Medieval Kitchens Used a Specially Bred Dog to Turn Roasting Spits

Before the era of "set it and forget it" countertop rotisserie ovens, kitchen gadgets required a lot more manpower—and if not manpower, then dogpower. The turnspit, a breed of dog dating for medieval Britain, would run around and around on a wheel like a hamster in a cage, ensuring evenly roasted meat for hungry noblemen.

The dog wheel-spit turner came sometime in the 6th or 7th century, replacing what was probably an unfortunate kitchen boy hiding behind a bale of wet hay to avoid getting cooked. In medieval kitchens, you might find this wooden wheel mounted high on the wall, away from the heat. As the dog ran, a chain tugged on spit, turning it in tandem.

By the 16th century, Canis vertigus or the turnspit emerged as a distinct breed. Short and squat, it was a hardy working dog who could turn the spit for hours. But as mechanization came for the kitchen, the turnspit was no longer needed. The Abergavenny Museum in Wales has one of the last remaining turnspits—taxidermied, of course. This is Whiskey the turnspit dog.

Medieval Kitchens Used a Specially Bred Dog to Turn Roasting Spits

Abergavenny Museum

"Turnspit dogs were viewed as kitchen utensils, as pieces of machinery rather than as dogs," Jan Bondeson, author of Amazing Dogs, told NPR. And like machinery, they could be replaced by the newest, shiniest model. By 1900, kitchens had cheap spit-turning machines called clock jacks instead of dogs.

The closest modern incarnation of the dog wheels might be doggie treadmills, which exist, of course, for almost the opposite reason. Rotisserie ovens have come a long way in 500 years. So have dogs. [NPR, Edible Geography]

Top image: Wikimedia Commons