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Spring 2024


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Rebecca at the Well with Pigs
A New Interview
Five Minutes with Peter Sahlins

Now up on the MIT Press blog, Peter Sahlins provides a short interview unpacking his new book 1668: The Year of the Animal in France. Click here to read the full interview. Click here to learn more about the book. An excerpt appears below:

Q: “Can you briefly summarize your arguments about the importance of animals in the culture of absolutism being created by Louis XIV early in his reign, in the 1660s? You describe how they were used to simultaneously portray two seemingly contradictory claims: that animals in court life had a civilizing impact, and that animality lurked in the heart of the king’s subjects. How do these views fit together?”

A: “The book is about a phenomenon that scholars have on the whole ignored – the centrality of animals in the formative years of the Sun King’s absolutist regime. I argue that, first and foremost, the peaceable and exotic birds kept in the newly completed Royal Menagerie in the gardens of Versailles in 1668 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. Elias links this process to the rise of court society, and specifically Louis XIV, and I’m expanding on his work by considering specifically how animals functioned in this transformation. It turns out that the peaceable display of exotic, placid creatures – mostly birds – that populated the menagerie helped to model civilized behavior at court. But after 1668, the year in which the bodies of animals from the menagerie and elsewhere became the object of philosophical debate, anatomical dissection, aesthetic theory, and the decorative arts, animals assumed a new valence.”