The name Basset derives from the French bas meaning low-set or dwarfed and was applied to numerous types of short-legged hounds - chiens bassets - that were bred in mediaeval France.
They are described in print and called basset for the first time in Jacques Du Fouilloux’s La Venerie (The Art of Hunting), published in 1562.
However, this was not the first appearance of these strange dogs, as they can be seen depicted in wall paintings of several ancient Egyptian tombs as long ago as 2200BC.
Both the ancient Greeks and Romans were also familiar with dwarf hunting dogs. The Spartan Hound, in particular, was described as ‘short-legged and deep mouthed’
Abbey of St. Hubert in the Ardennes
However, it was in France that the significant development of
these short-legged hounds took place. The most accepted theory
is that they were descended from an early bloodhound-like dog
known as the St. Hubert Hound.
These were bred by the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of St.
Hubert in the Ardennes.
Though there was some variation within the St. Hubert strain - it seems that many of them were dwarf hounds. Indeed, these may well have had a numerical supremacy, as the St Hubert is described in George Turberville’s Art of Venerie or Huntyng (1576) as being ‘mighty of body, neuerthelesse, their legges are lowe and short, likewise they are not swift, although they be very good of sent’ .
This description is echoed in Randle Cotgrave’s French-English dictionary of 1632, which says, ‘Chien de St. Hubert, a kind of strong, short-legged hound, and deep-mouthed’ .
They were highly valued and the abbey supplied these sought
after hounds to the hunting kennels of the aristocracy and the
Their low stature gave them certain advantages over the taller hounds in some types of hunting.
Perhaps the most important was that they could be used by hunters on foot, as opposed to on horseback - their shorter gait limiting their speed over the ground. This also meant that they were better matched against their quarry, which was small game - rabbit and hare - though they could equally well track stag, boar and the like. Their sabre-like tails held high when on the move, flagged their position and enabled them to be seen when in cover. It is thought that their long ears were advantageous in helping to curtain and concentrate the scent that they were tracking. All these characteristics are still very evident in the breed today.
They were probably used in pairs to track the game, which was then dispatched by the bow and later, the gun, the chasse a tir. It is unlikely that they were directly used to kill the quarry, but simply to search and track it.
Throughout France, several varieties of hound were bred, each significantly different and specific to a particular geographic area. Because of its hunting prowess, the St. Hubert Hound was incorporated into many of these regional breeds. It seems probable that the inherited dwarf gene which they carried would sometimes emerge to produce achondroplastic (dwarf) offspring. These were then selectively interbred to produce Basset types.
Most of these regional breeds all had Basset versions - the
Basset Ardennais, the Basset Saintongeois, the Basset Griffon-Vendeen,
Basset Fauve de Bretagne, Basset bleu de
Gascogne, the Basset de Normandie and the Basset d’Artois; each
differing from the other in size, colour or coat.
The French Revolution and the Napoleonic era saw with the virtual elimination of the aristocracy and with the dissolution of many great estates also the end of some of these regional Basset types.
Along with others, the Basset de Normandie and the Basset d’Artois survived and at a later period these two were interbred to produce the Basset Artesien-Normand. It was this that became the foundation for the present-day Basset Hound.