In an old hunting lodge on the grounds of an ancient Norman castle in Abergavenny, Wales, a small, extinct dog peers out of a handmade wooden display case.
“Whiskey is the last surviving specimen of a turnspit dog, albeit stuffed,” says Sally Davis, longtime custodian at the lodge.
The Canis vertigus, or turnspit, was an essential part of every large kitchen in Britain in the 16th century.
The small cooking canine was bred to run in a wheel that turned a roasting spit in cavernous kitchen fireplaces.
“They were referred to as the kitchen dog, the cooking dog or the vernepator cur,” says Caira Farrell, librarian. “The very first mention of them is in 1576 in the first book on dogs ever written.”
The turnspit was bred especially to run on a wheel that turned meat so it would cook evenly. And that’s how the turnspit got its other name: vernepator cur, Latin for “the dog that turns the wheel.”
Back in the 16th century, many people preferred to cook meat over an open fire. Open-fire roasting required constant attention from the cook and constant turning of the spit.
“Since medieval times, the British have delighted in eating roast beef, roast pork, roast turkey,” says , author of Amazing Dogs, a Cabinet of Canine Curiosities, the book that first led us to the turnspit dog.
“They sneered at the idea of roasting meat in an oven. For a true Briton, the proper way was to spit roast it in front of an open fire, using a turnspit dog.”
When any meat was to be roasted, one of these dogs was hoisted into a wooden wheel mounted on the wall near the fireplace. The wheel was attached to a chain, which ran down to the spit.
As the dog ran, like a hamster in a cage, the spit turned.
“Turnspit dogs were viewed as kitchen utensils, as pieces of machinery rather than as dogs,” says Bondeson. “The roar of the fire. The clanking of the spit. The patter from the little dog’s feet. The wheels were put up quite high on the wall, far from the fire in order for the dogs not to overheat and faint.”