The Canaries are Dead! Aviculture, Excitement, and Loss in Eighteenth-Century Germany

In 1750/51, a tragedy took place at the court of Duke Charles Eugene of Württemberg (fig. 1) and his wife, Duchess Elisabeth Fredericka Sophie of Brandenburg-Bayreuth: all their cherished canary birds died under mysterious circumstances! A discussion of this incident, I argue, helps to unveil the significance and emotional appeal of these plumed creatures in eighteenth-century German court culture. These animals were not simply held as livestock, pets or exotic symbols as one might deduce from current historiography; [1] rather court society appreciated its emotional interaction with such birds that enabled communication across and alongside courtly hierarchies. Valued for their feathers, voice and offspring, protagonists at the court of Württemberg invested time, money, efforts and emotions into their interactions with canaries. The courtly community staged, performed and instantiated emotional bonds through canary bird breeding and these birds’ training in singing and bodily closeness with human beings: In mid-eighteenth-century Württemberg, a group of aviarists cultivated emotional excitement, affective ties, and bodily as well as sensory closeness with canaries for they shared an enthusiasm for canary bird breeding. Consequently, aviculture served to cause the desirable characteristics of these scarce yet increasingly popular bird; and thereby canary bird breeding cultivated emotional and affective spheres in the interaction with plumed creatures at court.

The months following the event, the duke of this Southern German territory received a number of petitions, which were carefully kept and stored – and thus survived in the holdings of the Hauptstaatsarchiv Stuttgart until today. The writings document the extreme enthusiasm for aviculture in general and canaries in particular that flourished amongst members of the court of Württemberg. Above all, the petitions illustrate that the death of the duke’s canaries prompted a variety of people to imagine themselves working more closely with birds in the well-paid service of the duke. The long-trained grenadier and guardsman Johann Adam Eßig, for instance, submitted a petition in April 1751, asking whether he may be the future custodian of the duke’s birds as “he is skilled at the treatment of birds and equipped with an own house.”[2] Only a few days later, Johann Hoser, the duke’s personal servant, asked for permission to be in charge of the canary birds’ future upbringing as well. Hoser stressed that during his sixteen years of faithful service he had regularly kept “canaries and other birds” to the duke’s contentement. When composing his strategically crafted petition, Hoser did not forget to mention that he also had a large number of children whose upkeep required him to earn a good income.[3]

Fig. 1: Pompeo Batoni portrayed Charles Eugene Duke of Württemberg in 1753, two years after the incident of the dying canaries. © Wikimedia.

The duke’s canaries continued to attract the enthusiasm of courtiers for the years to come. In 1755, Philipp Baumstummer still sought to take his chance to become the newly appointed custodian after he “had heard that it was gone miserable with his high-princely serene canary birds.” Baumstummer assured the duke that he had bred canaries since his youth. Just this previous summer, Baumstummer detailed, his two male and four female canaries gifted the bird enthusiast with an offspring of twelve tiny hatchlings. Baumstummer now wished to raise his birds to the duke’s “most gracious delight.”[4]

The duke’s officials declined all these petitions. However, this did not reduce the aviarists’ hopes for a princely appointment. Two years after his first petition, Baumstummer again approached the duke. This time around he carefully crafted his narrative and framed his enthusiasm for aviculture with the everyday hardships he faced, however. Born in Bavaria, Baumstummer learnt carpentry and settled in the Duchy of Württemberg around thirty years ago. Since four years, he lived in Ludwigsburg, the duke’s residential city, and became the local fountain master. With all fountains fixed, he had put himself out of employment, which now caused the all-too-successful fountain master to search for other sources of income. The emphasis on everyday hardships in his petition, cannot conceal an honest enthusiasm for canaries and bird breeding. Baumstummer was convinced of the quality of his life-long engagement with aviculture: he proudly stated that there is nobody who will raise canaries and singing birds in the same manner as he does. “In a word, I commit to offer all my virtues and sciences to your high-princely serenity’s high delight and service.”[5]

What exactly stirred up the aviarist fantasies of men like Eßig, Hoser, and Baumstummer? According to the words of the custodian of the duke’s canaries, Joseph Stoll, it was a “calamity” (Ohngluck): all the duke’s canaries had mysteriously died within a year. Charles Eugene of Württemberg was not amused about his client’s misfortune and dismissed the man on 26 April 1751. The day after, Joseph Stoll issued a written statement in which he defended his actions. The dismissal “is unfortunately(!) a mask of utterly disgrace, which hurts me almost to death.” He suggested that he was happy to undergo a thorough investigation as he claimed to have done nothing wrong. On the contrary, Stoll emphasized that he had faithfully served the duke for 25 years, first as an infantryman, then as an artillerist, and lately as the canary birds’ custodian. The remains of three injuries, he stated, would bear a corporeal testimony to a lifetime of faithful service. And this was something of a family tradition: His father had already loyally served the duke for yet another 63 years. Stoll had gambled away all his marks of distinctions when he neglected the duke’s canaries entrusted to his care. Certain of his innocence, Stoll listed his considerable expenses for sustaining the birds’ lives. Ultimately, to no avail: the birds were dead, Stoll had been fired, and his petitions for mercy remained unsuccessful despite his referring to a pregnant wife and a fourteen-years-old son. Without an income, Stoll was not able to maintain a good living. When he faced poverty, he was left with not other option than to ask the duke for mercy at least for his son who bore his father’s name. This petition had no success either.[6]

Duke Charles Eugene’s exasperation may have derived from the considerable efforts he had put into the breeding and well-being of the canaries over the previous years. In 1746, for instance, the duke had rewarded Stoll’s predecessor in office, Johann Georg Fieckher, for his avicultural diligence. “As it is well-known that the [canary] birds do not like the cold,” Fieckher wrote, he took all the birds into a separate room of his private house over the winter months. In fact, Fieckher payed attention to the room’s constant heating and he bought enough stove wood to guarantee the room climate appropriate for the birds.[7] All these efforts were in vain when all canaries suddenly died during Stoll’s term of office. The birds’ sudden demise may point to a contagious infection or a treatment inappropriate to the species. The reasons for the disaster were not clear at the time, but they did cast a poor light on Stoll. The birds must have been a miserable sight to see, as a modern handbook explains: “A sick canary, with swollen or dull eyes and puffed-up feathers, often looks like a pitiful ball of feathers hiding in a corner or under a food dish, sleeping with its head buried deeply in the feathers.”[8] This pitiful sight surely made Stoll’s role appear worse since there had been evidence to predict the impending disaster. Just a few months before the duke dismissed Stoll, an apprentice working for the gardener called Lucas Heinrich Saur had requested the duke to construct a new aviary in the residence’s garden in Ludwigsburg—presumably for good reason.[9]

Fig. 2: Samples of melodies to be used for the training of canaries. Jean-Claude Hervieux de Chanteloup, Neuer Tractat Von denen Canarien=Vo[e]geln/ Welcher zeiget/ Wie dieselben aufzuziehen und mit Nutzen so zu paaren seyn/ daß man scho[e]ne Junge von ihnen haben kann/ nebst verschiedenen Curieusen Anmerckungen […], Leipzig: Hüffner/ Müller, 1712, illustration 2. © Sächsische Landesbiblothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden (SLUB).

Fig. 3: Instructions for the construction of canary bird cages. Jean-Claude Hervieux de Chanteloup, Neuer Tractat Von denen Canarien=Vo[e]geln/ Welcher zeiget/ Wie dieselben aufzuziehen und mit Nutzen so zu paaren seyn/ daß man scho[e]ne Junge von ihnen haben kann/ nebst verschiedenen Curieusen Anmerckungen […], Leipzig: Hüffner/ Müller, 1712, illustration 2. © Sächsische Landesbiblothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden (SLUB).

Saur himself was part of a community that cultivated enthusiasm for the breeding of canaries. The garden apprentice’s father had professionally worked with animals in general and birds in particular for around fifteen years. Saur explained that his father “had perfectly learnt the treatment and tuition of the canaries.” The young garden apprentice also tamed and bred a canary himself that he subsequently presented to the duchess of Württemberg.[10] Contrary to what recent scholarship on early modern aviculture suggests, [11] people at German courts cultivated an emotional attachment to birds. For the cultivation of their enthusiasm and excitement, courtly aviarists relied on a rich bulk of literature that gave advice in breeding canaries. Such publications flourished throughout the first half of the eighteenth century. A French treatise, translated into German in 1712, gave useful information about the birds’ colour variety and the different types of their plumage. Above all, however, such prints instructed readers, like those in Württemberg, in a set of behavioral patterns meant to structure the interaction with canaries and allowing people to feel plaisir in such interactions. For instance, people whistled or played the flute in front of the birds in order to train their singing. The ambitious goal was to make the birds memorize and repeat particular melodies. For this purpose, lessons took place at least once every two days, mainly in the morning and evening; the recommended maximum of training sessions, however, were five till six lessons a day.[12] Advice literature, the authors of which even suggested particular melodies (fig. 2), vividly captures the character of such lessons:

“Regarding the arias, you only have to perform in front of him [the canary bird] a nice praeludium and a well-composed aria. For if you wish him to learn more, he easily confuses them [the melodies] and often cannot sing a single part correctly and his small mind is overloaded to such a degree that he doesn’t know what to sing (…). You always have to repeat the aria either once or ten times and always from the very beginning to the very ending, not—as it is common in concerts—the first and last half twice.”[13]

As is easy to imagine, such lessons must have fostered considerable emotional bonds between the trainer and his or her animal. In fact, advice literature also reflected in detail on the birds’ temperaments, their rather buoyant or somber nature.[14] Through breeding, eighteenth-century bird enthusiasts tried to influence the desirable characteristics of canaries meant to strengthen emotional ties between human beings and their feathered comrades. As prints attributed the bird’s singing abilities to the varied colours of its feathers, courtly aviarists tried to influence the offspring’s colour. The construction of particular cages was meant to achieve that goal (fig. 3): Sometimes, cages were even partially covered with coloured (Venetian) glass as it was thought that the plumage of the canary bird’s offspring will have the same colour as the glass. And this was not the only ornament they added; the wooden parts of the cage were often also ornamented with fashionable carvings.[15]

Fig. 4: Barbara Regina Dietzsch, Death Canary, Nuremberg, 18th century. Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nuremberg, Norica301. © Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg.

To be sure, the duke and duchess of Württemberg ranked among the “aficionados” of such “charming birds” and “gallant Feder-Vieh” that authors of advice literature on the breeding of canaries imagined as their ideal audience.[16] The expenditures of Joseph Stoll and the aviarists’ rhetoric leave no doubt that many at the mid-eighteenth-century court of Württemberg shared an enthusiasm for canary bird-breeding. Since the birds originally came from foreign countries, an aspect of exotism also played a role. Still in 1738, for instance, travel literature praised the Canary Islands’ birds for their fascinating feathers.[17] But enthusiasm for the animals from Spanish islands nearby Africa did not stop at their exoticism. Though German treatises presented canaries as a “curiosity” from “foreign countries”, this particular kind of bird had become incredibly popular by 1730 already.[18] A drawing by the Nuremberg artist Barbara Regina Dietzsch (1706–1783) illustrates the heightened engagement which the increasing popularity of this species promoted (fig. 4). In this drawing, a particular focus lays on the structure and colours of the feathers.

Drawings, prints, and active aviculture all stimulated individual processes of cultural appropriation; processes that were heavily defined by people’s emotional involvements and the affective spheres that human-bird relations were able to create. In German courts such as that in Württemberg, protagonists cultivated a bodily, sensory, and emotional engagement with canaries. A fact that is also proven by circulating instructions for how to accustom canaries to fly and sit on one’s hand and fingers. In fact, eighteenth-century advice literature even defined bodily closeness between human beings and these avian creatures as a crucial element of canary bird breeding. It was considered a means to facilitate the procreation and singing of birds that would feel more comfortable in a human surrounding.[19] Thus, emotional ties and individual affinity between human beings and canaries were conscious enterprises at eighteenth-century German courts. The consequences were two-sided. The elaborate chant of these creatures made people feel joy and excitement after investing considerable time and effort (video 1). The birds’ death may also have made people feel the acute pain that the loss of a beloved animal can instill. It may, thus, come as no surprise that the aggrieved Duke Charles Eugene of Württemberg dismissed all the appeals and petitions of his former and potential custodians.

Video 1: The chant of a canary recorded and uploaded by a youtube user who proudly declares: ‘Best live Canary singing 4K video training’. © YouTube, user ‘BH’, [released: 7 November 2015; access: 21 September 2017].

I owe special thanks to the archivists of the Hauptstaatsarchiv Stuttgart, whose expertise was a crucial support to navigate through the archival holdings.

[1] Marcy Norton, “Going to the Birds: Animals as Things and Beings in Early Modernity”, in: Paula Findlen (ed.), Early Modern Things: Objects and their Histories, 1500-1800 (London/ New York: Routledge, 2013), pp. 53-83.

[2] Hauptstaatsarchiv Stuttgart (HStAS), A 21 Bü 585, 20 April 1751.

[3] HStAS, A 21 Bü 585, 3./5. Mai 1751.

[4] HStAS, A 21 Bü 585, 9 August 1755.

[5] HStAS, A 21 Bü 585, 21 March 1757.

[6] HStAS, A 21 Bü 585, 27 April 1751, 3/5 Mai 1751.

[7] HStAS, A 21 Bü 585, 16 September 1746.

[8] Matthew M. Vriends/ Tanya M. Heming-Vriends, The Canary Handbook: Acquiring, Housing and Feeding, Health Care, Understanding Canary Behavior (Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s, 2001), p. 86.

[9] HStAS, A 21 Bü 585, 21 September 1750.

[10] Ibid, fol. 1rf.

[11] Norton, “Going to the Birds”.

[12] Jean-Claude Hervieux de Chanteloup, Neuer Tractat Von denen Canarien=Vo[e]geln/ Welcher zeiget/ Wie dieselben aufzuziehen und mit Nutzen so zu paaren seyn/ daß man scho[e]ne Junge von ihnen haben kann/ nebst verschiedenen Curieusen Anmerckungen […] (Leipzig: Hüffner/ Müller, 1712), preface, pp. 55f., 58f.

[13] Ibid., preface, pp. 58f.

[14] Ibid., pp. 61-69.

[15] Ibid., pp. 7f., 60; bird cage (18th/19th century), Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg, BA1273.

[16] Christoph von Hellwig, Zusatz zu Schro[e]ders Jagd=Kunst/ Das ist: Curieuse Nachricht Von denen Canarie=Vo[e]geln (…) (Frankfurt a. M./ Leipzig: Ritschel, 1717), title page.

[17] Karl F. Behrens, Der wohlversuchte Su[e]d=La[e]nder, das ist: ausfu[e]hrliche Reise=eschreibung um die Welt (…), (Leipzig: Monath, 1738), p. 10.

[18] Jean-Claude Hervieux de Chanteloup, Curieuses und vollkommenes Tracta[e]tgen von Denen beliebten Canarien=Vo[e]geln/ Wie man sie nicht nur gesund erhalten, ihrer etwa sich ereignende Kranckheiten glu[e]cklich curiren, sondern auch in unsern Landen an allen Orten ha[e]ufig vermehren, und zu seinem Vergnu[e]gen auferziehen solle, Allen wahren Liebhabern Der Canarien=Vo[e]geln zum Plaisir ans Licht gestellet von N. M. N. (Löbau: Reimers, ca. 1730), preface.

[19] Ferdinand A. von Pernauer, Angenehme Land-Lust, deren man in Städten und auf dem Lande, ohne sonderbare Kosten, unschuldig geniessen kan (…), Frankfurt a. M./ Leipzig: Monath, 1720, p. 381.

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