A Glance at Parisians and Their Animals According to Louis-Sébastien Mercier

A Glance at Parisians and Their Animals According to Louis-Sébastien Mercier: Louis-Sébastien Mercier
Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Courtesy of Wikipedia

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:

The Lapin or Rabbit. Author’s Collection

Confined Animals

“The more indigent people are in Paris, the greater number of dogs, cats, and birds they keep all huddled together in a small room; generally speaking, you can smell them before you see them; and it is a custom among them to breed rabbits, which they feed with cabbage leaves picked up in the street; they afterwards eat these rabbits, which makes them pale and yellow. Their hen roost is close to the bed, and the greatest distance from the rabbit hutches to the spit which is to roast them, is not more than four feet at most. The children of the family inhale this infectious atmosphere. All this is the result of extreme poverty; and when the tax-gatherer comes, with his handkerchief up to his nose, they will offer him a rabbit in payment.

Tailors, shoemakers, and men of all sedentary profession, keep some animal or other confined in a cages, as if they were determined to make it partner in their bondage. Perhaps it is a magpye shut up in a little cage, where the poor animal passes the whole day in hopping up and down, and endeavouring to escape. The tailor looks every now and then at the magpye, and is resolved he shall be his constant companion.

All the old maids have got their dogs, who deposit their ordure [odor] upon the stairs; but this is passed over in Paris, because the Parisians prefer dogs to cleanliness.

Have you never observed our affected and conceited dames taking their dogs under their arms to give them an airing, while the children are left at home to the care of a servant? When the poor man does not permit his dog to follow him, either from the fear of losing him, or that he is going farther than he chuses to take him, he shuts the poor animal up, where he howls and yelps till his master returns; in the mean time the adjoining houses are disturbed with the noise.

Another keeps a parrot in his window, and a studious man perhaps, a philosopher or an historian, is all day long tormented with the squalling of this animal.

All these animals, too numerous by far, neither contribute to the health nor quiet of the town; many of the rooms which contain them are full of infection; and what is worse than all, they consume the bread which ought to go to the children of these poor people, who seem to increase the number of these animals in proportion to the great expence of maintaining them.”

French Butchery, Author’s Collection

Slaughter of Cattle

“What can be more revolting to the feelings than the slaughter of beasts in the public streets! often we tread in their reeking blood as we walk! In some places they drive the ox under the meat-stalls, where other oxen have been just cut up; the poor animals sees it, smells it, and will not pass; he then is dragged; dogs are set on to bite his heels, till the butchers have forced him to enter the fatal place.

One day a sheep fell down under the blows in the street Dauphine; the blood streamed through his eyes: a young girl, who saw it, flung herself in tears upon the poor beast, supported his head with one hand, and with the other wiped the blood, and on her knees supplicated the inhuman butcher (whose arm was lifted up) not to strike yet — What a scene for a painter!

In walking the streets of Paris I once saw a butcher’s boy driving a calf, young, and just torn from its mother; it had not strength to go; he was about to fell it with his knotty club, when one of the common women cried out — Wretch! — kill — but do not strike.”

A Woman With a Dog (Identified as Marie Émilie Coignet de Courson) by Jean Honoré Fragonard, Courtesy of the Met Museum


“The folly of women in this particular is carried to excess, they become governantes to shock dogs, and bestow on them infinite pains; tread on a lap-dog’s paw, you are irretrievably lost in the good graces of its mistress, she may dissemble but she will never forgive, you have wounded her maniton. The most exquisite dishes are lavished on these favourites, whilst even a bason of broth is withheld from the sick sufferer languishing in the garret.

[B]ut there is one extravagance peculiar to Paris, where are great blockheads, who, with the view of paying court to the ladies, bear their dogs, publicly under their arms in the promenades and streets, which gives them an air so completely silly and stupid, that one is tempted to laugh in their face, in order to remind them they are men; when I see a beauty profane her lips with the kisses of a dog, not unfrequently ugly and hideous, and who were he even handsome has no claims to such lively affections, I find her eyes less brilliant; by receiving this animal the gracefulness of her arms diminished; I attach less value to her caresses, and in my eyes she loses the better part of her beauty and attractions.

When the death of her spaniel plunges her in despair, when she exacts commiseration for the terrible calamity, till time has softened it into oblivion, this absurdity annihilates the remnant of her charms, and divests her of all pretensions to empire. Never will a woman be a Cartesian, never will she submit to believe that her lap-dog, when caressing her, is neither a sensible nor a rational being; she would scratch Descartes’ face, were he living, for the ungenerous assertion; the fidelity of her dog alone, is in her estimation worth more than the united reason of all mankind.

I have known a pretty woman so seriously displeased to close her doors on a man who had adopted this preposterous and impertinent opinion — How can sensibility be denied to animals? Admitting however, that they are very sensible, and far from vindicating the barbarity they experience from men, let us injure them as little as possible; but whilst we receive nourishment from oxen, sheep, and turkey-cocks, let us beware how we load with senseless caresses, a lap-dog that forms no part of our food.

A physician’s wife, whose dog was sick, received from her husband the consoling assurance of his recovery; but he either did nothing, or nothing that produced effect! In extreme impatience, she sent for the famous Lyonese [a celebrated dog doctor], whose success was complete. What is your charge? said the grave doctor of the faculty to the preserve of the canine species. ‘Oh sir, between brethren there is no taking of fees.'”


  • Mercier, Louis-Sébastien, Paris Delineated, Volume 1, 1817
  • Mercier, Louis-Sébastien, Paris Delineated, Volume 2, 1802

Marie Antoinette and Donkey Riding

Marie Antoinette and Donkey Riding
Marie Antoinette, Author’s Collection

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

Dogs During the French Revolution: What Became of Them

Portrait by J. B. Charpentier of the Duke of Penthièvre, his son Prince de Lamballe, the Princesse de Lamballe, daughter (the future Duchesse d’Orleans), and Maria Theresa Felicitas d’Este with Their Pedigreed Dog

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

Popular Posts for 2016

Popular Posts for 2016Last 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:

January – French Dueling Codes for Swords, Pistols, and Sabers

February – The Red Inn Affair

March – 21 Nicknames of Napoleon

April – Tricoteuses: Knitting Women of the Guillotine

May – Fontainebleau Forest Murderess

June – The 18th Century Beast of Gévaudan

July – “The Monsters” or the “Vere Street Gang” Homosexuals

August – Georges Cuvier, Father of Paleontology

September – French Naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Count of Buffon

October – An American Plot to Save Marie Antoinette From the Guillotine

November – Gambling, Cheats, and Voltaire’s Madame du Châtelet

December – The Man Who Made Potatoes Popular in France in the 1700s: Antoine-Augustin Parmentier

Hans and Marguerite: The Elephants of France

Hans and Marguerite
The Two Elephants Listed as Parkie and Hans, Public Domain

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

Belle Africaine: The First Giraffe In France

Belle Africaine
“Study of the Giraffe Given to Charles X by the Viceroy of Egypt
1827,” by Nicolas Hüet, Courtesy of The Morgan Library and Museum

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

Interesting Animal Tales of France in the 19th Century

The Learned Pig, Animal Tales of France
The Learned Pig, Public Domain

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

French Toad Showers

French toad showers
Bull Frogs, Public Domain

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.”

Continue reading

The 18th Century Beast of Gévaudan

Beast of Gévaudan
Artists Conception of “The Beast of Gévaudan,” Courtesy of Wikipedia

In 1765, newspaper headlines screamed of a monstrous creature that became known as la bête de Gevaudan (The Beast of Gévaudan). The beast made its first appearance 20 December 1764, when it devoured a little girl herding cattle at St. Flour in Provence. The second attack occurred a week later on the 27th of December. This time a woman (19 or 20 years old) was “torn to pieces … at Bounesal, near Mende. The next day [the beast] appeared in the woods of St. Martin de Born, and was about to spring upon a girl of twelve years.” It would have eaten her too, if not for her father. He was nearby and kept the animal at bay until some horned cattle came along and scared the beast away. Continue reading

Tales of Monkeys as Pets in the 18th Century and 19th Century

Title Page from Patterson's Book, "Notes on Petr Monkeys," Public Domain
Title Page from Patterson’s Book “Notes on Pet Monkeys,” Public Domain

Many people desired a pet monkey in the 1700 and 1800s. One nineteenth century gentleman claimed a pet monkey was “a mischievous beast … but affording so much amusement as to compensate for the trouble,” and another person wrote, “there is no pet which can be so interesting or amusing as a monkey.” Because of the monkey’s popularity, in 1888, Arthur Patterson published a book called Notes on Pet Monkeys and How to Manage Them. In the book besides noting how to choose a monkey, what to feed them, and how to care for them, Patterson wrote, “Persons who have a strongly-developed propensity for keeping of pets, have, in most cases, at some time or other included a monkey in their list of specialties; but with few exceptions, from some mishap or devilry on the part of the little imp, the fancy in that line has come to an abrupt, and, to the rest of the household, a very welcome termination.” Continue reading