Animal Paris, part 1: Fagotin and his kin

This is the first post in a occasional series on animals in (mostly) early modern Paris.

29 April 2015

Last week, a US judge apparently ruled that two research chimpanzees are “legal persons” and have standing to pursue a court case against their captivity.  As the work of historian Alan Ross is revealing, non-human primates have long been human companions.  In early modern Europe, monkeys were popular pets among royalty and the aristocracy.  The French king Charles VI in the late fifteenth century kept a pet monkey, and over a century later Queen Marie de’Medici, mother of Louis XIV, kept a “sapajou” or capuchin monkey (a South American species) and a “guenon,” one of the many species of cercopithecus, an Old World monkey.  This seems to have been a popular pairing, immortalized in 1676 in this Sapajous et guenonsillustration from the Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire naturelle des animaux. The setting is the terrace of a chateau, with a formal, geometrical parterre in the background. If this was not the actual palace of Versailles, the image was certainly meant to evoke it, and one historian has identified Charles Perrault’s labyrinth in the background.  Among all of the animals depicted in this volume, the monkeys are the only ones shown under restraint, with a ball and chains. The chains are delicate, and the monkeys appear to be playing with the single small ball, its form echoed in the fruit another monkey holds.

Apart from serving as pets – the royal minister Mazarin also had a pet monkey, who sported the Cardinal’s specially made perfume – performing monkeys and apes were frequently seen at fairs and other spectacles.   This image from 1630 shows monkeys clowning around a sleeping man — the phrase in French is “faire des singeries,” to monkey around.

Le songe de Guillot,  1630
Le songe de Guillot, 1630

The ape Fagotin, who may have been a chimpanzee, had a large following in midcentury Paris. There were at least two of that name. The first flourished in the 1640s in the marionette show of a certain Brioché. According to one source, Brioché was the stage name of father and son puppeteers Pierre and François Datelin; according to another, it was a Gallified version of an Italian name, Briocci.  The nineteenth-century chronicler of marionettes, Charles Magnin, even claims that Briocci had some connection to his countryman Mazarin (born Mazzarino).  The sources agree that there was a father and a son, and that they gave their performances at the base of the Pont Neuf near the statue of Henri IV and also at the popular fairs of Saint-Laurent and Saint-Germain. Foire_saint-laurent

Fagotin, who is described as “fat as a pâté of Amiens and big as a small man,” wore an old hat with a large plume and was fully dressed.   The description comes from a little 1655 pamphlet that describes how the playwright and duelist Cyrano de Bergerac (1619–55), mistaking Fagotin for a man, ran him through with his sword, much to the dismay of Brioché.  This event may have taken place in 1654.

Later in the 1650s, a second Fagotin was known as a rope-dancer or tight-rope walker. “Fagotin” became a standard name for a performing monkey; a poet in 1664 described “Les fagotins et les guenons” at the Foire Saint-Germain.  Fagotin also made appearances in works by Molière and La Fontaine.  In La Fontaine’s fable “Le cour du lion,” Fagotin and his marionettes even entertain the king.



Hold that Tiger?

19 November 2014, Berlin


When I was in France last weekend the big news was the sighting of a tiger outside Paris.  A blurry picture of the beast itself  circulated widely, and pictures of its footprints seemed to indicate, at the least, some kind of big wild feline.  Some 200 police and a helicopter were mobilized to search for it.


Joggers were warned to keep away from a local forest. However, by Friday night, the tiger was beginning to shrink; a vet declared on national TV that the cat was not big enough to be a tiger, or even a lynx.  “It might be a very large house cat,” she said, although she estimated it weighed 50 kilos, which would be a very large house cat indeed.  By the end of the weekend, the search was called off, and the “superstar of social media” was revealed to be “nothing but a big cat.”

Long Live the King

Louis XIV as Alexander the Great, Versailles
Louis XIV as Alexander the Great, Versailles

21 September 2014, Berlin

Louis XIV, who saw himself as the new Alexander the Great, adopted the lion as one of his symbols. Although he didn’t wear a lion skin on his head like Alexander, real and imaginary lions surrounded him.

Headpiece, Memoires pour servir a l'histoire naturelle des animaux, 1671
Headpiece, Memoires pour servir a l’histoire naturelle des animaux, 1671
Historic distribution of Barbary and Asian Lions. Map by Peter Maas,

The lion long pre-dated Alexander as a symbol of power and majesty. On visits to two of Berlin’s many wonderful museums, I recorded just a few examples of the many appearances of the king of beasts in antiquity.  We think of lions as animals of sub-Saharan Africa.  But two sub-species of lions existed outside that region: the Barbary lion of North Africa (Panthera leo leo),

Barbary Lion 1893
Barbary Lion 1893

now extinct in the wild, and the Asian lion (Panthera leo persica), with perhaps 250 individuals now living in India.   These are the animals we see represented in antiquity.

Scene from the Pergamon Altar, 2nd century BCE, Pergamon Museum
Scene from the Pergamon Altar, 2nd century BCE
Assyrian lion gate
Assyrian lion gate, Pergamon Museum
Ishtar Gate, ca 575 BCE
Ishtar Gate, ca 575 BCE, Pergamon Museum
Lionhead gargoyle, Miletus, 2nd century
Lionhead gargoyle, Miletus, 2nd century, Pergamon Museum
Roman sarcophagus, 300 CE, Neues Museum
Roman sarcophagus, 300 CE, Neues Museum
Architrave with two lion gods and Amon as a ram, Egypt, 200 BCE, Neues Museum
Architrave with two lion gods and Amon as a ram, Egypt, 200 BCE, Neues Museum