Madame, vous fatiguez les singes

E.S. Turner

  • The Tower Menagerie: Being the Amazing True Story of the Royal Collection of Wild and Ferocious Beasts by Daniel Hahn
    Simon and Schuster, 260 pp, £15.99, March 2003, ISBN 0 7432 2081 1

To kick-start a chronicle, a writer needs an attention grabber, usually a piquant item borrowed from mid-narrative. This history of the Tower Menagerie, founded 1235, begins on a winter day in 1764, when John Wesley, aged 61, arrived at the Tower with a flute-playing companion, to conduct what he called ‘an odd experiment’. The idea was to observe how the lions reacted to music, which might give some indication as to whether animals possessed souls. Descartes had ruled that they were mere machines, incapable of feeling. Hence some response identifiable as appreciation of music, ideally a standing ovation, would have been a timely rebuff to French philosophy. In the event only one lion bothered to come to the front of the den, where his powers of concentration were spoiled by a playful tiger; the other four lions ignored the proceedings; perhaps, like the Duke of Lauderdale, they preferred the mew of a cat to the best music in the world. Wesley’s test for signs of spirituality in the king of beasts is not to be mocked in an age when cognitive ethologists are trying to discover whether animals have a sense of humour or can experience romantic love, and are fearlessly addressing queries such as: ‘Is it permissible to play music to dolphins as long as they can move away?’

The author of The Tower Menagerie, Daniel Hahn, would not range himself with the busy band of cognitive ethologists. He tells his story in the spirit of an inquisitive explorer who finds that history is both intellectual stimulus and fun, and alive with chaseable hares. After the Wesley taster, his tale begins with the Plantagenets facing up to a problem that persists in the 21st century: what is royalty to do with embarrassing and unwanted gifts? Henry III, fourth of his line, had become the brother-in-law of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, who in a friendly gesture sent him three magnificent wildcats, possibly leopards. These creatures of fearful symmetry were the very stuff of heraldry, but their running costs were high. The tight-fisted Henry decided that the sheriffs of London should meet the food bill. As menageries went, it could hardly compare with the human menagerie which made up the Plantagenet Court: manikins, minions, ganymedes, whipping-boys, hornblowers, versifiers, tasters, torturers, mummers and a jester to jump in the custard. Compared with all this, what were a handful of cats and a lone polar bear (a gift from Norway), reduced to finding his own food by pawing salmon from the Thames? Another royal in-law, Louis IX of France, sent Henry an elephant, the most demanding gift of all. Other potentates readily supported far bigger animal establishments. The Emperor Frederick had three private zoos, sometimes taking the more spectacular beasts on his travels; he also ran a training school for cheetahs. Even that, as Hahn tells us, was small stuff compared with the gigantic zoo with six hundred keepers maintained by Montezuma, the entire contents of which were eaten during a long Spanish siege.

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