History, part 5: the Huguenot legend and the comfort of opinion

The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought’John F. Kennedy 1962.

One of the great legends of the canary world is that the Lizard canary and the London Fancy (or at least a common ancestor, the Fine Spangled Sort) were brought to England by the Huguenot silk weavers following the Renunciation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.  You will find it repeated as ‘fact’ in books, articles, and the internet; a mantra that people chant without question.  It is a classic example of Kennedy’s ‘comfort of opinion’; it has been repeated so often that people assume it must be true.  But is it?  In this chapter, I am going to subject the legend to the ‘discomfort of thought’.

The first discomfort is that the legend is of relatively recent origin.  The earliest reference to it that I have found appears in Blakston’s Canaries and Cage Birds (1878-81), which makes you wonder why authors who were writing within living memory of the Renunciation didn’t mention the Huguenots, refugees, or silk weavers at all.  Here is Blakston’s assertion:

‘We think it more than probable that the “fine spangled sort, commonly called French Canary birds” would form part of the penates (1) of the Protestant refugees, chiefly silk weavers and workers of other textile fabrics, who found shelter here from the persecutions in France’. (2)

What Blakston has done here is to look at London in the early part of the eighteenth century and picked out five ingredients (the French, Huguenots, refugees, silk weavers and canaries) and combined them into a plausible theory.  Unfortunately, when you look at his theory in the wider context, it seems less credible.  Those same ‘ingredients’ were present in many countries, but they didn’t result in the Fine Spangled Sort, let alone the London Fancy or the Lizard canary.   Germany and Holland, in particular, were more advanced than England when it came to canary culture.  If anybody could establish a distinct variety, surely it would have been them?  Why was the Fine Spangled Sort recorded only in London which had less than 11% of all the refugees, and less then 3% of all Huguenots?

Another discomfort: why should we assume that the Huguenots had a monopoly of canary culture in France?  They didn’t.  The French bird trade was controlled by the oiseleurs (3), a guild of bird catchers and sellers authorised by the King, and therefore predominantly, if not entirely, a Catholic institution.  The population of France before the dragonnades consisted of around 20 million Catholics and almost 800,000 Protestants (4).  Are we really to believe that the Huguenots, with just 4% of the population, possessed all the Fine Spangled Sort and took them all to England?    Of course not, but that begs the question: what happened to the canaries that stayed at home?

The next discomfort is that the image of desperate refugees clutching cages of canaries as they crossed the English Channel may have a romantic appeal, but it is almost certainly a myth.  As we saw in part 3 of this series, any attempt to leave France was fraught with danger.  The borders were closed, there were patrols, spies and informants who were well rewarded if they helped the authorities to catch Huguenot émigrés.  The escape routes entailed hidden tracks, mountain passes, or night time rendezvous with ships.  It was essential that refugees travelled light.  Canaries would not just have been an encumbrance, but potentially a fatal one.

Huguenot destinations-fss

The final discomfort (at least for now) is that on arrival in a strange land where they did not speak the language, a refugee’s priorities would have been those of survival: finding food and shelter; tracing friends and other members of their families; finding work and making a living.  Canaries would have been a luxury that they could only contemplate when they were settled.

The more you think about it, the less credible the legend becomes.  In my opinion it has survived because, in President Kennedy’s words, too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears . . .  We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.

Footnotes:

  1. Penates were Roman gods of the household.
  2. W. Blakston Canaries and Cage Birds (1878-81), p.175.
  3. I will write more about the oiseleurs in a future article.
  4. Philip Benedict The Huguenot Population of France 1610-1685 (1991), p.9.
  5. For anyone wishing to learn more about the Huguenots, I recommend Robin Gwynn’s Huguenot Heritage.  Easily the best introduction to the subject: well researched, wide-ranging, and very readable.

5 thoughts on “History, part 5: the Huguenot legend and the comfort of opinion

  1. Thank-you for this very good reminder of history; I find it very interesting, Nevertheless we cannot discard completely the fact that it could have happened that only one of the little french canary bird could have started everything (just the spark to start a new form in the canary family). That is how it is happening in all species on earth whether huguenots or not.
    Birds have wings and don’t know any frontiers – they could have simply crossed over the channel on board ships or not.
    Many reported stories like the 400 years of existence of the lizard canary are also to be justified.
    Many translations or personal views have been published after printing became more popular but no real facts.
    The 1st real proof of the lizard and the london fancy birds appear to be on december 12th 1846 during an exhibition at the Cristal Palace and that was published on the Illustrated London News jounal. That is around 200 years.

    1. The Lizard didn’t appear from nowhere. I will be looking at the development of canary varieties during the eighteenth century in forthcoming history articles. In the meantime, I suggest you read ‘What’s in a name: Fine Spangled Sort’ here.

  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zP4jAZpPL8k
    Yesterday I have seen a similar “serinus serinus” in the wild (an industrial area in Barcelona) there was a complete family foraging on the rooftop of a wharehouse which is quite peculiar ? a couple & 4 young ones in moult. One of the parents was a non-intensive yellow with black wings & tail and the rest of the famiy was normal green except one showing light hue but was unable to take photo.
    On this video they name it “panaché” but in fact it is a mutated serinus of capture.
    I am quite convinced that this little canary bird has someting to play with some of our present canaries.
    I have also found a french breeder that is hybridising the cini with normal green canaries to transfer their vigour and their nice yellow colouring.

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