For detractors it is little more than "human dogfighting", a modern gladiatorial spectacle that fed the baser human desires. Both views strike closer to the truth than either camp probably ever realizes.
Every professional fighter active today (and us fans) owes a debt of gratitude to the English boxers of the 17th century and 18th century who gifted us "prize fighting". Defined as a boxing (or any combative sport for that matter) contest where the participants fight for money, prize fighting is not only the parent to modern boxing, but is also a parent to the UFC, K-1, and even the WWE. Some may scoff at this idea, believing that since combat sports can be found in every culture throughout history such a claim must be patently false. But the truth is, while fighting is universal, the concept of spectators paying men to fight for their entertainment was an English invention. One they eventually spread throughout their Empire and the world at large.
Of course, little-known amongst fans and fighters themselves is that prize fighting was not originally limited to, or even involved, bare-knuckled boxing, but actually developed out of armed combat with swords, cudgels and quarter staves. Eventually, gladiatorial combat was viewed as too unsavory by the general public and gave way to weaponless "boxing" in England. This 17th and 18th century prize fighting, both the armed and unarmed sort, was itself a revival of an earlier practice developed by the English "schools of defence" in the 15th century known as "Playing the Prize." During this time "Playing" was synonymous with a contest or challenge, and the "Prize" wasn't money but an increase in grade or rank; from Scholar to Free-Scholar to Provost to the eventual rank of Master.
These "schools of defense" offered their pupils instructions in all manner of weaponry (sword, dagger, quarterstaff, singlestick) as well as various methods of unarmed combat (boxing and wrestling). The purpose of such instructions was of course self-defence with the most common threat, at least for the upper class gentry who paid for these instructions, being in the form of a duel.
Governed by a "code duello", dueling was the technically illegal but socially acceptable way for the upper classes to resolve disputes and defend one's honor. Originally most duels involved the use of swords, but eventually this gave way to pistols and bare-handed wrestling and boxing contests as the practice of killing someone over an offense became less acceptable.
Dueling itself was the descendent of a legal tradition known as trial by combat, which itself had its roots in the leges barbarorum, or the laws of the barbarians, the Germanic tribes that conquered after the fall of the Roman Empire . Under trial by combat, disputes could be settled by order of the authorities via single combat between the two parties (or their representatives). The theory at the time was that God would favor the rightful party guaranteeing a fair verdict. Eventually, after years of abuse by those less noble but more skilled than their opponents, it became obvious that the victors were not always the most righteous and it was declared illegal. The practice, however, lived on as dueling.
Thus it was that the medieval trials by combat gave us dueling, which in turn gave us the schools of defence, which in turn gave us the practice of "Playing for the Prize", which in turn gave us English prizefighting, and which eventually gave us modern professional combat sports.
There is much more to be said of the matter, but that will have to wait for another time, for this has served merely as prelude for the tale we wish to tell: the oddest and perhaps most interesting single combat to have ever taken place.
In the early hours of an autumn morning, a young gentlemen in the court of Charles the Great, the King of the Franks, was awoken from his slumber by the sound of scratching and a strange and pitiful moaning emitting from outside his home. Summoned by curiosity, he opened the door to the Paris streets to find an emaciated but still massive alpine-hound waiting for him on his step. The animal, part mastiff and part wolf, showed no signs of aggression - only sorrow - as it whimpered to signify its hunger. For his part, the man showed no sign of fear, for he instantly recognized the dog as belonging to his friend, Chevalier Aubrey de Montdidier, an archer in the King's guard, and knew it to be not only an exceedingly faithful creature, but surprisingly gentle for one with such a fearsome facade.
Recognizing the animal's hunger the man led it inside, where he fed it the remnants of yesterday's meal along with a bowlful of milk. As the famished dog devoured the meal, the man's thoughts returned to his friend. It had been days since he or anyone else had last seen Aubrey at a Sunday's mass, after which he had failed to keep any of his appointments. Worried, a few of his friends called upon him at his home but he wasn't to be found. And here was his faithful dog, nearly starved, with his master's whereabouts unknown.
The man was retrieved from his dark thoughts by a tug at his sleeve, the result of Aubrey's hound having taken a hold of his shirt between its teeth. Having gained the man's attention it released its grip and moved toward the door, indicating with a shallow bark that it wanted out. The man did as asked and the creature exited only to stop after a few steps to look back and see if he would follow. He did not. Eventually the animal wandered off into the darkness.
The man was haunted by the encounter and the next day he redoubled his efforts to find Aubrey, but no one had seen or heard word of him from since that Sunday's mass. As for his dog, others had also encountered the animal, which had been making a ritual of appearing every three or four days at the homes of old acquaintances of his master, begging to be fed, only to disappear after its hunger was staved.
A few days later the dog again showed up at his doorstep, moaning pitifully. The man fed the creature, but this time when it left he followed dutifully behind, sending word to others by way of a young apprentice he encountered. These friends of Aubrey joined him in following the animal out of Paris along the road north that led deep into the tangled Bondy Forest, a place with a foul reputation as a haunt for bandits and outlaws.
It was there in the dark forest that the dog's journey came to an end. Coming upon a great tree, it lied down at its trunk on a patch of recently disturbed earth and commenced to howl mournfully. The men knew instantly what had summoned the beast to this spot.
With their bare hands the men dug up the ground and soon unearthed Aubrey from his grave, a wound on his back revealing where the assassin had laid him low. To all present it was readily apparent what had happened: their friend Aubrey, somehow, had been led out to this forsaken location, only to be attacked and buried where none but his hound would know. The animal, so faithful and loyal, had remained to stand watch over his grave for all these days, only leaving when compelled by hunger, and even then returning as soon as possible to continue its lonely vigil.
The men returned the body to Paris, where it was given a proper burial. The dog stayed beside his master until he was interned, after which a friend of Aubrey's took the dog as his own - or, more accurately, the dog took the man as his own. The mystery of Chevalier Mondiditor's disappearance had been solved, but the identity of his killer remained unknown.
That is until one day, as Aubrey's friend strolled with his dog through the city streets, it suddenly sprang in front of him and growled menacingly at the crowd before them. As the man tried to determine what about the crowd agitated the beast so greatly, it charged into the mass of people to lunge at a chevalier. Luckily, the man had raised his arm in time to deflect the animal and save his throat from being ripped out. With the help of two other passersby, they were able to fend off the animal by beating it and wrestling it away from its would-be victim. With Abrey's hound restrained, the man took the opportunity to flee as the dog frothed and glared at him with baleful eyes. That the dog would display such aggressive behavior was, to say the least, very surprising, for he had always been gentle and never known to attack any man. Now, here it had tried to maul this stranger - but only him, as Aubrey's friend noted, for it did no harm to anyone else present, even those that had themselves attacked the animal.
At first the man thought nothing of the matter, but over the passing days as he mentioned the story to friends, he was shocked to learn that this man, one Chevalier Macaire, had been no stranger, but had served along Montdidier in the King's guard. Furthermore, he and Aubrey had been bitter rivals. Suspicions now entered the man's mind as to why the hound despised this Macaire so strongly.
Word of these incidents soon reached King Charles the Great. Since both the victim and the suspect had been gentlemen of the court, it fell under the King's authority, and interest, to judge such a strange case. To test the veracity of these wild claims he summoned the hound, who appeared before the King displaying its usual friendly demeanor to all present. He then had a large group of attendants brought into the room amongst which Macaire had been hid. The dog, whom had peacefully ignored all the day's activities, suddenly sprang up as he caught the hated Macaire's scent. It then charged through the crowd towards him and was only denied its prey by the combined efforts of several men who forcibly removed by the animal. The King, having witness the hound's strange behavior firsthand, now questioned Macaire intently - but he denied any involvement in the death of Aubrey de Montdidier.
Unable to decide in either party's favor based on such circumstantial evidence, the King ordered that the case be judged by God's favor - a trial by combat - with innocence or guilt to be determined on the île de la Cité, an island on the Seine that would eventually be the location of the Notre Dame de Paris.Cathedral.
On the day of combat, the whole of the court was in attendance to witness this duel between man and dog. The area of fighting had been roped off; stands had been constructed for the King and other nobles to gain a better view. Macaire was given a thick baton for his defense, while the dog, which was expected to fight with his natural weapons, was given a barrel in which he could retreat. Thus evenly armed the two were brought onto the lists and the signal was given to commence.
Macaire stood his ground as the hound rushed him, only to halt just short of the baton's striking range. There, always outside of his reach, the animal darted swiftly to the right and left, dodging Macaire's heavy blows until finally the Chevalier tired and dropped his guard. An instant was all the animal needed as it immediately pounced upon Macaire, clamping its jaws around his throat. Macaire, only saved by his coat's collar, fought desperately to get the dog off of him. When that proved impossible, he screamed for mercy. The crowd shouted back at him "God's judgements are the best,' and demanded that he confess the crime before ending the trial. Macaire swore he would do so and the attendants immediately pulled the now raging beast off of him.
Macaire did as promised detailing how, under the pretense of a hunting trip, he had led Aubrey into the Bondy Forest. There, after Aubrey's hound had taken off after a stag injured by its master's arrow, Macaire cowardly stabbed his hated rival in the back with his spear. He then buried the body and rode off just as the dog was returning from his hunt.
With God having passed judgement (along with Macaire's confession) the assassin was ordered to climb the scaffolds a week later. With the execution of Macaire, Aubrey Montdidier's most faithful companion had avenged the murder of his master.
The tale of Chavelier Aubrey de Montidier's avenging hound is perhaps best known under the title "The Dog of Montargis" ("Le Chien de Montargis"). A stage play based on the story ("Le Chien de Montargis, ou la Forêt de Bondy, mélodrame historique en trois actes et à grand spectacle") was extremely popular in the 19th century, playing uninterrupted for 20 years at the Théâtre de la Gaîté in Paris, and various productions toured much of the western world. Most versions of the tale have placed the events in the year 1361 or 1371 (although some place it as late as 1400 or 1411) during the reign of Charles V, and name the town of Montargis as where Aubrey and his dog resided (thus the title). The villain is also given the full name Robert Macaire (a name that became synonymous with villainy in French society) while Aubrey's friend is identified as Sieur de Narsac. The dog is sometimes given the name Dragon, and is identified as either an "alpine-hound", "greyhound", or "English bloodhound", depending on the particular authors personal preference.
The oldest written accounts of the contest are to be found in an 1186 script of Plutarch and in Alberic of Trois-Fontaines's "Chronica Albrici Monachi Trium Fontium" from 1241. The details from these two accounts have been reprinted in Bulletin de la Société des sciences historiques et naturelles..., Volume 39 By Société des sciences historiques et naturelles de l'Yonne (1885) and J. Viscardi's "Le Chien de Montargis: étude de Folklore juridique" (1932). These ealier sources place the contest between Macaire and the dog in the late 8th or early 9th century during the reign of Charlemagne, or Charles the Great as he was also known, and not Charles V.
In my recounting I have tried to remain faithful to the earlier versions, ignoring later additions such as the town of Montargis and the naming of the Aubrey's dog. (That the dog's name was never recorded is lamented by Dom Bernard de Monfaucon in his poem "Vide, Les Monumens de la Monarchie Françiose")
A special thanks to Derek Suboticki for offering his editing services for this piece.
"The Combat of the Dog of Montargis with the Assassin of His Master" from The Terrific Register; or, Record of Crimes, Judgements, Providences, and Calamities (1825)
"De Narsac recognizes his friend's dog" from the Animal Story Book (1896)
"The Dog flies at Macaire in the presence of the King" from the Animal Story Book (1896)
"Macaire and the dog of Montargis" from A Pictorial History of France (1861)
"The dog planted himself in front of his master." From School Reading by Grades, Book 5 (1819)