Thursday, 2 November 2017

Robespierre, bird lover

Robespierre's fondness for birds, throughout his life, is a trivial but telling piece of evidence for his essential gentleness. Without the all-invasive trajectory of the Revolution, so at least the theory goes,  there might have been a different Robespierre, a private man enjoying ordinary 18th-century pleasures, rearing his birds in the back garden. 

The birds of his childhood

.According to the vicious pen of the abbé Proyart, Robespierre from earliest childhood preferred birds to people:"Pigeons and sparrows, which he kept in an aviary, were his one pleasure;  he was with them ceaselessly in his moments of recreation" (La Vie et les crimes de Robespierre, p.4).  His sister Charlotte, however, used the birds to insist on his caring character. In a famous anecdote she related how Robespierre had been given the sparrows and pigeonswhilst living with his grandparents in the rue Ronville; during his sisters' visits he would place them very gently into their cupped hands.  Charlotte and Henriette once asked to borrow one of these birds, care for it at their aunts' house and return it safely the following week.  Robespierre was hesitant, but they were persistent, begging, promising to look after it, so he agreed.  Inevitably, the bird was left in the garden, a storm blew up and it died.  Robespierre was furious:  "At the news of this death, Maximilien’s tears flowed, he piled reproaches on us that we had only too well merited, and swore that he would no more confer any of his dear pigeons on us." He was as good as his word, for when he went away to school,  he duly entrusted his birds to "a person from whom he did not fear the same negligence".

A gift of canaries

In the famous Lettre des serins, of 22 January 1782,  Robespierre gallantly thanked Charlotte's friends, Mademoiselle Dehay, for the gift of three, unexpectedly spirited, canaries. 

 I have the honour of sending you a report upon an interesting subject. Such homage may be rendered to the Graces themselves when to their other fascinations they join the gift of being able to think and feel, and when they are alike worthy of conferring happiness and of mourning disaster.
Talking of so important a subject, shall I be pardoned, Mademoiselle, if I speak of canaries?  No doubt I shall be if the canaries are interesting; and coming from you, could they fail to be? They are very pretty, and, being bred by yourself, we expected them to be the most gentle and sociable of canaries.  What was our surprise when, upon approaching the cage, they threw themselves against the bars with an impetus which made us fear for their lives!  They recommence this performance every time they see the hand that feeds them.  What plan of education did you adopt for them, and how have they acquired this savage character?  Do the doves that the Graces rear for the chariot of Venus display this wild temperament?  Such a face as yours should surely have familiarized without difficulty your canaries with the human face.   Or is it that, after seeing yours, they cannot tolerate any other?  I beg of you to explain this phenomenon.  Meanwhile, with all their faults, we shall always find them lovable.  My sister begs me to express her thanks for your kindness in sending her this present, and to assure you of the affection with which you have inspired her.
 I am, with respect, Mademoiselle, your very humble and very obedient servant,
De Robespierre.
Arras, June 22, 1782.

The manuscript of the letter, which had formed part of the collection of the English poet and politician, Richard Monckton Milnes (1809-1885), was sold by Christie's in Paris in 2011,  The French Ministry of Culture exercised its right of pre-emption and the town of Arras, with the aid of the National Archives, purchased it for 12, 500 euros.  It is now housed in the médiathèque in the palais Saint-Vaast.

Christie's, Paris. Sale of 29 November 2011.  Lot 136:  Robespierre, autographed letter.

Valérie Oddos, "Une lettre galante de Robespierre acquise par la ville d'Arras", CultureBoxFranceTVInfo, post of  6 December 2011.

Birds of the Revolutionary years

According to police report of 1790 or 1791, Robespierre remained "un grand amoureux des pigeons";  whose eyes would water when there was talk of shooting birds as game.  He shared his interest with Humbert in the rue Saintonge:
This friend is a great love of birds, as is M. de Robespierre;  they have raised several hundred birds in a fine aviary; these gentlemen are skilled bird-keepers even if they are not deputies of the first rank

The presence of birds is also attested at the Duplay's house. Robespierre's room contained, according to John Millingen, "several cages of singing birds".

Robespierre's parrot

 Robespierre is known to have owned an Indonesian parrot, a lori or perroquet tricolore, called Jacquot,  said to have been given to him as a baptism present, and which he kept with him in the rue Saint-Honoré.   Parrots are well-known for their longevity: after Robespierre's execution, the parrot was rescued by Elisabeth Lebas  and outlived its master by many years.  Here are the recollections of her neighbour, the doctor Amédée Latour:

I was able to converse between 1838 and 1839 with a  famous parrot who had been the friend of Robespierre. He belonged to Mme the widow Lebas...whom I had the honour of seeing often in her little house in Fontenay-aux-Roses, where she would make the sign of the cross when she pronounced the name Robespierre...As to her parrot, when one said "Robespierre", it replied Hats off !  Hats off! (Chapeau bas!  chapeau bas!)  It sang the Marseillaise with perfect diction and Ça ira  like a Jacobin.  It was - and perhaps, thanks to its diet of grain, still is - a parrot sans-culotte , the like of which can no longer to be found. Mme Lebas recounted  with great emotion how she had managed to save this precious psittacus  after Thermidor.  It had been seriously compromised.  After the arrest of Robespierre and Lebas, in the course of a long domiciliary inspection,  every time the name of Robespierre was pronouned the parrot would repeat its refrain, Hats off ! Hats off! The government agents had grown impatient and were about to wring its neck, when Mme Lebas, as quick as lightning,  grabbed the bird,opened the window and set it free.  The poor parrot flew from window to window, until it found a charitable person to open up for it; a few days later Madame Lebas was able to regain possession of this last friend left to her by Robespierre, the only one perhaps, besides his elderly mistress, who has remained faithful to his memory.
Anecdote from the journal  L'Union médicale, 1861


  1. This was beautiful and sweet to read of this side of Robespierre. Thank you very much for the lovely art and for compiling these sources and sharing!