Popular Historic "Facts" That Are Actually False
Popular Historic “Facts” That Are Actually False

Popular Historic “Facts” That Are Actually False

Khalid Elhassan - March 15, 2021

Popular Historic “Facts” That Are Actually False
A Roman soldier with a mastiff. Pinterest

5. Saint Bernards Traced Their Roots Back to Giant Roman Mastiffs

Monks of the Alpine monastery founded by Saint Bernard of Menthon began training large farm dogs for rescue work in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. The big canines were descended from mastiff-type Molossian hounds, that had been introduced to the region by the Romans. Those dogs were strong, had weather-resistant coats, and possessed an exceptionally good sense of smell. That made them well-suited to guide and rescue travelers. The dogs were accompanied by monks, who sometimes carried flasks of brandy and shared them with travelers.

Popular Historic “Facts” That Are Actually False
A second century AD Roman statue of a Molossian hound, copied from a second century BC Greek original. British Museum

That might have started the association between Saint Bernard Pass rescues and brandy. It eventually grew into the false notion that it was the dogs themselves, not the monks, that carried kegs of brandy. Over a period of hundreds of years, from the sixteenth or seventeenth century to the early nineteenth, the monks of the Great Saint Bernard Hospice bred an excellent search and rescue dog. However, severe winters from 1816 to 1818 saw an unusually high number of avalanches that killed many of the breeding dogs during rescue operations.

Popular Historic “Facts” That Are Actually False
Newfoundland dogs. Pintrest

4. The False But Widely Accepted Belief That Saint Bernard Rescue Dogs Looked Like Today’s Saint Bernards

To save the Saint Bernard breed, the dogs that had survived the disastrous stretch from 1816 to 1818 were mated with Newfoundland dogs, imported in the 1850s. The long fur resulting from crossbreeding with the Newfoundlands – a prominent feature of modern Saint Bernards – made the dogs less suitable for rescue work. The extra fur ended up gathering snow, freezing, and weighing the dogs down. Another false aspect of the Saint Bernard myth is the assumption that the rescue dogs looked like the current ones. As seen in the above painting of Barry der Menschenretter, the most famous Saint Bernard, the original dogs looked significantly different from today’s Saint Bernards.

Popular Historic “Facts” That Are Actually False
Stuffed Barry der Menschenretter, the most famous of the Alpine rescue dogs, who lived in the early nineteenth century. Angelfire

Original Saint Bernards – the ones that did most of the work in the breed’s heyday as rescue dogs – were about half as big modern ones. They were roughly the size of German Shepherds, had longer snouts than today’s Saint Bernards, and shorter fur. Saint Bernards got so huge because kennel clubs and dog shows concentrated on appearance instead of the dogs’ working ability. As Saint Bernards became bigger and their fur grew longer, they became less suitable for Alpine rescue work. The extra weight caused them to plunge deeper into the snow, while the increasingly longer fur froze and weighed the dogs down even more.

Popular Historic “Facts” That Are Actually False
Barry with a rescued child. Wikimedia

3. The Most Heroic Rescue Dog of All

The most famous Saint Bernard of all was Barry der Menschenretter (1800 – 1814). Weighing about 95 pounds, he was significantly smaller than modern Saint Bernards, who weigh between 180 to 300 pounds. He gained the name Menschenretter, which means “People Rescuer”, because he is credited with saving between 40 to 100 people. His most famous rescue was of a little boy, whom he found in an ice cavern. Barry warmed the kid by licking him, then maneuvered him on his back, and carried him back to the hospice.

Popular Historic “Facts” That Are Actually False
A restored stuffed Barry, now with a brandy keg around his neck after the false narrative took hold. Bern Natural History Museum

Barry conducted rescue operations for twelve years. As it does with all, age eventually caught up with Barry. When he ceased to be fit for rescue operations, he was parted from the monks and taken to Bern, Switzerland, for a well-deserved retirement. After his death, Barry’s body was donated to the Natural History Museum of Bern, and was preserved by taxidermy as an exhibit. As it stands today, however, it is a false depiction of how Barry actually looked in life. A 1923 restoration had altered his pose, and modified the shape of Barry’s skull to resemble the Saint Bernards of that time.

Popular Historic “Facts” That Are Actually False
Monks with Saint Bernards in the Alps. Pintrest

2. Saint Bernards No Longer Conduct Alpine Rescue

The days of heroic Saint Bernard Alpine rescues – even without kegs of brandy strapped to their necks – are long gone. They have been replaced with dog breeds better suited to avalanche search-and-rescue work, such as German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers. Among other things, those dogs have an advantage over the giant Saint Bernards in that their smaller size allows them to fit more easily in rescue helicopters. The last recorded instance of a Saint Bernard doing search-and-rescue work occurred in 1955.

Popular Historic “Facts” That Are Actually False
Monk with a Saint Bernard. Fido Friendly

However, the dogs stayed with the monks for years afterward. Out of a sense of tradition, the big dogs were kept at the Great Saint Bernard Pass Hospice until 2004. That year, the monks sold their entire kennel of 34 Saint Bernards to local animal associations. They still return to the hospice every summer during tourist season. Nowadays, because the myth of the Saint-Bernard-and-brandy-barrel has become so widespread, the monks actually do outfit the dogs with cute little brandy kegs around their necks.

Popular Historic “Facts” That Are Actually False
The false notion of Saint Bernards with small brandy barrels strapped to their neck became a cultural meme. Cartoon Collections

1. The False Belief That Brandy – or any Alcohol – Warms Up the Body

There is a widespread belief nowadays – which was even more widespread in centuries past – that brandy or other strong spirits can warm a person. Because of that, the notion that a freezing traveler caught up in an Alpine blizzard could be revived and warmed up with brandy makes intuitive common sense. However, a lot of stuff that makes intuitive common sense does not actually work anywhere near as well as common sense says it should. That includes the assertion that alcohol warms us, which is actually false.

Popular Historic “Facts” That Are Actually False
Treating hypothermia or trying to revive a freezing person with alcohol could actually backfire. Disney

Drinking strong spirits like whiskey or brandy does lead to a warming sensation, but that sensation is illusory. What alcohol does is bring our blood closer to the skin, which makes us think that we are warming up. What it does not do, however, is warm up our vital organs, whose failure from excessive cold could seriously harm or kill us. Bringing somebody’s blood closer to the skin in the cold actually speeds up the lowering of our core body temperature, and places our vital organs at greater risk. So it is a good thing that Saint Bernards toting brandy barrels is a myth: otherwise many rescue attempts would have backfired.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Fall of the Western Roman Empire

Atkin, Ronald – Pillar of Fire: Dunkirk 1940 (2000)

Clark, Alan – Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-1945 (1985)

Daily Beast – The Myth of the Saint Bernard and the Brandy Keg

Den of Geek – The Real History Behind Bridgerton

Deak, Istvan – Europe on Trial: The Story of Resistance, Collaboration, and Retribution During World War II (2015)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Montezuma II

GQ, June 20th, 2019 – A Dirty, Rotten, Double Crossing (True) Story of What Happened to the Italian American Mob

Harvard Gazette, The, December 9th, 2010 – ‘One Drop Rule’ Persists

Historic UK – The Evacuation of Dunkirk, May 1940

Japan Talk – 8 Common Ninja Myths

JSTOR – The Mexica Didn’t Believe the Conquistadors Were Gods

I. C. B. Dear, M. R. D. Foot – Oxford Companion to World War II (2002)

Lane Fox, Robin – The Search for Alexander (1980)

Mental Floss – Why Are Saint Bernards Always Depicted With Barrels Around Their Necks?

Military History Now – Enter the Ninja: Facts and Myths About Japan’s Most Mysterious Warriors

Montefiore, Simon Sebag – Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2004)

Oprah Magazine, December 29th, 2020 – Bridgerton Doesn’t Need to Elaborate on Its Inclusion of Black Characters

Skeptoid – No, Hitler Did Not Let the British Escape at Dunkirk

SOF Rep – On This Day in History: The Only Death Sentence For Desertion in WWII is Carried Out

Vox – The Debate Over Bridgerton and Race

Washington Post, May 5th, 2017 – Five Myths About the Mafia

Washington Post, December 27th, 2020 – Was Queen Charlotte Black? Here’s What We Know

Wikipedia – The Death Match

Wikipedia – St. Bernard (Dog)

History Collection – Untrue Historic “Facts” It’s Time to Erase