In late 17th-century France, animals were everywhere. And not just local fauna; exotic birds, lions, and even chameleons appeared in art, literature, and philosophical thought. What sparked this bestial enthusiasm? In 1668: The Year of the Animal in France, recently released by Zone Books, Peter Sahlins examines the disruptive influence of the new menagerie at Versailles, alongside other events like the pioneering blood transfusion experiments by Jean Denis, who transferred the blood of lambs into humans (and was charged with murder for a patient’s death). There’s also the writer Madeleine de Scudéry, who was fascinated with her two pet chameleons, describing what she called “the most beautiful animal in the world” in a detailed narrative of their lives and deaths.
“In and around 1668, in Louis XIV’s newly planted gardens of Versailles, in the Royal Library in Paris, in the city’s literary salons, and in print and visual culture, animals made a dramatic entrance onto the stage of French history,” writes Sahlins, a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. He notes that animals had of course not been absent from society — horses pulled carriages; Renaissance royalty keeping pet bears — but the perception of animals in 1668 was strikingly different.
“In France, the etymology of animal, from the Latin anima (soul) was ancient, but the distinction of human and animal dated from the 17th century,” he writes. “It was Descartes’s idea of ‘the animal,’ appearing suddenly (in 1643, but not in public debate until 1668) that, following the conventional wisdom of animal studies scholarship (including the work of Derrida) broke the custom of vitalist and anthropomorphic thinking about animals. Animals became things, clocks, or machines.”
Sahlins extensively considers how this “devalorizing” of animals in the early decades of Louis XIV’s rule helped support his royal absolutism —that is, his infallible right to rule. Collecting exotic birds and a few mammals in his elaborately designed gardens at Versailles enabled the characterization of his human subjects as similarly “bestial,” reinforcing this conceit.
At almost 500 pages, 1668 is a brick of a book, and some readers might find the investigations into Descartes’s philosophy and the absolutism of the French monarchy a bit academic. Yet the text is packed with fascinating history about animals in the 17th century, particularly their appearances in art. One of the “stars” of the Versailles menagerie, for instance, was a demoiselle crane. De Scudéry described its “good grace” and “beauty,” Flemish animal painter Pieter Boel sketched its elegant form, and it was depicted in royal tapestries, all before achieving the posthumous fate of most menagerie animals: dissection at the new Royal Academy of Sciences.
A black-crowned heron, flamingo, and white stork at Versailles likewise found immortality in art, including in Boel’s studies of 65 species, both at the menagerie and beyond. (Sahlins speculates that the lobster he painted was “more likely on its way to dinner.”) Royal painter Nicasius Bernaerts created portraits of the Versailles animals, such as the ostrich and fawn, for display in the menagerie itself; the deceased animals, dissected by Charles Perrault and the anatomists at the Royal Academy, were recorded in illustrations of their flesh and bones.
And then there were the delightfully bizarre studies by court painter Charles Le Brun, best known now for his regal portraits and interior paintings at Versailles. He lectured on animal and human physiognomy, or facial features, and demonstrated the “signs that identify the natural inclination of men” to these animals:
Meanwhile in literature, Jean de La Fontaine published his Fables in 1668, in which he wrote that with the “animals I choose / to proffer lessons that we all might use,” and Jean Racine skewered the trials of animals that were finally vanishing in a play he produced called Les Plaideurs, centered on the trial of a dog. All of this was radiating out from the Sun King’s bestiary. This meant that this animal frenzy was confined to the elites, which in turn fueled discussion about the absolute power of the king. Only in 1682 had the King’s court been relocated to Versailles; a century later, this monarchy would topple in the French Revolution, the lavishness of the isolated estate helping to flame the fury against the then King Louis XVI.
“The animals of the Royal Menagerie (among others) were sketched, painted, printed, woven, dissected, sculpted, and debated in the double context of the absolute authority of Louis XIV and the mechanistic philosophy of Descartes (among others),” Sahlins concludes. “The sudden presence of a collection of living animals in the Royal Menagerie, more than anything else, sparked these debates and helps to account for their concentration in and around 1668, the Year of the Animal in France.”