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This week we’re commemorating the end of the first animal-human blood transfusions in 1668, with the death of a dog and a patient, and a resulting trial condemning transfusion in France until the early nineteenth century.  That’s one of the many subjects in the recent book by Peter Sahlins, 1668: The Year of the Animal in France (Zone Books, 2017). I asked him some questions to find out more.

What made 1668 the “Year of the Animal”?

The book’s title is a bit of a publisher’s conceit, but something astonishing happened in 1667-68, and it happened with animals.  I’m referring to the ways that animals and their representations in a short and delimited amount of time were displayed, dissected, drawn, painted, woven, used in aesthetic theory, philosophical debates, medical practices, and garden architecture.  And then, just as suddenly, they disappeared from a starring role on the historical stage, and became part again of the (living and dead) material world of everyday life.  This sudden “flash” animal moment included such well-known products as Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables, and such extraordinary events as the first human-animal blood transfusion.  But most of the animals that starred during the Year of the Animal came from Louis XIV’s new menagerie, built in 1664 in the gardens of Versailles, and fully populated by 1667 with thousands of birds from hundreds of species, graceful, peaceable, and exotic avian specimens. This new animal spectacle (and the symbolic afterlives of the animal bodies) helped give shape to Louis XIV’s culture of absolutism (and also, as I’ll suggest, to René Descartes’s mechanical universe). In brief, the “Year of the Animal” evokes this sudden appearance and disappearance of the political and cultural uses of animals in France to rethink governance, nature, and the animal itself.


Birds menagerie

Gérard Scottin (and Pieter Boel), Versailles Ménagerie, Quartier des Demoiselles (ca.1668)

What was the relationship between politics and animals in 1668?

The book is about a phenomenon that scholars have on the whole ignored – the centrality of animals in the symbolic construction of the Sun King’s absolutist regime.  It is not about all the animals at Versailles, including those that were eaten, kept as pets, hunted or hunted with.  Rather, it’s mostly about the birds that were central to what the German sociologist Norbert Elias called the “civilizing process,” where ritualized, graceful, and polite forms of behavior replaced violent and “brutish” practices in a way that not only shored up the social hierarchy but was used in the service of absolutism.  I’m expanding upon Elias, among others, in thinking about how animals were critical in the social and political ordering of the kingdom, the construction around 1668 of the symbolic foundations of legitimacy.

1668 was a watershed year because an elevated view of animals who shared the same cognitive and moral universe as humans – indeed, who were the very models of human beings – came to an end as Louis XIV passed his first decade in rule, and Descartes’s views of animals became widely disseminated.  After 1668 artists, writers, painters, and others discovered (or perhaps better, rediscovered) the real animal – the beast – that resides at the heart of each man (and woman), especially the men of the lower classes.


man-boar head

Charles Le Brun, Two Heads of a Boar and Two Heads of a Man (1668)

After 1668, then, animals assumed a new valence. From a position of moral superiority, animals found their status devalorized, as they became identified with the baser instincts of humans, and the lower orders of humanity itself.   In some ways, there’s nothing new about this view of animals as figures in the making of strong authority: the Latin poet Plautus coined the adage “man is a wolf to man.” Hobbes appropriated this and, to a certain extent, so too did Louis XIV, whose practice of absolutism was justified by the disorderly, violent, animal nature of man – even if was softened by the elevation of peaceable and graceful birds as models of the obedient subject at court.

You discuss the impact of René Descartes‘s ideas on animal mechanism throughout your book. Why was his notion of “animal machines” or “beast machines” so compelling to some and so controversial to others in 1668?

Good question, especially given that by 1668, his views on the subject were already widely known: they were first announced more than thirty years earlier in his 1637 Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason.  But while a pamphlet exchange ensued, the “beast machine” did not really become the hot topic in polite society and scientific circles until 1667 – when a group of acolytes note only helped repatriate his skeleton from Sweden where he had died in 1650, but also assured the publication of his works in an effort to turn Descartes, already on the Papal Index, into a good Catholic and loyal Frenchman.  What did this have to do with the “beast machine”?  Curiously but again not coincidentally, the debate that had raged around Descartes’s mechanistic theory of the Eucharist (what was the materialist basis for the miracle?) dissipated in 1668, only to be replaced by a more acceptable one – whether animals have souls, or are only elaborate clockwork automata.  We can think of 1668 as the moment when a mechanistic vision of the heavenly bodies was finally brought down to earth.  The figure of an animal for Descartes served to legitimate his philosophical dualism of mind and body, and sought to explain the great mystery of non-human life – things that move on their own – in mechanistic terms. It’s a complicated story, I think, and it’s important to remember that Descartes’s beast machine was a kind of fable for thinking about what makes us human, and that in real life, Descartes was quite fond of his canine domestic companion “Mr. Scratch,” even feeding him the remains of his dissection experiments performed while living on Calf Street in Amsterdam in the 1620s.  But that’s another story.

Descartes’s dog.  But you don’t mention dogs very often in 1668, which is surprising given their centrality in human history and culture. Why are dogs largely absent from the book?

If I had included in my book an account of the royal hunt; or if I had spent more time studying the question of petkeeping, dogs would have been running everywhere in the book.  Especially since Louis XIV was a great dog lover, and we know the kind of attention and money he lavished on his dogs (while peasants were going hungry).  His early favourite was Filou (“Trickster”), a standard poodle; and with the arrival of his Spanish Queen Maria Teresa in 1660, came several Great Pyrenees from Spain, to whom Louis XIV was attached (perhaps more than to his wife!).  But his true love went to his hunting dogs, whose names and identities are disclosed in the work of Alexandre-François Desportes, who painted their portraits later in the long reign of the Sun King. Mine is the first book to talk about the animals of the Royal Menagerie around 1668 that appeared across a wide range of media and discourses, and there is certainly much research to be done on the King and his Dog – or more generally, the role of dogs in political legitimation, a subject I touched on recently in this blog.

6.2 First Representation of Dennis

First representation of Jean Denis (1667)

One place where dogs do appear is during the xenotransfusion experiments. Could you explain what there were and why they were so controversial?

By the early seventeenth century, dogs had replaced pigs as the experimental animal of choice in an effort to prove the circulation of blood, and thus put the millennia-old influence of Galen to rest.  David Harvey published his work in 1628, following the sacrifice of hundreds of live dogs, and others followed, including Descartes.  If you look too closely, to paraphrase Joseph Conrad, the history of the Scientific Revolution is not a pretty thing.


Leclerc first figure

Sébastien Leclerc, First Figure (1668)


After Harvey, who nonetheless preserved Galenic principles, it took Descartes and others to offer a truly mechanistic theory of blood circulation, and to turn blood itself into a research object.  All across Europe in the 1660s, virtuosi, many of them claiming direct inspiration by Descartes, sought what a critic called “the miracle of feeding without food,” blood transfusion between animals and humans.  In France, a young Cartesian physician named Jean Denis began experiments with dogs in March 1667: 30 dogs later, he turned to cross-species transfusion.  What was the point? Unlike transfusion in the nineteenth century, the driving idea was therapeutic: to cure illness and prolong life.  Denis’s experiments thus inevitably turned to human illness, and on June 15th 1667 – nine days before Descartes body was reburied in Paris by a group to whom Denis belonged – he transfused the blood of a lamb into an ailing young man.

The patient appeared to improved, and further experiments, using primitive instrumentation that may have prevented much blood from being transfused, were nearly all reported as positive.  In this very public “Affair of the Transfusions,” one of Denis’s patients, a madman and ex-valet known to polite society, eventually died in early February 1668 – 350 years ago.  A trial in March 1668 absolved Denis, and accused several physicians of the Paris Medical School of having enabled the widow’s own poisoning of her husband, and forbade all future blood transfusions with the ironic sanction, “on pain of bodily punishment.”  The experiments were controversial not because they challenged the categorical distinction of human and animal, but because the discussion of animal blood was a proxy debate of the mechanization of the human body.


Where do you see the field going?

Animal history, unlike animal studies or critical animal studies, is not concerned with proving the cognitive and moral capacities of animals, nor with protecting them, nor with simply rescuing animals, to adopt the phrase of E.P. Thompson, from the condescension of history.  Because the field has no dogs in these fights, it has a very bright future indeed.  Not that I believe it unimportant to learn how animals communicate and in what ways they adapt to living with humans.  But we can’t write history “from the animal’s perspective,” as Eric Baratay has tried, even though the subject of animals – as living creatures and as representations – enriches our understanding of canonical events.  When we study the animal iconography and lexicon of Luther during the Reformation, or considering the role of animals in World War I, not to mention when we use conventional topics like the history of zoos and menageries to talk about governance and empire, we are making sense of how societies interact with, represent, make use of, and think with animals – a perspective that is never only about the animals themselves.


Peter Sahlins is a Professor of History at UC Berkeley.