Thursday, January 8, 2009

Elephants, Lions and Leopards

We took the kids to the zoo over Christmas break, and as I watched the poor elephant shiver in the fitful January sunshine, I got to thinking how amazing--but certainly not unheard of--it must have been to see such exotic beasts in the sixteenth century. 

With explorers returning from New World explorations and diplomatic and trade channels open to the Middle East and beyond, exotic animals found new homes in Europe. In 1514, King Manuel of Spain gave Pope Leo X a white elephant named Hanno; the beloved animal lived for two years at the papal court and died with the pope at his side. François himself gathered quite a menagerie at the chateau d' Amboise and later at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. According to Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier in their fascinating book Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West (2002), François received "a convoy of beasts and birds on behalf of the 'roy' of Tunis in 1532; lions and tigers brought by the Turkish embassy in 1534; a sheep from the Indies, proferred by a Norman lord in 1538; and two seals sent by Mary of Hungary, Regent of the Netherlands, in 1539" (page 22). 
Many of the animals traveled with the court on its perambulations about the kingdom, not without much aggravation for their handlers. In August 1537, the troublesome lion had to be left behind at an inn, along with a payment of 67 livres to compensate the innkeeper for the nasty bite on his leg (R. Knecht, Renaissance Warrior and Patron 132).

François, like many nobles of the time, kept a pet monkey that accompanied him to meetings and meals. The monkey sits on the table at the king's elbow in an anonymous miniature showing the king listening to a scholar reading (featured on the cover of Knecht's book). François is also is purported to have had, on occasion, the lion or a snow leopard lie at the foot of his bed. Quite a way to impress the ladies!

Elephants and other exotic animals feature prominently in Dorothy Dunnett's novel Queen's Play, set at Henri II's court. For further anecdotes about exotic animals in Renaissance Europe, read this recent post at The Raucous Royals.


Lisabeth said...

Lovely post.

Julianne Douglas said...

Thank you very much, Lisabeth! You are Norwegian? One of my very favorite authors is Sigrid Undsett. I would love to learn Norwegian just so I could read her books in the original. Norway tops the list of places I hope to visit someday. You have posted some beautiful photos of it on you blog.

Julianne Douglas said...

Oops, that last line should read "on your blog."

lucyp said...

The most famous royal elephant I know is Abulabaz, who was sent as a present from the Middle East to Charlemagne in the 9th century. There is a very sweet drawing of him in a contemporary manuscript.

Julianne Douglas said...

Cool! Hard to imagine an elephant in Europe in the ninth century. I wonder how long it survived.