The republican menagerie: animal politics in the French Revolution

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This article examines three texts that gave legitimacy to the republican menagerie at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in Paris from its origins at the height of the Terror in 1793 to the last year of the Consulate in 1801. Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737–1814), a man of letters, Antoine Claire Thibaudeau (1765–1854), a prominent radical politician, and Bernard Germain de Lacepède (1756–1825), an expert naturalist each played an essential role in the invention and defence of the republican zoo. This article considers the ways in which thinking about a space for the conservation and observation of animals articulated with the political construction of republican citizenship; it interrogates the zones where these discourses converged and the resulting confusion of political and naturalist registers, as these texts spoke as much about the Parisians as political animals as about the republican beasts behind bars.

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Since antiquity, philosophers have acknowledged Aristotle's claim that man is a political animal.1 Yet the converse claim that animals are political subjects remained controversial at the end of the eighteenth century, when the French Revolution shook the foundations of French society by according each individual an equal place within a radically transformed social, political, and cultural order. Abolishing the old order of inherited privilege, the revolutionaries transformed the basis of society from biological markers of birth to the legal equality of all citizens. The ensuing debates over the status of citizenship provoked a series of intense reflections regarding the status of animals. Implicitly, the idea of human rights raised the question of whether the concept of rights should affect the world of animals, understood according to their physiology, status, and essence. What follows charts how the rights of animality-that is, rights shared by nonhuman as well as human animals-were addressed by the new citizens of revolutionary France in the newly declared French Republic, particularly those belonging to the new community of "republican" science. It is noteworthy that the noun "animality" is still used colloquially to refer to animal nature or character, suggesting a prehuman, physical, or instinctive behavior. However, the term derives from the Latin animalis, meaning "animate," or "living." In certain late eighteenth- And early nineteenth-century European arguments about animality, one discovers the articulation as well as the refusal of a broader conception of rights shared by both humans and animals. In brief, the denial of rights came to be tied to an emergent racial ideology implicating both animals and humans. In 1792, the creation of the First French Republic mobilized republican scientists on behalf of a "nation in danger." Propelled by a series of foreign and civil wars lasting until the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, an entire generation contributed to the construction of an ethic that placed knowledge in the service of the nation and the developing republic.3 Among its many projects, the new republican legislature (known as the Convention) founded the Museum of Natural History, intended to be a place of conservation, care, and study of natural organisms. This crucial venture was tied to the infant republic's commitment to natural rights through the goal of protecting life-forms and placing them on display for the benefit of all its citizens. In addition, the museum sponsored a series of public lectures on the mysteries of nature and man's place in the world-a world for which man, its most advanced creature, was deemed responsible. Located at the center of broad-ranging intellectual speculation, and supported by an important publishing program, the animals were the subjects of special attention in the promotion of knowledge about man and his development. Notwithstanding considerable hesitation and controversy generated by this exploration, republican scientists sought to establish a rapport between the world of animals and that of man. Historians of science have located and explained these debates within a paradigm of emergent scientific knowledge and research.5 Other historians have addressed the history of scientific controversies tied to the animal question within a social history of scientific institutions, showing how a narrow focus on epistemological questions obscures the ambitions and strategies of distinctive groups.6 Moreover, a history of the networks of the scientific world has appropriately linked the issues of intellectual dueling between different camps of scientists with corresponding battles over political positioning. The translation of vitalist or organicist theories into ideas of republican organization during this age, for example, reveals how Napoleon Bonaparte and his supporters aimed to reintroduce social stratification within the purportedly egalitarian republic by anchoring the former in the laws of nature. According to the "irrefutable" logic of science, Bonapartists asserted, only the strong command.7 Yet, until now, historians of politics during the Revolution have expressed little interest in the place of beasts-particularly, in the latter's specificity of "being animal"-concentrating instead on more traditional subjects, such as the exercise of citizenship in all its aspects.8 In contrast, this chapter places animals at the center of inquiry that occurred during the Consulate, when considerable attempts were made to stabilize and tame revolutionary principles.9 During this period there was an increasing emphasis in scientific paradigms on classification and utilitarian order, which was accompanied by an insistence on the difference rather than the philosophical and metaphysical similarities between man, animal, and nature. This chapter focuses on texts by two authors working during the Consulate. Jean-Claude de Lamétherie's writings located the question of the relationship between animality and humanity at the center of an increasingly conservative social organization. Alternatively, Jean-Baptiste Salaville cast a disturbing light on the relationship between man and animal. Seemingly more "animal-phobic" at first glance, Salaville was in fact more committed to the revolutionary ideals of liberty than to the ascendant modes of classification and of natural and hierarchical stigmatization. Both authors were concerned with issues of citizenship and social order. They raised essential questions about the ontological distinctions between human and animal, and in turn crudely posed the issue of subordinate or secondary citizenship for a group whose status was being hotly debated during these same years: (black) slaves. By focusing on animals, the authors put forward questions about the rights of all beings and revealed the intellectual justifications offered for violence done to inferiors through a definition of otherness. By examining how distinctions were drawn between bestiality and humanity, we discover some of the paradoxical ways in which the goals of social reproduction worked to undermine the democratization of society.
This article examines the shift in animal spectatorship at the beginning of the reign of Louis XIV (the 1660s) from the violence of wild animal combat at the Vincennes menagerie to the peaceful display of graceful birds in the first pavilion constructed in the Versailles park beginning in 1662. I interpret the pavilion and animal collections using the sparse administrative sources and the richer literary descriptions by Mademoiselle de Scudéry, Jean de La Fontaine, and the unpublished poem of the engineer-fountaineer Claude Denis. Drawing on the theoretical work of Norbert Elias and Michel Foucault, I argue that the menagerie is best understood both as a royal claim of absolute authority and as a model of the aristocratic experience of civilité. The menagerie was less a zoo than a living metaphor of Louis XIV’s absolutism and the court society of Versailles itself. Cet article examine le changement des modalités de présentation des animaux vivants au début du règne de Louis XIV (les années 1660) dans l’optique du passage de la violence des combats d’animaux sauvages à la Ménagerie de Vincennes jusqu’à l’exposition paisible d’oiseaux gracieux et élégants dans les cours du premier pavillon construit dans le parc de Versailles dès 1662. L’article se sert des maigres archives administratives et des descriptions littéraires plus riches de Mademoiselle de Scudéry, Jean de La Fontaine ainsi que d’un poème inédit de l’ingénieur fontainier Claude Denis. Il propose une nouvelle interprétation des ménageries de Louis XIV et des choix d’animaux présentés, s’engageant avec Norbert Elias et Michel Foucault pour penser la ménagerie à la fois comme une revendication d’autorité absolue du roi et de l’expérience aristocratique de la civilité à la cour. La ménagerie fut moins un zoo moderne qu’une métaphore vivante de l’absolutisme et de la civilisation des mœurs à la société de cour à Versailles.