Pet Guinea Pigs in 16th Century Europe

In celebration of National Pet Day (which was yesterday, I know) I have been thinking about these furry little critters. A few years ago the beautiful painting above was unearthed by the National Portrait Gallery depicting three 16th century siblings with their prized pet pig. Oh and a finch which one child appears to have some sort of death grip on. The artist is unknown but it has been dated at around 1580 making it the earliest  known depiction of a pet guinea pig. The whole painting just screams 16th century wealth; the ruff, the detailed collars, the headdress, and even their pale faces and reverent stares. There’s no doubt they are from a wealthy family, but were guinea pigs only for the wealthy? and how did they become popular? 

From their initial introduction to Europe in the sixteenth century via Spanish traders they seem to have grown in popularity, with even more examples of our furry friends in portraiture from the seventeenth century. The painting below which hangs in the Queen’s dining room at Kensington Palace was purchased by George IV who believed it to be a portrait of Sophia Charlotte, Princess of Brunswick. The painting shows the young girl with all the trappings of the new Dutch aristocracy: sumptuous silk clothing, pearls, formal gardens (indicating a country house), damask curtains and of course a guinea pig which she is gently stroking.

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Figure 2: Portrait of a Girl with a Guinea-pig Signed and dated 1677

However guinea pigs were not just for the wealthy. In 2007 the remains of a domesticated guinea pig, dating from the late sixteenth century, were found at a site in Mons, Belgium. The skeleton was found in the back garden of a property which didn’t belong to those from the upper echelons of society. An archaeological investigation into the site and remains concluded that guinea pigs were in fact accessible to ‘several classes of the population’ and this led to their popularity across Europe.[1] It makes sense that guinea pigs would have easily become widespread, as a pet they are fairly low maintenance and they are ready to breed from as young as 1 month old, typically birthing around three piglets. [2]

Food for thought

The study also confirmed that the guinea pig found at Mons was definitely not eaten, due to the preservation of the bones and completeness of the skeleton. I mean I haven’t tried it myself but apparently guinea pig is actually very tasty, so good for them managing to not gobble them all up.[3] We are talking about a time where throughout Europe people still ate dormice, porcupines and hedgehogs! [4]. 

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Figure 3: A Boy and a Girl with a Guinea-Pig and a Kitten c.1680-1722 (close up)

 

Did you know..

  • In 1961 a guinea pig successfully travelled to and from space.
  • Guinea pigs and humans have something in common, we can both get scurvy due to our inability to produce vitamin C.
  • At last count there are over 1 million guinea pigs in England.

 

Images

Figure 1 (header):  Uknown artist, c. 1580, National Portrait Gallery.

Figure 2: Attributed to Constantijn Netscher, signed and dated 1677.  From the Royal Collection.

Figure 3: Adriaen Van Der Werff, A Boy and a Girl with a Guinea-Pig and a Kitten c.1680-1722. From the Royal Collection.

References

[1] FabiennePigière, Wim Van Neer, bCécile Ansieau and Marceline Denis,’New archaeozoological evidence for the introduction of the guinea pig to Europe’ in Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 39, Issue 4, April 2012, pp.1020-1024.

[2] Adrienn Kruzer, ‘Breeding Guinea Pigs’, The Spruce Pets,  https://www.thesprucepets.com/breeding-guinea-pigs-1238878

[3] Alastair Bland, ‘From Pets To Plates: Why More People Are Eating Guinea Pigs’, NPR: The Salt what’s on your plate, https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/03/12/174105739/from-pets-to-plates-why-more-people-are-eating-guinea-pigs?t=1555063974756

[4] Robert W. Allen, Ken Albala, Food in Early Modern Europe (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003), p66.

 

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