Parisians and Their Animals According to Louis-Sébastien Mercier

Louis-Sébastien Mercier was a French dramatist and voluminous writer who was born on 6 June 1740 and died on 25 April 1814, just after Napoleon Bonaparte‘s first reign ended. Mercier 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:

Parisians and their animals according to Louis-Sébastien Mercier

Louis-Sébastien Mercier. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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.

Parisians and their animals according to Louis-Sébastien Mercier

The Lapin or Rabbit. Author’s collection.

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.”

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.”

Parisians and their animals according to Louis-Sébastien Mercier

French Butchery. Author’s collection.

Lap-dogs

“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.'”

Parisians and their animals according to Louis-Sébastien Mercier

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

 

References:

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

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