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Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots

, 368 pages

29 halftones, 3 line drawings

January 2002
List price:$58.00
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Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots

Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris

In 1775, a visitor to Laurent Spinacuta's Grande Ménagerie at the annual winter fair in Paris would have seen two tigers, several kinds of monkeys, an armadillo, an ocelot, and a condor—in all, forty-two live animals. In Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots, Louise Robbins explains that exotic animals from around the world were common in eighteenth-century Paris. In the streets of the city, residents and visitors could observe performing elephants and a fighting polar bear. Those looking for unusual pets could purchase parrots, flying squirrels, and capuchin monkeys. The royal menagerie at Versailles displayed lions, cranes, an elephant, a rhinoceros, and a zebra, which in 1760 became a major court attraction.

For Enlightenment-era Parisians, exotic animals both piqued scientific curiosity and conveyed social status. Their availability was a boon for naturalists like Buffon, author of the best-selling Histoire naturelle, who observed unusual species in a variety of locations around the city. Louis XVI saw his menagerie as a manifestation of his power and funded its upkeep accordingly, while critics used the caged animals as metaphors of slavery and political oppression amidst the growing political turmoil. In her engaging and often surprising account, Robbins considers nearly every aspect of France's obsession with exotic fauna, from the vast literature on exotic animals and the inner workings of the oiseleurs' (birdsellers') guild to how the animals were transported, housed, and cared for. Based on wide-ranging and imaginative research, Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots stands as a major contribution to the history of human-animal relations, eighteenth-century culture, and French colonialism.

Louise E. Robbins is an independent scholar and an editor at Cornell University Press. She has a doctorate in history of science from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

"It is both amusing and disturbing to read of people's bizarre interactions with animals in 18th-century France... Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots conveys the joy and wonder Parisians reaped from the monkeys and elephants frolicking around in their society. As Robbins points out, lurking beneath is the animals' profound exploitation: their torturous importation from their native climes; their high mortality rates on the way to France (many died of maltreatment aboard ship; others, if food supplies ran low, simply became dinner); their minimally competent care is they happened to arrive in Paris intact."

"A lively glimpse of 18th-century Paris's infatuation with exotic animals. Here is a genuine labor of love, not merely synthesizing what has already been published, but the result of an apparently exhaustive culling of Parisian archives... What exotic animals 18th-century Parisians saw and owned, how they got there, what the locals made of them, how they influenced fashion, are all well described in Louise Robbins's fascinating book."

"This book adds a new dimension to our understanding of eighteenth-century France by investigating the provenance, treatment, and fate of exotic animals living in Paris in the 1700s. Attentive to the minutiae of everyday life as well as to long-term changes in the Parisian mentalité, Louise E. Robbins studies such creatures in order to show that human history is inseparable from that of the animals living in our midst... A signal contribution. Free of the jargon that plagues much historiography, this study is accessible to the specialist and the general reader alike."

"A delightful tour of the world of exotic animals in eighteenth-century Paris... Robbins sketches a striking picture of what the public might have seen by using handbills, police records, and natural history texts. She has been resourceful. In her research, for example, she uncovered a trove of documents relating to the oiseleur's guild. Although small and generally unknown, the guild's history allows us a detailed glimpse into the bird trade (and trade in other animals, as well)... A welcome addition to the literature on eighteenth-century Paris and to our understanding of what animals meant to the people of that city."

"A closely researched account, richly illustrated with material drawn from the contemporary press and archives, of the material and cultural presence of a range of exotic creatures imported into Paris... An exemplary historical account of the domestication of the exotic, cataloging the specific workings of such a process at a given historical moment."

"Robbins's book... highlights a neglected area of social and scientific historical writing. Notable is a deft use of a delicious variety of primary sources ranging from ships logs and personal correspondence of the French crown with its scattered agents to prints circulated among the Parisians and entries in tomes as formidable as the 1765 Encyclopedie... An unusual and fascinating piece of scholarship."

"Using an impressively broad range of sources, Robbins gives a comprehensive account of the many unlikely spaces (literal and figurative) occupied by exotic animals in eighteenth-century Paris. From travelers' descriptions and aristocrats' memoirs, Robbins culls stories of the princesse de Chimay's pet monkey and of the seal loveingly exhibited by a fairground entrepreneur; from police reports, she traces the workings of the Paris bird-sellers' guild; from the colonial archives (and those of the king's menagerie), she charts the routes of African, Asian, and American animals on their way to the French capital... In short, Robbins' book is the product of research that was thorough and thoughtful."

"Solid and engaging, this book is thoroughly satisfying in its fresh approach to eighteenth-century society."

" Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots has rightly attracted plaudits for its richness and the fascinating subject—the multifarious worlds of animal trading and keeping in eighteenth-century Paris—which the author treats in extensive and well-researched detail... The book is an enjoyable read, well written and thorough, and undoubtedly contributes much to our understanding of a subject about which little was previously known."

" Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots is a job very well done. Robbins forcefully uses her sources of diaries, letters, and not least newspapers to drive home the importance of exotic animals in eitheenth-century French imagination... All in all, this book is a delight to read with well-chosen illustrations"

"Caged animals could stand in metaphorically not only for slaves but also for victims of royal despotism... It is in showing how ubiquitous such discourses were and how central exotic animals were to them that this well-researched, witty, and thoroughly enjoyable book make its major contribution."

"Eighteenth-century Paris abounded with animals captured in faraway places and brought to the French capital. Louise Robbins has done a masterful job recapturing this phenomenon, bringing it to the attention of modern readers, and making sense of it. She reconstructs the diverse material, social, and cultural settings in which exotic animals played a role. At the same time, she analyzes the multiple meanings French observers derived from these animals in their midst. The reader will find here a wealth of insights regarding the ways ideas about human social relations have influenced representations of animal behavior or human-animal relations, and vice versa. This is a marvelous book, wonderfully researched and engagingly written."

"An impressive work that uses exotic animals as a vantage point from which to expose the behavior and attitudes of Parisians, not only toward the animals themselves but also toward a range of important issues in French history."

"[A] beautiful, indeed wonderful... learned, engaging book... Dr. Robbins is not afraid to tackle difficult questions."

"A captivating book that is not only impreccably researched but also eloquently written."

"Let me stress that although Robbins' book is lots of fun to read, it is also meticulously researched and cogently argued... Do read this book; you will enjoy it and learn a lot."