The James Ford Lectures 2022 - Dogsbodies and Dogs’ Bodies: A Social and Cultural History of Roman Britain’s Dogs and People

These lectures explore the social, cultural, and ritual histories of Roman-Britain’s people through an investigation of their entanglements with dogs.  In the highly anthrozootic world of Roman Britain, dogs and humans together shaped mutual ecologies and life-ways.  Dogs also served as metaphorical and ritual agents, and they were central in the production of both social difference and lived religion under Rome.  By following the trail left by dogs, we can recover something of the lifeways and experience of the people with whom they shared the world, and we can identify and characterize some of the mechanisms through which a Roman provincial society was created.

Lecture One: Why Roman Britain? Why Material Culture? Why Dogs? (21 January 2022)

Aside from a few notable exceptions, the British history written by historians begins not with the Roman period, but with the early Middle Ages.  This lecture poses a series of problems and questions in order to argue that this is a period with which historians should engage, and it suggests methods we might use to write not just the period’s political history, but its social and cultural history as well, by embracing Roman Britain’s more-than-human past.



Lecture Two: Real Dogs Under Rome (28 January 2022)

Dogs’ bodies and dogs’ lives were dramatically transformed after the Roman conquest, and this, in turn, altered the lives of humans.  New-style tiny dogs and monstrous brutes provided people in Britain with novel opportunities to reconceptualize canines and their duties and to use them to make statements about themselves.  At the same time, large populations of uncontrolled, self-feeding dogs were established, and their presence changed the texture and  feel of daily life in Britain.

Lecture Three: Dogs as Metaphorical Agents: Hierarchy, Inequality, Enslavement (4 February 2022)

In the absence of a well-developed social history for Roman Britain, little has been written on the lived experience of the bottom eighty-five percent of its population, but looking at dogs and humans together helps us recuperate something of both species’ experience under Rome.  This lecture considers, on the one hand, the lives of pampered and self-feeding dogs; and on the other, low-status and enslaved humans.  A shared constellation of images, prejudices, and metaphors emerged in the period which explained the moral shortcomings of both canines and the poor and justified their terrible treatment. 

Lecture Four: The Deaths of Dogs and the Lives of Dedicated Ritual Spaces (12 February 2021)

Dogs were not only good to think with in the Roman period or to deploy when meditating on, performing, or normalizing Roman society’s stark inequalities.  They were also central participants in acts undertaken to mediate between the everyday and the uncanny.  In this lecture we explore their roles in engaging with the divine at temples, shrines, and in cemeteries.

Lecture Five: Dogs in Everyday Religion (18 February 2022)

In this lecture, we investigate how everyday religion happened materially in Roman Britain.  Religion for most people on most days was about doing rather than philosophizing and about deploying materials of religion in ways that protected, cured, cursed, or communicated with otherworldly powers and entities.  Fortunately, some of the period’s materials of religion, including the remains of over 1,500 dogs, survive.  This evidence opens up a window into the less discursive, more experiential religion that was so much a part of everyday life, enacted and experienced not only at temples, shrines, and cemeteries, but in farmyards, kitchens, and alongside property boundaries, where people participating in ritual activities often reached––with knife in hand––for a dog. 

Lecture Six: Making Memories and Making Provincial Society… with Dogs (25 February 2022)

Daily, domestic religion as it was lived, was a negotiation between older, indigenous practices and new ones that came with conquest.  Pre-Roman precedents––sacrifice, special deposits made in deep places, dog killing––were part of a repertoire of actions that continued throughout the Roman period, not in their exact Iron Age forms, but rather inflected with new ideas and practices from elsewhere in the empire.  The process, however, was two-way.  Soldiers, merchants, administrators, and others new to Britain came to embrace a host of local ritual practices, including dog killing.  Here, we take an in-depth look at a handful of communities where we can witness low-status locals and people from elsewhere in the empire participating side-by-side in ritual events centered on dogs.  We do this in order to discern the mechanisms and processes standing behind the development of a distinctly provincial, Romano-British society.