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A King of Beasts in Revolutionary Paris

I’ve just started reading the eclectic and lively Georgian London blog, and came across this piece about the menagerie at the Tower of London, which existed in various forms from 1252 until its closure in 1835, at which point its collection of animal inhabitants formed the basis for London Zoo.

The story of the menagerie (once you’ve managed to disable those parts of your brain sensitive to modern notions of health and safety, animal cruelty and basic common sense) is a dizzying carnival of unlikely experiences, which range from the sublimely ridiculous to the ridculously sublime. Picture, for example, the first resident of the menagerie; a polar bear, given as a gift from the King of Norway to the King of England. Although presumably fluffy, small and adorable to begin with (perhaps wrapped in a little bow), the gift soon grew into an almighty, boulder-pawed beast (as polar bears are so wont to do). Too large now for his strolls around the Tower, he was sent with his keeper to swim and catch fish in the river Thames.

This curious incident of the bear and his swim time seems to have set the tone for the menagerie, and as the delightful stories keep coming, the greater a tragedy it seems that there was no historical equivalent of Ben Fogle and Kate Humble to record them all in a sort of proto-Animal Park. Other residents of the Tower menagerie included Old Martin, the bear who put the grizzly back into grizzly bear, a lonely mongoose, monkeys bedecked in fine costumes, a plague of kangaroos (which apparently spread to other parts of England, until it was not at all uncommon to see kangaroos roaming around in parks) an elephant with a penchant for wine and a belligerent, beer-swilling zebra, who by all accounts was a much friendlier drunk.

There were also many Lions in the menagerie, whose chorus of roars at dawn came incongruously to mark the start of the day at the Tower of London. This put me in mind of another lion from another menagerie, whose wretched story is painfully revealing of the tensions and ironies that practically hummed in the air of revolutionary Paris.

This story is told in The Journal of a Spy in Paris During the Reign of Terror, a fascinating document which purports to have been recorded by one Raoul Hesdin (no doubt an assumed name), an English spy working for the French Government during the first half of 1794. No record can be found of anyone of this name in the employ of the government at the time, but the work rings with truth, and it seems safe to say that whoever he was, he was in Paris at the time, and in some position that gave him close access to the Committee of Public Safety, and all the important goings-on in this tumultuous period.

But despite this elevated position, it is the personal perspective offered by the journal that makes it such a fascinating and valuable source. The study of the revolution can so easily get bogged down in valiant attempts to chart and explain the ever-changing, immensely complicated shifts in the political tides, at the expense of an understanding of what it actually felt like to be an individual living through the vast impersonal processes of the Terror, of people’s perceptions of what was happening and where it was all leading, and ultimately what the point of it all was.

It seems that Hesdin once had some enthusiasm for the revolution, and was perhaps even swept up in its very early phases. In the time since then, however, this enthusiasm has clearly softened, waned and ultimately reversed upon itself. By early February 1794, he writes,

I have little heart in such scenes for the compilation of a regular journal; if there were the least chance of my obtaining employment elsewhere or a passport to leave, I would leave this hideous shambles to-morrow. I am here to discover the secrets of a Government which has none, to unriddle mysteries when everything is but too patent, to assign causes to affects when famine, hideous famine, is the cause of everything. At times I console myself with the thought that I am taking part in a piece that will one day be read and re-read on History’s page – if, indeed, all History be not destroyed and the End of all things come.

What seems to pain Hesdin most is the transformation that has taken hold of Paris, a city which once had clearly bewitched and entranced him, in a way that Paris through the ages seems to have had a unique capacity to do.

I walked today under the chestnuts for an hour… The contrast to my youthful recollections of Paris moved me almost to tears. Nothing but the eternal white dust of the streets remains the same…

The ferment of minds in the salons, clubs, and coffee-houses, above all in the streets, was indescribable. People literally lived in the open air those two summers, and in ’89 at every moment were seen horsemen dashing in with news from the Court or the Assembly at Versailles; orators declaiming on every chair and balustrade on the terrace. Now it is the silence of the grave

He tells us of dance halls banned by the government, but which continued anyway in secret, shifting from place to place each night to avoid detection. He watches as great books and priceless pictures sell for nothing, all vestiges of the past having ‘become objects of derision’. Most chillingly, he one day observes that guillotinings have become so much a part of the day that guards have had to be posted at the scaffolds to stop children from playing on it.

In the middle of all this comes the tale of an old grey lion, once the pride of the menagerie at Versailles, and now caged in the Jardin des Plantes. This was a beautiful botanical garden, marred only, Hesdin tells us, by the presence of strolling flower girls paid by the government to keep a spying eye and keen ear trained on visitors. In this small zoo (which, along with the park, still exists today) lived the Lion, ‘covered with sores and infested with vermin’, a pitiful sight – more mange than mane. For a small fee visitors would be allowed in to see him, and consequently, says Hesdin, he was ‘tormented by the Parisian sans-cullotes because he was king’. This sad image seems to encapsulate both the deep fears and growing frustrations of the people of Paris at this time. The King and Queen were both dead and the revolution had brought immense change, but as people screamed at the lion and tugged his hair, it is tempting to believe they were expressing a powerful sense that the revolution was not yet complete, that it had not done what it was meant to. Its leaders had sought to stoke an ever-burning fear of enemies both within and without, and even the idea of royalty was something that had still to be not only ridiculed but also actively and continuously attacked.

It’s best not to get too romantic about the case of one old Lion, but I’m always searching for moments like this in history, where in one seemingly trivial anecdote everything seems to crystalise, and petty actions have the capacity to reveal what otherwise goes unspoken; ideas and emotions so powerful and complicated that perhaps only unconscious action can express them.

In the end you can interpret the story of the lion in the park in whichever way you like, but through the eyes of Raoul Hesdin, things seem bleakly clear. Shortly before his diary comes to an abrupt and unexplained end, he sums up the world he sees stretching out before him.

Politics seem to be asleep, and all hope of resistance at an end; the yoke is to be eternal; the bloodshed perpetual, if men can be born fast enough to feed the fire.

Further Reading

The photograph used to illustrate this article is by Vincenzo Gianferrari Pini, and was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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