11/13/08 - l'annee terrible

In today's encore excerpt - the Siege of Paris or L'Annee Terrible was the overthrow and humiliation of Paris in 1870 by Bismarck after France had declared war on Prussia. Food supplies became so short that one man reported he was fattening up a large cat which he planned to serve up on Christmas Day 'surrounded with mice like sausages.' The Siege occurred because France, still limping from the excesses of Napoleon, showed enough hubris to declare war on Prussia over a mere diplomatic incident—the proposed placement of a German prince on the Spanish throne ('The Liberal Empire goes to war on a mere point of etiquette'). Bismarck judged rightly that a war on France would enable him to bond together the loose structure of the German federation into a truly unified nation. Bismarck won after a siege that brought Parisians to the cruel brink of starvation and he extracted as reparations Alsace, Lorraine and five billion francs—a price which bitterly helped lead to both World Wars. Upon the German's departure, France imploded into a civil war that left 25,000 Parisians dead—more than in the Terror itself:

"Early in October [1870], even bourgeois Paris had turned to horsemeat. ... As hunger tightened its grip, so many a splendid champion of the turf came to a well-spiced end in the casserole. Among them were two trotting horses presented by the Tsar to Louis Napoleon at the time of the Great Exposition, originally valued at 56,000 francs, now bought by a butcher for 800. It was in mid-November, however, that supplies of fresh meat were exhausted—and it was then that Parisians invented the exotic menus with which the siege will always be linked. The signs 'Feline and Canine Butchers' made their first appearance. To begin with, dog-loving Parisians objected fiercely to slaughtering domestic pets for human consumption, but soon necessity overcame their fastidiousness. By mid-December [columnist] Henry Labouchere ... was telling his readers 'I had a slice of spaniel the other day,' adding that it made him 'feel like a cannibal.' A week later he reported that he had encountered a man who was fattening up a large cat which he planned to serve up on Christmas Day 'surrounded with mice, like sausages.' ...

"And then it was rats. Along with the carrier-pigeon, the rat was to become the most fabled animal of the Siege of Paris, and from December the National Guard spent much of its time engaged in vigorous rat-hunts. ... The elaborate sauces that were necessary to render them edible meant that rats were essentially a rich man's dish—hence the notorious menus of the Jockey Club which featured such delicacies as salmis de rats and rat pie.

"As the weeks passed, Parisian diets grew even more outlandish as the zoos started to offer up their animals. ... By early January [a young Englishman named Tommy Bowles] was noting 'I have now dined off camel, antelope, dog, donkey, mule, and elephant, which I approve in the order in which I have written, ... horse is really too disgusting, and it has a peculiar taste never to be forgotten.' His was not the only palate that became more discriminating: there was a significant variation in price between brewery and sewer rats. ... A lamb offered to one British correspondent ironically proved to be a wolf. ...

"Oddly enough there was never any shortage of wine or other alcohol."



Alistaire Horne


Seven Ages of Paris


Vintage Books a division of Random House, Inc.


Copyright 2003 by Alistair Home


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