Thursday, 10 December 2015

The Menagerie in the Revolution

After the 10 August, the Jacobins of Versailles had marched up to the menagerie with drum beating and carrying a flag at their head.  The chief of the band had declared to the director that they had come "in the name of the people and in the name of nature in order him to liberate the beings that had emerged free from the hands of the Creator and had been unduly detained by the pomp and arrogance of tyrants." The director replied that he had no means to refuse their request, but ventured to point out that some of the inhabitants were likely to use their new found freedom to devour their liberators.  As a result he declined to act personally but would instead offer them the keys to the cages of the lions, tigers, panthers and other large carnivores.  The troop thought about his proposal, took a vote and decided to take the dangerous animals to the Jardin des Plantes; the harmless animals were liberated immediately.  
Paul Huot, Les Massacres à Versailles en 1792 (Paris 1862), p.25-6.

The bright new Revolutionary dawn of animal liberation?  Sadly the story, which is often repeated in modern sources. is probably apocryphal. The original source is Paul Huot, historian of the September Massacres in Versailles, who includes the anecdote in his account of the plan to hold the Orléans prisoners in the abandoned Menagerie.  According to Louise Robbins, "it is most likely an anti-revolutionary tall tale, perhaps based on an earlier, more haphazard pillaging"(p.214)

In reality, the Menagerie entered Revolutionary consciousness mainly as a symbol of royal profligacy. Writers contrasted the luxurious surroundings of the animals with the poverty of the people.  According to the Encyclopédie article article "Menageries must be destroyed when people have no bread; for it is shameful to feed animals at great cost when one is surrounded by men dying of hunger" (Ménagerie (vol.10; 1751))   Mercier and others repeated the story that the Swiss Guard assigned to the Menagerie drew six bottles of Bourgogne a day for the camel (or in some versions the elephant).  In Revolutionary satire, the royal family themselves often appear as menagerie animals.

The final years of the Menagerie

When the royal family abandoned Versailles in October 1789 the expenses of the Menagerie were transferred to the new Civil List.  Some repair work was carried out in 1790 and 1791 but a visitor in April 1791 reported it already reduced to almost nothing.  When the director of the Jardin des plantes, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre visited in late 1792 or early 1793 he found only a few specimens of note -  the rhinoceros, a hartebeest, a zebra, and the famous Versailles lion. The director M. Laimant, reported that the animals had indeed been pillaged. The camel, moneys and many of the birds had been taken; most of the latter stuffed as they were too expensive to keep. The justification given was that the animals were useless, dangerous, and cost a lot to feed (p.641)  Later the rhinoceros fell victim to a revolutionary sabre.  In  August 1792 a group of national Guardsmen from Paris had also ransacked the chateau of the  prince de Condé at Chantilly  and bombarded his famous menagerie with cannons (Robbins p.214) .  

Ironically enough it was the sorry state of the Versailles Menagerie provided the impetus for the establishment of the first modern zoo in France. The Menagerie had been a royal pleasure park not a scientific institution, but from the first it had fulfilled something of a dual function.  Louis XIV had encouraged members of the Académie des sciences to admire and study the inmates. In the 1770s and 1780s  Buffon  had already angled without success for the transfer of the Versailles animals to the then Jardin du roi where they could be more effectively studied.  It was this transfer that was now implemented. 

At the end of June 1792, in the final months of the monarchy,  Louis appointed Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, author of Paul et Virginie, as superintendent of the renamed Jardin des plantes. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre saw himself as a literary naturalist in the tradition of Buffon and, contrary to expectation, proved an able administrator and advocate.  At the beginning of 1793 he published a pamphlet in which he successfully forward the case for the establishment of a new menagerie at the Jardin where living animals could be studied in an approximation to their natural setting. The  relocation of  the remnants of the royal collection had already been authorised by the Versailles estates manager.  In November 1793 the nucleus of the new menagerie was installed, made up mainly of animals confiscated from fairground showmen. Animals from the duc d'Orleans estate and from the menagerie at Chantilly followed.  A permanent menagerie was formally  approved by Committee of Public Safety in May 1794 and finally, in 1794,the last of the animals from Versailles found their way to their new home.


Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Mémoire sur la necessité de joindre une ménagerie au Jardin des Plantes de Paris

Gustave Loisel Histoire des ménageries de l'Antiquité à nos jours, vol.2 (1912)  114-183

Louise E. Robbins, Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris (2002), p.213-4.

Charles Coulston Gillispie, Science and Polity in France: The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Years (Princeton UP, 2014) p.178-9.

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