In the latest issue of The Journal of Modern History, Jonathan S. Dewald discusses 1668: The Year of the Animal in France by Peter Sahlins. Click here to learn more about the book. Click the button to the left to read the full review. An excerpt appears below:
“Peter Sahlins opens his learned and engaging book with a delicate allusion to Virginia Woolf. Like Woolf, who suggested that “on or about December 1910, human character changed,” Sahlins sees interlocking cultural transformations clustering around a single historical moment, and the changes he sees are almost as momentous as Woolf ’s. Human character may not have changed in 1668, he argues, but the boundaries separating humans from other animals did change; so also did ideas about the state, science and medicine, and some of the arts. Of course these changes did not all play out in 1668 itself, and Sahlins explains that “the year of the animal” in fact lasted a decade. Yet the mild overstatement contained in the book’s title accurately conveys the texture of its argument: Sahlins sees change happening fast, with important effects. In keeping with that interpretive stance, alongside Woolf’s allusive presence, the early Michel Foucault hovers throughout the book as a direct and explicit influence.
Sahlins explores these issues in a series of eight case studies, most of them centering on Versailles, all of them concerned with France’s sociocultural upper crust. Non-French influences occasionally pop up, but this is essentially a national history, organized around a conventional political chronology. Early in his personal reign, Sahlins argues, Louis XIVand his advisors used animals as instruments in their project of constructing an absolute state, and they devoted immense energy, ingenuity, and resources to that enterprise.”