The poet Jean de La Fontaine famously dedicated his Fables in 1668 to Louis XIV’s son, declaring in verse that “animals I choose/to proffer lessons that we all might use.” Less well known is that La Fontaine’s Fables appeared within a peak moment of cultural production about animals, the work of a small, but privileged coterie of other writers, artists, philosophers, physicians, and scientists. The animals of 1668 helped to shift an entire way of thinking about the relatedness of animals and humans — what Sahlins calls Renaissance humanimalism — toward more recognizably modern expressions of Classical naturalism, with their debasement and mechanization of animals, including by René Descartes. At the same time, Louis XIV used the animals of his newly constructed Versailles menagerie and of the Royal Labyrinth to develop and then to transform the symbolic language of French absolutism. In the aftermath of 1668, Louis XIV adopted a new model of sovereignty in which the absolute authority of the king is justified by the bestial nature of his human subjects.
A book without precedent, 1668: The Year of the Animal in France is an interdisciplinary study with a rich visual documentation and interpretation of the symbolic lives and afterlives of the animal kingdom at Versailles and Paris. Sahlins observes these animals critically in their native habitats — within the animal palace designed by Louis Le Vau, the paintings and tapestries of Charles Le Brun, the garden installations of André Le Nôtre, the literary work of Charles Perrault and the natural history of his brother Claude, the poetry of Madeleine de Scudéry, the philosophy of René Descartes, the engravings of Sébastien Leclerc, and the transfusion experiments of Jean Denis and others. In this learned and unusual book, Sahlins brings together the nonhuman and human agents of 1668 — porcupines and painters, swans and scientists, egrets and engravers, cranes and craftsmen. Using the insight of Claude Lévi-Strauss, that “Animals are good to think” with, as a point of departure, Sahlins uncovers the critical importance of animals in 1668. This work will transform the field of human-animal studies and of early modern French history.