The Hounds of Porthos: Class and Canine Versatility
By Bud Boccone
Have you seen BBC America’s The Musketeers? I like the show so much I went to the source, the novels by Alexandre Dumas that endeared generations of readers to the swashbuckling Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D’Artagnan. With Dumas’ trilogy fresh in my mind, I’m a walking encyclopédique of Three Musketeers trivia. For instance, did you know that Porthos, the lovable giant of the group, was a serious dog guy?
By the final book, The Man in the Iron Mask, old Porthos has done very well for himself. No longer a mere soldier, he’s the baron du Vallon de Bracieux de Pierrefonds, lord of a vast country estate.
When Porthos dies, his will is read to assembled friends. It provides a glimpse of how French nobles lived in the time of Louis XIV. The long catalog of the baron’s possessions includes:
“Sixty dogs, forming six packs, divided as follows: the first for stags, the second for wolves, the third for boars, the fourth for rabbits, and two others for arresting and guarding.”
The 17th-century French nobility really did have a hound for every occasion. The Grand Bleu de Gascone, the Chien Blanc du Roi, and the Ariege Hound, each specializing on a particular type of quarry, were just a few breeds likely to be found in the baron’s kennels. The two “arresting and guarding” dogs might’ve been Dogues de Bordeaux. And the baroness no doubt had a platoon of Papillons keeping her company while Porthos was off musketeering with his buddies.
We’re talking 60-something highly specialized dogs, most of them kept just for sport and amusement. Sacre bleu! That’s a lot of dog chow! Across the Channel, the kennels of British nobles housed equally ostentatious packs of specialist hounds, fox terriers, and sporting dogs. Throughout history, from the pharaoh’s Egypt to the tsar’s Russia, only the ruling elite had the luxury of feeding nonessential mouths.
Things were very different down the road from the manor house, where peasants could barely feed themselves let alone packs of hounds. Shepherds and tenant farmers of pre-industrial Europe bred for versatility. They had no choice. The one dog a poor man could afford to keep might be called upon to be a ratter, herder, drover, guarder, retriever, courser, and carter.
No surprise, then, that many breeds known today for versatility (pinscher-schnauzers, Britain’s collies and large terriers, German and Belgian shepherds among them) descend not from the haughty hounds of Porthos, but from peasant dogs that toiled in pastures and barnyards.
Until fairly recently history was written by the well-off, about the well-off, for the well-off. The working poor responsible for breakthroughs in mechanics, agriculture, and animal husbandry lacked the education and leisure to record their accomplishments for posterity, and gentleman historians considered such things beneath their notice. Happily, the story of a vital working-class achievement—the creation of smart, versatile dogs that helped to feed and clothe people of all classes—is written in the DNA of many popular breeds.