The high-altitude scenic geographic region that this heroic canine called home is covered in snow all year round expect for a few months during summer.This week’s historic hound is an actual legend and saved over 40 lives in-between 1800 and 1812. Do you have any guesses for who this week’s #historichound could be?
A little historical context to set the scene:
An Augustine monk named St. Bernard de Menthon founded a hospice and monastery around the year 1050 to help struggling trekkers as they traversed the Great St Bernard Pass. The often deadly pass is a 78 km route in the Western Alps that sits 2500m above sea level. Over 600 years after the monastery was founded between 1660 and 1670, the monks acquired their first St. Bernards. The brave and loyal dogs were descendants of the mastiff style Asiatic dogs brought over by the Romans—to serve as their watchdogs and companions.
As an art history nerd, I found it interesting to note that the earliest depiction of the breed was in two paintings done by well-known Italian artist Salvatore Rosa in 1695. Compared to St. Bernards today, these dogs were smaller in size, had shorter reddish brown and white fur and a longer tail.
In the mid-1700s, marroniers (servants who were responsible for assisting travellers cross the St. Bernards Pass) soon discovered the dogs’ large chests were highly advantageous when it came to clearing paths in the deep snow and that they had a tremendous sense of smell and the ability to discover people buried deep in the snow. For the next 150 years, the marroniers would send the dogs out alone in packs of two or three to look for lost or injured travellers. Once the dogs had located the buried travellers, they would dig through the snow and lie on top of the injured and lick them to provide warmth and keep them awake. Meanwhile, the other dog would return to the hospice to alert the monks to send assistance. This is just incredible don’t you think? But wait, it gets even better.
According to an article in the Smithsonian Magazine, “The dog rescue system became so organized that when Napoleon and his 250,000 soldiers crossed through the pass between 1790 and 1810, not one soldier lost his life. The soldiers’ chronicles tell of how many lives were saved by the dogs in what the army called “the White Death” (2016)”.
The painting below shows a highly idealised version of Napoleon crossing the Alps and is a famous piece by the neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David commissioned by the King of Spain in 1801. In reality there was nothing glamourous about his mission and the monks and dogs of St Bernards monastery played a crucial role.
Barry the St Bernard
This week’s historic hounds was one of these extraordinary rescue dogs. His name was Barry and he is a straight up champion. He lived in the St. Bernard monastery from 1800 to 1812 and is recorded to have saved more than 40 lives. How Barry’s life ended is highly contested but all the suggested versions are pretty entertaining. I won’t cover them all here but it is worth a bit of a read on Wikipedia. In 1815, Barry’s body was put on exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Berne, Switzerland, where it remains to this day.
Saving more than 2,000 lives between 1660 and 1897 (1897 was last recorded recovery by a St. Bernard) Barry was not alone in his efforts to assist those lost in some of the most treacherous terrain and circumstances.
St. Bernards today look very different from their ancient ancestors but their desire to serve and protect their families still remains. One of my good friends had a St. Bernard named Sophie and she was the best dog to cuddle because she was the same size as I was. Sophie was particularly hilarious because she thought she was a little couch dog and would try and sit on your lap.