A “spit” is a metal spike that impales a chunk of meat for cooking over an open fire, specifically over the roaring fireplaces of late Medieval and early modern times in Europe. Fireplaces were for both heating and cooking. The ones for cooking could be huge.
The spit has to be turned continually so that the meat cooks evenly, so spits have to have some kind of handle or other mechanism allowing them to be slowly and evenly turned. At first, spits were turned by the lowest of servants, often small boys (really poor people often did not have fireplaces or eat meat).
Sometime in the later 1500s, a method was devised using dogs running on a treadmill-like device, which resembles the circular running toys put in gerbil or hamster cages.
Small dogs proved to be ideal turnspits. The dog trotted continually and a system of chains connected it to the spit, turning it. The dogs became known as “turnspits.” Period illustrations show small to medium-sized dogs, with short legs.
They were bred for the purpose and simply called turnspit dogs. They turned spits well into the 1800s, when someone developed a kind of clockwork device to turn the spit. A mechanical turnspit did not need to be fed or trained.
The turnspit dog breed became extinct about 1900. It is thought that they looked something like the breed known today as the Welsh corgi
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