History, part 9: the turn of the century

My history series has reached 1700.  A good time to take stock, like one of those end-of-year magazine articles that review past events, look at current trends, and attempt to forecast future developments. 

We will follow the traditional format and start with a review of the past.

The undoubted leaders in canary culture during the seventeenth century were the Germans, or to be precise, an area comprising south Germany (centred on Augsburg in Bavaria) and the Austrian Tyrol (which was also German-speaking).  The breeders in this region were remarkable for three reasons: they had improved the canary’s song; they had established colour mutations and the crest in their canaries; and they were capable business men, exporting their birds to France, England and Poland even in times of war. (1)

The English also deserve a mention, because they were the first to publish books on song birds that were aimed at the pet market.  The books were informative and (relatively) affordable.  Of all the song birds, the canary was the most rewarding: a bird with an attractive song; simple to care for as a household pet; and easy to breed, which gave its owners an opportunity to profit for their hobby.

The notable omission is France.  During the seventeenth century, France was the most powerful nation in Europe.  It had the largest population, and it was the centre of culture and taste.  Yet, for all its power and prestige, France was a laggard when it came to canary culture.

France’s contribution to the history of song birds in the seventeenth century was not the canary, but the nightingale.  Two books by anonymous authors, entitled Traité du rossignol, were published in 1674 and 1697. They not only gave practical advice about keeping nightingales, but also made observations about their migratory instincts that were well head of their time (2).

One translator went so far as attributing these books, plus another published in 1709, to the same person because ‘they are from the same printer and publisher and are identical in style and size and even contain some of the same decorative wood-cuts’ (3).  The person he named was J.C. Hervieux, better known as the author of Nouveau traité des Serins de Canarie.  There was just one problem with his claim: Hervieux was not born until 1683.  Research by Prof. Tim Birkhead and I. Charmantier have established that the 1697 edition was actually written by Nicolas Venette, better known as the author of the first guide to sex!

The link to Hervieux was not entirely unfounded however, because his first book, Traité du serein de Canarie (1707), included Venette’s text on the nightingale.  Note the similarity of the title to Nouveau traité des Serins de Canarie, which seems to have caused much confusion amongst historians.  The same author, but a completely different book.

Hervieux 1707 title page-FSS

Traité du serein de Canarie may sound like a canary book, but only 31 pages concern the canary, 45 are devoted to other singing birds, and 82 (i.e. more than half) to the nightingale.  The latter appear to be a reprint of Venette’s original work (I haven’t seen it in its entirety, so cannot verify).

Thirty one small (duodecimo) pages is hardly ground-breaking, but in the conservative French market, it was a major advance for canary culture.  Some of it was derivative (4) but most of the content is clearly written from personal knowledge. It covered the basics of keeping, feeding and breeding canaries.  Only six variations are mentioned: the grey, the yellow, the variegated, the white, the agate and the isabel, but they are not described in detail.

This suggests that Claude Prudhomme, the publisher, was testing the market; lacking the confidence to devote an entire book to the canary.  By publishing Traité du serein de Canarie in tandem with Traité du rossignol (Prudhomme had been the publisher of the 1697 edition), he was spreading the risk.  The trend is clear: the ‘canary bubble’ that had emerged in Paris in 1696 (5) had grown to the point where publishers were taking an interest.

The sales of the book must have convinced him that there was indeed a demand, because two years later another book by the same author and publisher would be produced.  This time, it would be devoted entirely to the canary.  Things would be very different in future .


  1. The Epitome of the Art of Husbandry by Joseph Blagrave, second edition, 1675, p.113
  2. Nicolas Venette’s Traité du rossignol (1697) and the discovery of migratory restlessness, by T. Birkhead and I. Charmantier, Archives of Natural History, 2013.
  3. An Account of the Nightingale ‘turned into English’ by Arthur Douglas, 1972.
  4. I have seen claims that Hervieux’s description of the canary was derived from Dictionnaire de Trévoux, the first French dictionary (1704).  The earliest edition I have found is dated 1732, so I can’t verify the claim.
  5. Elephant Slaves & Pampered Parrots by Louise Robbins, 2002, p.113.