This section is from the book "British Dogs: Their Varieties, History, Characteristics, Breeding, Management, And Exhibition", by Hugh Dalziel. Also available from Amazon: British Dogs.
It is not my intention to write a history of the old English mastiff, or to attempt to trace his origin or prove him the indigenous dog of Britain. Such a task would require more ability and research than I can devote to it, whilst, if undertaken, it is doubtful if the result would be commensurate with the labour it would demand.
MR. C. T. HARRIS'S MASTIFF "THE SHAH" (K.C.S.B. 4457). ( K.C.S.B. 2333) - Dam /no, by Baron (K.C.S.B. 2282) out of Nell, by Old Turk (K.C.S.B. 2349).
I cannot, however, quite ignore that part of the subject, deeply interesting as it is to all who admire the noble qualities of this breed, the magnificent appearance of which seems to entitle it to "claims of long descent."
It is an undisputed fact that when the Romans invaded these islands they found the natives possessed of a fierce and powerful breed of dogs, which they used in war, and during the Roman occupation dogs con-stituted a not inconsiderable article in the exportations of that period; and of such importance was this branch of commerce considered, that a special officer was appointed by the emperors to superintend the selection And transmission of them. Some of these exported dogs were used by the Romans for hunting, and, as they are written of as a small dog, probably-corresponded to some extent with our modern beagle. They are thus described by Oppian:
There is a kind of dog of mighty fame For hunting; worthy of a fairer frame; By painted Britons brave in war, they're bred, Are beagles called, and to the chase are led; Their bodies small, and of so mean a shape, You'd think them curs that under tables gape.
There were other dogs sent to Rome for more brutal purposes, namely, to bait the bull and other animals for the amusement of the people in the amphitheatres. These were the "broad-mouthed dogs of Britain," differing, no doubt, very much from either the bulldog or the mastiff of to-day, but possessing the great strength and indomitable courage that distinguish both of these breeds, and which so eminently fitted their progenitors for the rough and hazardous sports for which they were used.
A Latin poet thus refers to them and their employment in the amphitheatres:
And British mastiffs break the brawny necks of bulls.
A feat which I imagine could not be literally performed by any dog then or now.
Although the majority of writers refer these fighting dogs to the mastiffs, there are others who think the dog so used by the Romans was the Irish wolfhound; and this view was cleverly argued by a writer in the "Field" in 1871, whose letters, signed "E. W. R.," were reproduced in "Dogs of the British Islands," and in these are given quotations showing that Irish dogs were used in the amphitheatres; but this does not show that English dogs were not; indeed, it is certain the sort from which our mastiffs and bulldogs are descended, were also similarly employed, and the writer I have referred to appears to me to be wrong when he quotes Oppian's description, "small in size, squat, lean, and shaggy, with blinking eyes and lacerating claws, but mostly prized for their scent in tracking where the foot has passed," against mastiffs having been so used, and asks, "does this description apply to either mastiff or bulldog?" The answer is evident. Oppian was not describing the dog used for bull-baiting, but the beagle, which the Romans so largely exported from Britain for hunting purposes.
I do not for a moment think that wolfhound, bulldog, or mastiff, such as the names now cover, were represented at that date except in a rough typical way, and the descriptions handed down to us are far too meagre and widely-scattered to allow the changes that have taken place to be traced with any degree of accuracy, therefore much is necessarily left to conjecture. The great Buff on supposed the mastiff to be "a mongrel generated between the Irish wolfhound and the bulldog, but much larger, and more resembling the latter than the former." Practical dog breeders, with I think good reason, lean to an opposite conclusion - namely, that the Irish wolfhound was a combination of mastiff and greyhound blood; and in that or similar directions all attempts at the resuscitation of that lost variety must be made.
It seems clear enough that, co-extensive with the known history of these islands, a doer representing, however roughly, the modern mastiff, has existed, and at an early date he was known in England by that name. In the forest laws of Henry II., if not earlier, the keeping of these dogs in or near royal forests was the subject of special regulations, which would now be considered cruel and oppressive. The statute which prohibited all but a few privileged individuals from keeping greyhounds or spaniels provided that farmers and substantial freeholders, dwelling within the forests, might keep mastiffs for the defence of their houses within the same, provided such mastiffs be expeditated according to the laws of the forest.
This "expeditating," "hambling," or "lawing," as it was indifferently termed, was intended so to maim the dog as to reduce to a minimum the chances of his chasing and seizing the deer, and the law enforced its being done after the following manner: "Three claws of the forefoot shall be cut off by the skin, by setting one of his forefeet upon a piece of wood 8in. thick, and 1ft. square, and with a mallet, setting a chisel of 2in. broad upon the three claws of his forefeet, and at one blow cutting them clean off."
This just enables us to look at the mastiffs of that day as through a narrow chink in the wall of silence that hides from us the past. The 2 in chisel was intended to cut the three doomed claws off at one blow; how much wider would it require to be to perform its work efficiently on some of our best modern specimens? - considerably so, I think - to make the "clean" job of it the instructions intended to provide for; and we may, therefore, fairly infer that the dogs were altogether less in size than, the grand massive animals that we can boast of to-day.