Prison Pets in the French Revolution

Beasts behind bars - Katharine MacDonogh tells the tale of the animals forced to share their owners' fall from grace after 1789.

It is appropriate that the end of the French Enlightenment should coincide with the publication of the last volume of the Comte de Buffon's hugely popular Histoire Naturelle in 1788. Whereas the philosophes of the eighteenth century had sought to upgrade the beast to the level of Man, the Revolution would degrade Man to the level of beast. Dogs, Buffon believed, learned to be civilised through living with humans; the miniature pedigree dog of the social elite was ipso facto superior to the kennelled working dog.

Two years after the book's publication, a large number of these pedigree dogs, known as lexicons, were burned in the Place des Greves, their owners having abandoned them in the first wave of emigration following the outbreak of the French Revolution.

Many noble breeds, like the greyhound, became all but extinct during these years; the royal hounds were dispersed and hidden; on the landed estates, dogs were given cosmetic surgery in order to disguise their pedigree. As with the lexicons these hunting breeds were judged guilty by association: hounds represented feudalism; cats and miniature dogs, whether in rococo art or the crude pornographic pamphlets so widely circulated through the eighteenth century, were the passive images of sexuality. Pets suggested idleness and, as Robert Darnton has noted, 'keeping pets was as alien to the workers as torturing animals was to the bourgeois'.

Want the full article and website archive access?

Subscribe now

Already a member? Log in now