History, part 15: I wonder what he meant by that?

When the great French diplomat Talleyrand heard of the death of the Turkish ambassador, he allegedly asked “I wonder what he meant by that?” (1).  In its absurdity lies a truth: people are always looking for hidden meanings in what others say and do.  A simple act or statement is assumed to conceal an important fact or a devious motive.

That brings us back to Hervieux’s list published in Nouveau traité des serins de Canaries.  I doubt very much that Hervieux was being cryptic in his descriptions of the 28 ‘varieties’ (2), but that hasn’t stopped many observers trying to read more into them than he intended.  As we saw with Galloway, and to a lesser extent Boswell, anyone with a pet theory can twist Hervieux’s words to suit their cause.  I am going to look at the list from a different angle, but I am well aware of the pitfalls: we are looking through the telescope of history at a scene described over three centuries ago; some of the descriptions and terminology may seem familiar to us, but their meanings could have changed over the years.  We have seen examples already (3).

Before we look at the individual varieties, we need to ask a few questions about the list itself.  Was it compiled by Hervieux after extensive research, or was there an alternative, perhaps less worthy, explanation?  You might think that the answer is obvious: Hervieux wrote it didn’t he?  I doubt it.

It has all the hallmarks of a merchant’s stock list, ‘beginning with the most common sorts and concluding with the most beautiful’ (4).  There is even a price list, predictably rising from the cheapest to the most expensive (5).  Most of the so-called ‘varieties’ were little more than a marketing ploy.  A white tail, for example, was sufficient to classify a bird as a separate variety, and (surprise, surprise) to justify a 50% increase in price (6).  The likely source of this information is obvious: the oiseleurs, the bird sellers of Paris, who had a vested interesting in pushing up the prices of their canaries.

There were only eight actual varieties (as we would understand the term) in the original list.  The rest were just variations on each of these themes, rather like a car manufacturer who offers a range of models, each with several upgrade options (‘XL’, ‘XLS’, GTi, etc), at ever-rising price points.  They were:

Serin Gris: the grey canary (3 variations).

Serin Blond: the blonde canary (5 variations).

Serin Jaune: the yellow canary (3 variations)

Serin Agate: the agate canary (4 variations)

Serin Isabelle: the isabel canary (5 variations)

Serin Blanc : the white canary (single variety))

Serin Panaché: the variegated canary (4 variations)

Serin Panaché de noir-jonquille: the variegated black-yellow canary (3 variations)

A ninth variety, the Serin Plein: the clear canary (‘the rarest’) was added to the list in 1713.  Here are my thoughts on what these birds might have been:

Serin Gris: grey seems an odd colour for a canary.  You would expect even the wild type to be described as green, but as you can see from this photograph published on the excellent Serinus Society website, there is plenty of grey in the plumage.  Perhaps grey is not such a bad description after all.

Wild canary (Serinus Society)-FSS

Serin Blond & Serin Jaune: there have been many translations, some of them overly-nuanced and complicated.  The most obvious equivalents in modern terminology are surely ‘yellow’ (intensive) and ‘buff’ (non-intensive).

Serin Agate: some claim that this variety was the same as the modern agate.  I have come across two cases, but neither provided evidence to support the claim (7).  A contrary view is provided by Buffon (8) who states that the ‘the agates are of a uniform colour’.  Buffon was writing within living memory of Hervieux, so we have to take his description seriously.  One of the variants is described as having red eyes, leading to speculation that the variety was actually a satinette (9).  The one thing we can be confident of is that the agate was not the Lizard as claimed by Galloway.

Serin Isabelle: another variety with several interpretations (even the usually reliable Smellie translated it as the ‘pink canary’).  It is sometimes assumed to be the same as the modern isabel (a brown agate) but if so, what was the agate with red eyes?  The most likely explanation is that it was the cinnamon (brown).

Serin Blanc: we can be reasonably confident that this was the recessive white (it had red eyes).

Serin Panaché: variegated canary.  There is nothing to add.

Serin Panaché de noir-jonquille: this is the most interesting variety of the lot.  Black and yellow variegation eh?  No wonder that one of its variants, the Serin Panaché de noir-jonquille et regulier (the regular black and yellow canary) has attracted speculation that it could be the London Fancy (10).  There are three flaws in this hypothesis.  The first is that other canaries could also fit the description, notably the London Folly or even the Lizard.  Secondly, one of the other variants had red eyes, and therefore cannot have displayed black at all.  Thirdly it assumes that the London Fancy had been established by 1709, but as we shall see in a future article, this was almost certainly not so.

Serin Panache or even-marked Border-FSS

The Serin Panaché de noir-jonquille raises more questions than answers; I would be wary of anyone who claims to have solved this riddle.

Finally, the duvet, a feature rather than a true variety, but it has been subject to so many interpretations that it deserves to be clarified here.  Smellie (1793) and Boswell (1842) agree that it referred to the ‘down’, tiny feathers next to the skin.  Complications arise because the anonymous translation of 1718 interprets it as ‘rough footed’ and Galloway (1909) as ‘slightly frilled’!  Fortunately Hervieux was quite explicit: ‘by their having down, which you may know by taking the bird in the hand, and blowing gently on his belly and stomach, you will perceive a little white down, which of consequence differs in colour from his natural plumage’. (11).

Nouveau Traité des Serins de Canarie is an amazing book, far ahead of its time, but it has its limitations.  Let’s not forget that the book was a shrewd commercial venture, taking advantage of the ‘canary bubble’ in Paris at the turn of the seventeenth century.   There was strong demand for information on canaries, and Hervieux gave his readers what they wanted: useful facts and sound advice. It was never intended as a scholarly work in the manner of earlier publications that I described in History parts 6 and 7.

The same applies to Hervieux’s list, and if I am correct in ascribing the source to the oiseleurs, then it would be unfair to treat a commercial stock list as though it was a scholarly study.   Nevertheless, that is what many observers have done.  Hervieux almost certainly reproduced the list in good faith, but people will still ask ‘I wonder what he meant by that’?

Footnotes:

The translations referred to in the text are:

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).
Bees, Pigeons, Rabbits and the Canary Bird
by Peter Boswell (1840).
Canary Breeding.  A Partial Analysis of Records from 1890-1909 by A. Rudolf Galloway, Biometrika, Vol VII (1909).

  1. Talleyrand was a gifted French diplomat, statesman and fixer, from the time of the French Revolution to the restoration of the monarchy.  He helped Napoleon Bonaparte come to power and became his foreign minister, but intrigued against him.  He was a persuasive negotiator, cunning, avaricious and amoral, often shifting his allegiance to suit the political circumstances.
  2. Nouveau Traité des Serins de Canarie by J.C. Hervieux, first edition (1709), p.4.
  3. History part 9 was headed by an engraving entitled L’embaras de ParisEmbarass means ‘embarrassment’ or ‘confusion’ in modern French, but meant ‘blockage’ or ‘congestion’ 300 years ago, hence the scene of traffic chaos on the Pont Neuf in Paris.
  4. A New Treatise of Canary Birds (anon), the English translation of Nouveau Traité des Serins de Canarie published in 1718 (p.3).
  5. Ibid, p.138 & 139.
  6. Ibid, p.139.  For example: the price of the ‘common yellow canary’ rose from 4 livres to 6 livres if it had a white tail.  The price of canaries in eighteenth century France will be the subject of a future article.
  7. A.K.Gill mentions it in his New Colour Canaries and a Danish site (  http://kanariefugl.dk/?cat=22 ) reported that a mayor of Amsterdam named Coerver had given the name ‘agate’ to a mutation with diluted melanin before 1700.  I got in touch with the author, Birger Olsen, who was very courteous but unable to elaborate.
  8. The Natural History of Birds by Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. Edited and translated by William Smellie, Vol.4 (1793).
  9. Albinism in the Canary by Inte Onsman, Research coordinator at MUTAVI ( http://www.euronet.nl/users/hnl/canalbin.htm ).
  10. First claimed by Rudolf Galloway, on the flimsiest of evidence.
  11. Nouveau Traité des Serins de Canarie, p.249.  The original French states: ‘pour avoir le duvet, qui se connoît, lorsqu’en prenant vôtre serin dans le main, vous luy trouvez, en luy soufflant sous le ventre & l’estomach, un petit duvet blanc, & par consequent d’une autre couleur que sa plume naturelle’.

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