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The violent pastime known as bull baiting entertained the wealthy and poor alike throughout the Middle Ages, and well into the 19th century. The spectacle took place in public rings, where a single bull stood tethered to a stake. With crowds gathered around and the bulls agitated, dog owners paid a fee to let their canine have a run at the bull.
Success for the dog and its owner meant that the dog was able to chomp down on the bull’s snout and hang on through a thrashing until the bull was subdued. This was not an easy task, and the selective breeding for stronger builds, lower approaches, and flatter faces accounts for the bulldogs we see today.
But even the best-equipped dogs didn’t always succeed. Paintings from the period depict bulls lowering their horns and launching their unlucky adversaries high into the air.
After the encounter, the bulls were often slaughtered. But in an exceptional show of cruelty, many were put through the ordeal not once, but toured through a series of festivities, weddings, holidays, and markets. To attract a crowd, a touring bull was paraded through town donning decorations and even accompanied by musicians.
It was a wild and gruesome tradition that regularly wounded or killed animals—even other large animals like bears, which were also subjected to baiting. But by the 1830s, bull baiting was outlawed in England, leaving behind its legacy in the form of the bulldog itself.