of England, was also a keen tennis player in his youth.  There was a caitchpule in St Andrews, so it’s entirely possible my characters in The Castilians may have played the game – at least those with the wealth and leisure to do so.

Real tennis is still played at Falkland Palace by local residents, who would most certainly not have been permitted anywhere near the caitchpule in the 1500s.

Falkland Palace