Anyone who wanted to buy a pet bird in Paris in the late 1600s would have known exactly where to find one: the quai de la Megisserie, a bustling area on the right bank of the Seine (1); or, if it was a Sunday, on the Vallée de Misère and the Pont au Change at the end of the quai. It was not the most attractive part of the city: an area of slaughterhouses, butchers and tanners; sewers disgorged into the Seine and it was prone to flooding (2). It interests us because it was also the centre of the bird trade, the home of the oiseleurs: the bird sellers and bird catchers of Paris.
The oiseleurs were members of a guild first approved by Charles VI in 1402. Membership conferred special privileges but also certain obligations. Unsurprisingly, those obligations were to the King. Their main duty was to provide birds to celebrate royal occasions; up to 400 birds had to be released en masse at a major event such as a royal wedding. (3)
The other obligation was to offer the King the first pick of all birds they sold: an exotic import, a rare hybrid, or a bird with unusual markings was likely to be requisitioned for the royal menagerie. Next in line were the Bourgeois de Paris, a diverse assortment of people with ancient privileges including, it seems, the right to carry a sword in public and second dibs on birds. (4)
Once these preliminaries had been observed, the remainder (perhaps from a trapping expedition or a fresh import of foreign birds) was assessed by a committee of jurors (master oiseleurs) and divided amongst the members. The oiseleurs were expected to work for the good of the guild; to share a consignment rather than compete for supplies. The guild also upheld quality standards: trapping was controlled to ensure that breeding stocks were maintained; no trapping was allowed during the breeding season; nor were they were allowed to sell sick birds, or hens as cocks.
The number of oiseleurs in Paris was not large, usually between 30 and 50. They tended to run in families, with membership passing to sons and widows. It was not a high paying profession, but there were occasions when it could turn a handsome profit, such as when the Prince de Condé paid the equivalent of around a year’s wages for a Virginia Cardinal (5) to prevent a rival buying it.
In spite of their privileges, the oiseleurs did not enjoy a monopoly. They faced competition not only from the Bourgeois de Paris, who had limited rights to sell birds, but also from unlicensed sellers, who were usually local bird breeders and trappers. The oiseleurs were understandably keen to protect their trade, and disputes often ended in brawls – and the law courts. There was also a third group of competitors, and it is they who take centre stage in our history of the Fine Spangled Sort. They were the foreign bird traders who visited Paris each autumn and spring. Their speciality was canaries.
Foreign dealers were permitted to sell birds in Paris provided they paid tax on the imports, had their birds assessed by the jurors of the guild (who also set the prices), and allowed the King and the Bourgeois de Paris to have first pick. Their normal practice was to set up at an inn, the Boule Blanche (White Ball) in the nearby suburb of Saint Antoine, and it was there in 1696 that an extraordinary incident occurred.
Two Swiss traders were besieged on arrival by people demanding to buy birds before they could even obtain permission from the city authorities. The encounter became heated: the merchants were abused, threats of violence were made, and birds were stolen in the uproar. The merchants warned the authorities that they would sell their birds elsewhere unless security was improved. As a result, guards were posted, limits were set on the number of birds anyone could buy, and only two people were allowed in the room at one time. (6)
This is the first evidence we have of what Louis Robbins has described as a ‘canary bubble’ that lasted well into the eighteenth century.
The Swiss were still in business ten years later because Hervieux tells us:
“There are some Swiss that come to this city twice a year, namely in the spring and in the autumn; they are at their usual residence at the Boule, the famous tavern on the Faubourg, Saint Antoine. They carry on their backs, in the form of bales, thousands of canaries that they seek in the Tyrol, a county in the circle of Austria, and in the southern part of Germany . . .” (7)
Why didn’t the Germans bring the birds themselves, as they did in London? The reason is simple: France and Germany had been at war since 1687 (8). Fortunately for the breeders, Switzerland was not only a neighbour but also independent, and therefore still had access to the French markets. The merchants may have been Swiss, but as we have seen, they were carrying canaries from Germany and the Tyrol.
The Swiss/German canaries were in demand because they not only sang well but also came in a variety of colours and markings. Hervieux (1709) confirms that people were eager ‘to see Canary-birds that are not of the common sort’ (‘de voir s’ils n’ont pas quelques Serin hors de commun’) (9). Hervieux did not like the merchants, he complained about their rudeness and cunning, and did his best to deter his readers from buying their birds (‘of every dozen they buy, they can scarce show two alive six months later’). You can detect a smirk when they got their comeuppance: he tells us that they had sold too many birds as pairs; Parisians had started breeding ‘finer Canary-birds’ on their own account (10).
The French had different priorities: they were more interested in the appearance of the canary than its song. Canary culture was about to change for ever.
Most of the information in this article is derived from Elephant Slaves & Pampered Parrots by Louise Robbins, 2002. Well researched; an excellent read.
- The quai de la Megissierie still has a few animalaries (pet shops), including one that calls itself a oiselerie (bird shop), but these days the area is better known for its gardening and book shops.
- The Vallée de Misère was so called not because of the fate of the animals, but from a major flood of the Seine in 1493.
- In theory, the birds were meant to be caught a few days before the event, and a couple of oiseleurs would be nominated by the guild to trap them, but this was easier said than done. In practice, it was often necessary to make up the required number from the local bird catchers, but this had to be done secretly and at their own expense.
- The Bourgeois de Paris should not to be confused with the bourgeoisie of Napoleonic times. They tended to be merchants and master craftsmen, but could be from any walk of life provided they could demonstrate that they had paid their property taxes for at least a year and a day. In other words, they were people of substance.
- Le coq du Virginie, newly arrived from the Indies in 1689. Prices fell in later years.
- Original research by Louise Robbins in the Archives Nationales.
- Nouveau Traité des Serins de Carnarie, Hervieux de Chanteloup, first edition 1709, Chapter XXI, p 251. “Il vient en cette ville quelques Suisses deux fois l’annee, savoir, au au Printemps, et dans l’Automne; ils sont leur demeure ordinaire dans la Fauxborg, Saint Antoine, à la Boule, fameux cabaret. ils apportent avec eux sur leur dos, en forme des bâles, des miliers de serins qu’ils vont chercher dans la Tirol, Comté du Cercle d’Autriche, en la partie Meridionale de l’Allemagne . . .”
- The Nine Years War (1688-1697) started when Louis XIV ordered his troops to cross the Rhine in 1687, hoping for a quick victory, but his policy towards the Huguenots had hardened opposition against him in the German states. Most of Europe was involved by 1688.
- Hervieux (1709) p252.
- Ibid, p.258.