Singerie is a French word for “Monkey Trick” and is the name given to arts depicting monkeys aping human behavior. The Singerie was popular as far back as Ancient Egypt, and, in medieval times, scribes frequently drew monkeys in the margins of manuscripts to mimic man and his foibles. Flemish engraver Pieter van der Borcht introduced the singerie around 1575 in a series of prints and this encouraged other Flemish artists to begin depicting monkeys dressed in human attire. By the 18th century, singeries found their way to France where they became extremely popular. Continue reading
Supposedly, the French have always had a mania for cats. Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known better by his stage name Molière, is said to have had a favorite cat, and a celebrated harpist named Madame de Puis, so loved her furry feline she left a pension for it in her will. There was also French impressionist artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir born in the mid-1800s. He painted several paintings with cats, including “Young Girl with Cat,” “Geraniums and Cats,” and “Julie Manet with Cat.”
Another cat lover was Louis-François Fontenu (called l’Abbe de Fontenu). In the eighteen century, he was curious about cats (or as the French call them les chats) and because he was curious, he observed them daily. One day while observing them, he noticed something rather interesting:
“Having remarked how cats often habituate themselves, and oftener than one could … to dry warrens … he fancied that these animals could do for a very long time with drinking.”
This was a light bulb moment for Fontenu because he decided to conduct an experiment to determine how long a cat could go without water. Continue reading
Louis-Sébastien Mercier was a French dramatist and voluminous writer who was born on 6 June 1740 and died on 25 April 1814. He wrote plays, pamphlets, and novels and was imprisoned during the Reign of Terror but released along with many others after the fall of Maximilien Robespierre. Among the topics that he sometimes chose to write about was his surroundings in Paris. In fact, there is no better writer that describes what it was like to live or be in Paris during the eighteenth century. Among his writings are two volumes titled, Paris Delineated that provides information about the “edifices and curiosities” of this international city. Three interesting sub-stories — Confined Animals, Slaughter of Cattle, and Lap-dogs — are taken from these volumes, and they allow a glance at Parisians and their animals according to Louis-Sébastien Mercier. Here they are almost verbatim: Continue reading
In my book, “Marie Antoinette’s Confidante,” one of the things I talk about is Marie Antoinette and donkey riding. It all began after Marie Antoinette arrived in France, became bored, and developed a strong desire to ride horses. Her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, was an excellent horsewoman, and as Marie Antoinette’s new husband, the Dauphin and future Louis XVI, loved to hunt, Marie Antoinette thought that riding horses might be way to spend more time with him.
When Marie Antoinette voiced her desire to ride horses, she was immediately met with opposition. Among those opposing her riding horses was the Austrian diplomat named the Count of Mercy-Argenteau, but better known simply as Mercy. Mercy was the person who had cemented Marie Antoinette’s marriage to the Dauphin, and when he arrived in France with Marie Antoinette, Mercy found himself in a position of power. He could impress the Empress by revealing everything that Marie Antoinette was doing, thinking, or feeling, and then influence Marie Antoinette in the ways that her mother wanted. Continue reading
All sorts of events were associated with dogs during the French Revolution and many stories exist. The French Revolution was a chaotic time not just for people but also for the dogs. Sometimes dogs suffered danger and sometimes they were the danger. They also helped to maintain prisoner morale, functioned as messengers, and sometimes served as watchdogs or comforting companions.
Of all the dogs that suffered during the Revolution, pedigreed dogs probably suffered the most. Pedigreed dogs were usually the pets of royalty or nobility, and when these people fled France, their pedigreed dogs, called lexicons, were abandoned. Some of these dogs became outcasts, some mourned the loss of their owners, and some were disguised to prevent them from being taken or destroyed. However, many lexicons were gathered up and burned at the Place de Greves, the spot said to be used for the “vilest malefactors.” Continue reading
Last year was a great year for me. I published my book, Marie Antoinette’s Confidante, and I published many interesting posts on topics related to the 18th and 19th centuries. Looking at the past year, here are the twelve most popular posts, by month, for 2016:
February – The Red Inn Affair
March – 21 Nicknames of Napoleon
Two young elephants were captured in 1785 in Sri Lanka. They eventually ended up in the Netherlands with William V, Prince of Orange, and during the revolution, they were confiscated by France and sent to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. The two elephants were male and female. Hans was the male and the female was called Parkie (or sometimes Peggy), but she was renamed Marguerite in France.
After two attempts to leave Sri Lanka with the elephants — one attempt in June of 1795 and the other in November 1795 — the elephants finally left for France on 25 September 1797. To convey Hans and Marguerite to Paris, numerous crates were constructed. Hans and Marguerite were unhappy about the trip and the crates. They “made incredible efforts to break down the partition [between them]; but having found that their endeavors were vain, they became resigned and remained tranquil during the rest of the journey.” Continue reading
The first giraffe in France arrived at the port of Marseilles (Marseille in French) on 23 October 1826. The strange animal with spots, long legs, bulging eyes, eighteen-inch tongue, and horn-like structures on its head, was a gift from the Viceroy of Egypt to Charles X. Everyone who saw her thought she was marvelous. In fact, she “excited the public’s curiosity for several days.” One English reporter said the giraffe was something he had “never witnessed, and he claimed there was nothing “more beautiful than the large, bright, and mild eyes of this elegantly-formed creature.” Because of her undeniable beauty, the giraffe quickly acquired the nickname of “Belle Africaine” or “le bel animal du roi” (The Beautiful Animal of the King).
Belle Africaine was small and young when captured by Sudan hunters. In fact, she was so small, she was taken to Khartoum on the back of a camel, and cows traveled with her so she could be fed with their milk. From Khartoum she sailed down the Nile to Alexandria. There she boarded a ship. Her sea journey lasted thirty-two days, and to transport her on the ship, Belle Africaine traveled standing up in the hold. Her long neck and head protruded through a hole in the deck, shaded by a tent. (A male giraffe arrived at the same time in Marseilles. However, the male giraffe headed to London as a gift for George IV and went to “Windsor … [where it was] kept … in the Great Park.”) Continue reading
Animals were an integral part of people’s lives in the 1800s and Frenchman had plenty of stories to share about them. For instance, while Englishmen were busy being amazed by the “Learned Pig” called Toby, people in Montpellier, France, were being entertained by a learned dog. One gentleman traveler saw the dog firsthand and wrote that the dog’s intellectual skills were “baffling.” One demonstration of the dog’s skill involved cards. The dog would bring back to his master any card thrown on the floor that anyone in the room called by name after “his master showed him the fellow to it, which he held in his hand.” Another demonstration with cards involved cards painted various colors. These too were thrown on the floor and then the dog’s master “directed the dog’s attention to the gown of some lady present, and the animal immediately sought out, and brought the card of the same color.” But the demonstration that had everyone speechless was the dog’s “arithmetical performance.” Anyone present could write any mathematical problem — addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division — on a slate. “Each time going up to the slate, for a minute to study his lesson, he successively brought up the figure which made the difference.” Continue reading
For years French people reported on toad showers. French toad showers seemed to occur most frequently in the months of August and September. In fact, in the 1800s, in the northern provinces of France, it was claimed toad showers were not “unfrequent.” One man wrote about a toad shower he remembered from his youth. He noted that he “saw the Place de la Ville [in the little town of Ham] covered with small toads. Astonished at their appearance, he stretched out his hand and received the shock of many of these animals.” Another man who was temporarily residing in France was also surprised by a toad shower:
“[Once] after taking an evening walk in some of these prairies’ … did I return home with the brim of my hat swarming with many of these little animals, which were hopping about, and appeared as merry as grigs? They could not have climbed up my body, crawled upon my face, and by some ‘soubresaut‘ (summerset) alighted on my hat, and all this unknown to me. Therefore I had the best reason possible to suppose that they had positively ‘dropped, as other adventurers, from the clouds.’ I am aware that there is a class or family of small frogs, which ascend the stems of trees and lodge in the branches, but I had passed under no tree whatever; therefore this explanation of the fact could not be admissible.”