Nouveau traité des serins de Canaries: a small book, you can hold it comfortably in the palm of your hand; leather bound, but otherwise crudely printed; 327 pages (excluding the contents, preface and dedication); three illustrations, but sadly none of the birds themselves. Nothing special you might think, yet this book propelled the canary into the limelight. Of all domesticated animals, only the horse and the dog had been the subjects of earlier monographs (1). At the turn of the seventeenth century there were no comparable books on cattle, sheep, poultry, pigeons and other livestock, even though they had been domesticated much longer and were of far greater economic importance. One small step for publishing, one giant leap for canary culture.
The first thing you need to appreciate about this book is that it was a revelation, a huge advance on anything that had gone before, and at least 160 years ahead of its time (2). It contained everything you could possibly want to know about canaries: how to buy them, house them, feed them, breed them and treat their ailments.
The second is that it was relatively affordable and therefore widely read, unlike the great ornithological works of the previous centuries. It brought canary culture to a new audience outside the aristocracy and the rich.
The third and, as far as Fine Spangled Sort is concerned, the most interesting aspect is that it delved into the world of fancy canaries: birds being developed for their aesthetic qualities. The colour and pattern of the canary’s plumage were now more valuable than its song. These are the birds on Hervieux’s list.
I am not going to dwell on the practical advice that Hervieux gives on caring for birds because little has changed in the last 300 years. Advances in science may help us in some respects, but his advice on husbandry was fundamentally sound and very similar to what we practise today. It is Hervieux’s list that we are going to look at here.
The original list comprised 28 ‘varieties’ which started with the most common and ended with the rarest. Hervieux revised the list in 1713, omitting one variety and adding another at the end: le serin plein (the clear yellow canary) thereby keeping the total at 28, the number you find in all the books on canary history. Buffon added variety 29, the crested canary, in his L’Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux in 1778 (3) although as we know, the mutation had existed since the late sixteenth century.
Don’t confuse Hervieux’s ‘varieties’ with distinct breeds of canary. Most were simply variegated birds, a white tail or even a hidden white feather being enough to qualify as a separate variety. Some were undoubtedly colour mutations, and others were a combination of colour and variegation.
There have been several English translations of Nouveau traité des serins de Canaries and some are simply hopeless. The first, published in 1718 (4) seems to have been translated by someone more familiar with pigeons or poultry than with canaries. Thus panaché (meaning variegated) is translated as ‘Copple-crown’ and duvet (meaning under-down) as ‘feather-footed’. It confuses more than it clarifies.
Probably the best translation can be found in the English edition of Buffon’s L’Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux published in 1793 (5). It stands out for three reasons: firstly it is simple and straightforward; secondly Buffon’s account (6) was written in 1778 – within living memory of Hervieux; and thirdly the translator had corresponded with Buffon. He was a remarkable Scot, William Smellie, editor, naturalist and antiquary; a leading figure of the Scottish Enlightenment and friend of Robbie Burns. He is best known as the editor of the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but he also translated the entire Histoire Naturelle. He was just the man to translate Hervieux’s list. And get it right.
This didn’t deter others from having a go. Another Scott, Peter Boswell writing in 1840 (7), couldn’t resist embellishing Hervieux’s original text. For example, variety No 1 Serin Gris Commun (‘common grey canary’) is now ‘the common canary finch, of a grey colour, with the down black; as in the wild bird found in the Canary Isles’. As it happens, this is probably true, but it is not an accurate representation of the original: too much Boswell; too little Hervieux.
By 1840 descriptions of the Lizard canary and the London Fancy (known simply as the ‘Fancy canary’) had been published and Boswell was familiar with them. He translates variety No 27 as ‘Canary finch, regularly spangled with black and yellow’ – the first time that Hervieux’s panaché is translated as ‘spangled’.
A degree of latitude must always be allowed when translating a text: a sentence in one language may be rendered in a completely different manner in another; alternative modes of expression are acceptable as long as the meaning of the text is conveyed accurately. However, there is a fine line between interpretation and embellishment, and Boswell has crossed that line. His intentions may be honourable, but he has made several assumptions in the above examples that go well beyond what Hervieux actually wrote. His interpretation may be correct, but neither he nor we know that for sure. In other words, he is guessing.
The next translation of Hervieux’s list would go even further; an imaginative and daring interpretion that only a visionary, or the self-deluded, could conceive. To find out which, read the next chapter.
- Gervase Markham’s Discourse on Horsemanship goes back to the end of the sixteenth century. De Canibus Britannicis by John Caius was published in 1570 and an English translation by Abraham Fleming entitled Of English Dogges appeared in 1576. Both books were reprinted under various titles over the next 200 years.
- The next monograph on the canary was not published until 1875: The Canary Book by R.L. Wallace.
- L’Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux, by George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, in 9 volumes (1770-1783). Volume IV, which includes the canary, was published in 1778.
- A New Treatise of Canary-Birds, anon, 1718.
- The Natural History of Birds by Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. Edited and translated by William Smellie, Vol.4 (1793).
- Much of the L’Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux was written by Philippe Guéneau de Montbeillard, a colleague of Buffon.
- Bees, Pigeons, Rabbits and the Canary Bird by Peter Boswell (1840) p80.