Friday, May 7, 2021

The Myth of Mops: Marie Antoinette, Mistranslations and the Pug Who Wasn't There

The Myth of Mops: Marie Antoinette, Mistranslations and the Pug Who Wasn't There

image: A photo of a modern pug by Mark Mingle.

“You can have as many French dogs as you like.”
--Sofia Coppola's 'Marie Antoinette'

Mops. Anyone who has read a book about Marie Antoinette, fictional or otherwise, since the turn of the 21st century will likely recognize the name; or at least, they might recall the image of a round, adorable pug being ripped out of a teenage Marie Antoinette’s arms as she was ceremoniously handed over to the French.

Nothing of Austrian heritage, it was said, could remain as the Austrian Maria Antonia was transformed into the French Marie Antoinette; not her dress, not her undergarments, not even a little lap dog who whined as he was separated from his beloved, equally whimpering owner. However, all was not lost: thanks to some political maneuvering on the part of the comte de Mercy-Argenteau, Austrian ambassador to France, Mops was later fetched back from Austria and reunited with Marie Antoinette, now living in the lap of luxury as the dauphine of France.

The story was immortalized in Sofia Coppola’s ‘Marie Antoinette’; Mops was even used as inspiration for Lynn Cullen's delightful illustrated children’s book, published in 2006 as ‘Moi and Marie Antoinette.' Mops’ tale is often mentioned in newer historical fiction revolving around Marie Antoinette, and it’s not uncommon to find mention of his brief separation from Marie Antoinette in various non-fiction books about dogs, history--or both.

There’s only one problem: Mops didn’t exist. 

Digging up Bones: The Truth about “Mops” 

image: a screenshot of 'Mops' from Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette

The story of Marie Antoinette’s official handover ceremony extending to her little Austrian dog can hardly be considered historically important or even dramatic, particularly in context of the events in Marie Antoinette’s later years.

Yet, like the early diplomatic crisis caused by a teenage Marie Antoinette’s refusal to wear the stiff formal corsets required at Versailles, there’s something compelling about the micro-drama story of a beloved pug being tossed aside (and later, regained) for stuffy political reasons.

But--it is just that: a story. Mops, as he has been portrayed in Sofia Coppola’s candy-coated film and described in Fraser’s biography, simply didn’t exist.

So where did the story come from? What is the truth behind Mops? To find out, we need to dig deeper into the biography which cemented the tale of Mops and Marie Antoinette in popular culture.

The most well-known source for the Mops legend is Antonia Frasier’s 2001 biography, Marie Antoinette: The Journey. Fraser’s biography is the earliest biography which specifically refers to Marie Antoinette having a dog named Mops who was taken away from her during the remise handover ceremony and later returned thanks to the work of the comte de Mercy-Argenteau.

Fraser writes:

Immediately after the handover, Marie Antoinette would say goodbye to her Austrian attendants, none of whom, except Prince Starhemberg, were to travel on to Versailles. Her farewells were punctuated with tears, protestations of affection and messages to her family and friends at home. Even her beloved pug Mops was not allowed to accompany her into France. This might seem hard, except that once the ritual ceremony of de-Austrification was over, Count Mercy d'Argenteau, the Austrian ambassador, found himself negotiating for the arrival of the pug from Vienna. With others, all equally ill trained and 'dirty' Mops was soon distracting the Dauphine from life's serious purposes--at least in Mercy's opinion. (1)

Fraser cites this paragraph with ‘Marie-Antoinette: Correspondance secrète entre Marie Thérèse et le Comte de Mercy-Argenteau,’ page 50. This was a three-volume collection of letters that began to be published in 1874, although it should be noted that this collection is considered incomplete as the authors excised certain content related to the dauphin and dauphine’s sex life. However, the letter pertaining to Mops is there in full in the first volume.

The letter in question was written in September, 1770. Here is the relevant section, with my bolding for emphasis:

Le 23, Mme l'archiduchesse, après avoir rempli les occupations ordinaires de la matinée et de l'après-midi, nommément la lecture qui a lieu depuis trois heures jusqu'à quatre, alla à la promenade en voiture. Le soir, S. A. R. me dit qu'elle voudrait faire venir de Vienne un chien Mops*; je répondis que la voie des courriers en fournissait un moyen. Mme la dauphine aime beaucoup les chiens ; elle en a deux qui malheureusemont sont fort malpropres, et pour peu que le nombre en soit augmenté, cet amusement, très-innocent d'ailleurs, ne serait pas tout à fait sans inconvénients. (2)

On the 23rd, the archduchess, after having fulfilled the ordinarily occupations of the morning and afternoon, namely reading which takes place from 3 o'clock until 4, went for a drive. In the evening. [the archduchess] told me that she would like to bring a Mops dog from Vienna. I replied that the courier route provided a means. The dauphine is very fond of dogs; she has two which, unfortunately, are very unclean, and if the number is increased, this amusement, very innocent indeed, would not be entirely without drawbacks.

Note the wording Mercy uses--a Mops dog, not Mops, a specific dog. The word “Mops” is footnoted in this volume by the authors with a crucial and unmistakable explanation:

Le mot Mops désigne en allemand une race de chiens maintenant assez rare, de couleur jaune fade, avec un museau noir et retroussé. On dit encore aujourd'hui d'une personne au nez camus Mopsig ou Mopsnase. Au dernier siècle cette race de chiens était fort recherchée pour les salons : pas de grande dame qui n'eût son Mops. Cet usage est attesté par les tableaux du temps.

The word Mops designates in German a breed of dogs now quite rare, of a bland yellow color, with a black and upturned muzzle. It is still said today of a puff-nosed person 'Mopsig or Mopsnase.' In the last century this breed of dogs was in great demand for salons; no great lady who did not have her Mops. This use is attested by the paintings of the time.

Furthermore, the third volume of the book includes this reference, reaffirming the footnote explanation:

Mops, race (breed) of dog.

There is nothing in the source Fraser cites for her version of events to suggest that one, Mops was a specific dog, and not a dog breed and two, that Mops was a specific dog that was taken away from her during the handover ceremony and later returned due to diplomatic maneuvering. The source only indicates that Marie Antoinette asked for a Mops dog from Vienna; and that as she already had two unkempt dogs, Mercy believed that this amusement might soon have drawbacks.

From Mercy's correspondence, we can conclude that Marie Antoinette requested a Mops dog from Vienna; we do not know exactly when the dog arrived, the dog's name or any information other than Marie Antoinette wanted to add a Mops dog to her growing group of pets. As the book notes, this particular type of dog was exceptionally popular in the 18th century. A young Madame Elisabeth was depicted in a portrait holding a little dog which certainly fits the later 19th century description of the breed.

image: A portrait of Élisabeth de France Joseph Ducreaux, 1768.

Where Did "Mops" Come From?

If evidence for Mops the specific dog cannot be found in the correspondence cited by Antonia Fraser, then where did the story of Mops come from? To answer this, we'll need to look at later historical accounts and contemporary accounts of the handover.

Historical Accounts of Mops

First, let's look at later historical accounts as they pertain to Mops. Are there any book sources prior to Antonia Fraser which describe Mops as a specific dog? Yes, technically; but not to any solid extent, and none of the sources reflect Fraser’s version of events where Mops was taken from her due to his Austrian heritage and then sent back to Versailles later on.

Still, we'll need to take a closer look at these other “Mops” inclusions in order to gain a better understanding of how this version of events came to be.

The earliest text I've found which refers to Mops as a specific dog is a narrative non-fiction book published in 1933 by Pierre Nezelof, titled Le Vie Joyeuse et Tragique de Marie Antoinette. This book was later translated into English as 'The Merry Queen.'

Le Vie Joyeuse et Tragique de Marie Antoinette offers a brief and vague reference to Mops as the dog's given name, but there is no indication that the dog is of any particular importance nor that he was taken from her and fetched from Vienna. The handover ceremony, as described by Nezelof, does not mention a dog being taken away nor is Mops referenced outside of this singular instance in the book.

The priest entered, carrying a book under his arm. The little yellow dog with a black muzzle and curls up rushed in front of the visitor and frolicked around him, barking:

Peace! Mops! cried Marie-Antoinette. Monsieur abbe, excuse him, but he is like me, very happy to see you ... precisely, as you arrived, I was writing to my mother. (3)

Another potential source for the Mops mix-up is ‘Marie Antoinette: l'impossible bonheur' by Philippe Huisman and Marguerite Jallut, published in 1970 and later translated into English as Marie Antoinette: A Studio Book.

In the original French edition of this book, an engraving of a Mops dog is accompanied by the caption:

Durant les premiere mois de sa nouvelle vie en France, la jeuene Dauphine est souvent triste; elle se distrait alors avec son chien mops, qui est une sorte de boxer nain. (4)
During the first months of her new life in France, the young Dauphine is often sad; she then distracts herself with her mops dog, who is a kind of dwarf boxer.
In the original French edition, Mops is not capitalized. But when the book was officially translated into English, the caption was translated to make Mops the dog's given name, rather than breed. 

image: the translated caption from the English edition of Huisman and Jallut's 'Marie Antoinette'

The caption in the official English translation of the book:

"During the first months in France the dauphine was often depressed; at these times she would amuse herself with her dog Mops, a sort of miniature boxer."

Due to the fact that this is an apparent translation error, it is not likely that Huisman and Jallut themselves were mixing up Mops the dog breed for Mops the specific dog.

Some readers may recognize the engraving used in the Huisman and Jallut book as one that has been spread around online as depicting Mops, Marie Antoinette's beloved dog. Before we dive into that image and the wealth of information it can provide, let's take a quick final look at other instances of "Mops" in non-fiction.

Mops is referenced in a variety of books published prior to Antonia Fraser, but it is Mops the dog breed, not Mops the specific dog which they reference. As you can see from this selection of quotes, books published prior to Antonia Fraser's biography do not include the notion of Mops, the specific Austrian dog.

Lillian C. Smythe, 'The Guardian of Marie Antoinette, 1909: "She asked Mercy one evening to procure her a pug dog from Vienna, "un chien mops, le couleur jaune fade, avec un museau noir, et retrousse,' and he replied that doubtless one could be brought by the courier."

Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman, 1933: "Her craving for amusement, and for the signs of a little tender affection, had curious results at time. On one occasion she applied to Mercy begging for him to arrange for a dog to be sent to her from Vienna, "un chien Mops" [a pug]."

Bernardine Kielty, Marie Antoinette, 1955: "For lack of other madcaps the Dauphiness played with her "mops." Mops were the fashionable dogs of the day--lap dogs with snub noses..."

Annunziata Asquith, Marie Antoinette, 1976: "Both Vermond and Mercy had been moved by Marie Antoinette's situation, and 'un chien mops,' a pug dog, was sent from Vienna."

Finally, let's turn to Caroline Weber’s ‘Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution,’ which was published in 2006. Weber repeats Fraser’s recounting of the Mops legend in her description of the handover, noting that during the journey "Marie Antoinette busied herself with the little pug dog, Mops, that lay curled up in her lap" and that during the ceremony "They [Austrian-associated items] had to go, along with their owner's favorite nonsartorial accessory, her beloved, tawny-colored pug. Mops, Marie Antoinette's ladies informed her, would be sent back to Vienna instead of accompanying her hence; his dirty paws could simply not be trusted around a woman who, now more than ever, was going to have to look her best." (5)

In her notes for this section, Weber writes that Mops was the name commonly given to this dog, and that though she’s read in one source that Mops was also used to designate a breed, she was unable to find evidence for this designation. As the section below will show, there is ample evidence that Mops is (and was) a breed name, rather than the name of a specific dog--but first, let's look at the source cited for Mops being the name of the dog.

Although Weber cites a specific source (Younghusband) for Mops being the name commonly for this dog, as with Fraser's citation of the Mercy-Argenteau letter, the book that she notes as a source for Mops being the name of the dog does not actually support the claim.

Here is the quote from Younghusband’s ‘Marie Antoinette, Her Early Youth (1770-1774)' which Weber cites as indicating the Mops was given as the name of the dog taken during the handover ceremony:

Undeterred in the smallest degree by the bad manners of her favorites, their owner airly proposed to Comte de Mercy that he should forthwith procure from Austria two or more of the then fashionable lap-dogs, called "mops," whose snub-noses figure in a large number of portraits of the time. (6)

As with Fraser, with Weber's book we are left with a colorful description of the beloved Mops being taken away from the young Marie Antoinette--but without any solid evidence behind the story.

Contemporary Accounts

We already know that Marie Antoinette desired a Mops dog from Vienna, thanks to the correspondance of the comte de Mercy-Argenteau. But what about other contemporary accounts? Are there any contemporary sources that mention a dog being taken from Marie Antoinette during the handover ceremony? Is it possible that a detail from these accounts was spun out into the Mops story that is now so familiar?

In short: no.

There are three sources for the events leading from Marie Antoinette's departure from Vienna to the events of the handover ceremony: Joseph Weber, the baroness d'Oberkich, and the Souvenirs sur Marie Antoinette, published by the baron de Lamothe-Langon. These 'Souvenirs' do not have a known author. As Caroline Weber notes, several historians have attributed them to the comtesse d'Adhémar, but others, such as Pierre de Nolhac, believed them to be false memoirs based on a variety of contemporary accounts rather than an account written by one specific person.
In his account, Weber does not describe the remise ceremony with any significant detail, instead mentioning only the various (often emotional) stops Marie Antoinette made on her way to Compiègne. There is no mention of a dog, Mops or otherwise, in his account of Marie Antoinette's journey from Vienna to Versailles. 

image: a portrait of the baroness d'Oberkirch by an unknown artist, 18th century.

The baronness d'Oberkirch, whose memoirs were published by her grandson in the 19th century but were said to have been finished in 1798, wrote a firsthand account of the handover ceremony. She did not describe any dog, but she did note Marie Antoinette's emotion at being separated from the members of her Austrian household:

The people of her household were taken from her, as is customary; she wept a lot, and loaded them with an infinity of things for the Empress, for the Archduchesses, her sisters, and for her friends in Vienna. We dressed him in the French style of the superb finery sent from Paris, she seemed a thousand times more charming. (7)

image: a screenshot from Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette showcasing a very unmused comtesse de Noailles
Finally, we have the 'Souvenirs.' An interesting note: It is the 'Souvenirs' which gave us the image of Marie Antoinette throwing herself weeping in the arms of a much-disturbed comtesse de Noailles, who was horrified at the unusual breech of ceremony and etiquette. 
The Souvenirs, like Oberkirch, describes the emotion of the handover:

This princess, accompanied by her grandmistress, and all those whom her august mother had appointed, had to overcome a strong emotion at the moment when, for ever, she separated from her family and her compatriots. She entrusted her destiny to strangers among whom she would have to seek her friends and enemies; also, a tinge of sadness pierced through her lovely smile. (8)

Whether the Souveniers were written by the comtesse d'Adhémar or not, there is no mention of a dog, Mops or otherwise, being taken from Marie Antoinette during the ceremony.

What Was a "Mops," Anyway?

An engraving of 'Le Doguin' from Leclerc's Histoire Naturelle, 1755.

Remember the engraving in the Huisman and Jallut book? It's time to finally return to this engraving--and in the process, cement the fact that Mops was a breed, not a specific dog. We will also take a closer look at what a "Mops" dog was as well.

First, a clarification on the identity of this engraving: this engraving does not depict any dog owned by Marie Antoinette. It is an engraving first printed in 1755 in an extensive natural history book series, Histoire Naturelle, and was not depicting anyone's specific dog. This engraving was uploaded online and given the misattribution of being "Mops," likely due to the English translation in Huisman and Jallut's book. I am among those who believed this mistaken attribution before my research and like many images that get passed around online, the description seems to have unfortunately stuck.

But you have likely noticed something unusual in the engraving: why is it labeled Le Doguin, and not Mops? Does this mean they were different breeds, and the dog in the image is not a Mops at all? No. In this case, it all comes down to language.
In 1755, George Louis Leclerc, the comte de Buffon, published a 5th volume of his immensely popular Histoire Naturelle series. This volume contained a wealth of information about dog breeds in addition to over 50 engravings, including Le Doguin above. Histoire Naturelle describes the breed thusly:

A screenshot of a paragraph from Histoire Naturelle. Translation below.

Dogs of this breed are also known as Mastiffs, German Mastiffs & Mopses; they differ from the real mastiff only in that they are shorter, that they are smaller, the lips thinner & shorter, and the muzzle narrower & less curled up: besides, they look a lot like him, as much for the figure of the body, as for the length & the color of hair; also these dogs come from mastiffs, of which they degenerate by mixtures in the mating.

Mops, or Mopses, was used interchangeably by Leclerc with "Doguin," along with a handful of other names. This does make it a bit difficult to pin down any sort of exact breed for a Mops dog. 
However, English to German dictionaries, translated French natural histories, and similar texts all connect Mops and its various names to the English word "pug." Today, "Mops" is still the German word for the English "pug." This connection (Mops to the English word "pug") is not remotely modern and dates back to at least the 1780s.

The 18th-century descriptions of Doguins and Mops dogs line up with their depiction in various portraits from the 18th-century, though it should be noted that the size of a Mops seems to have varied from a small lap dog to a larger (though certainly not enormous) companion dog.

In the 19th century, one early confirmation of the usage of Mops both as the breed and as the word for "pug" in English is the 1809 German to English Dictionary, New and Complete Dictionary of the German Language for Englishmen; According to the German Dictionary of Mr. J.C. Adelung.

A screenshot of a paragraph from an 1809 English to German dictionary, describing the translation and definition of Mops.

The usage of "pug" for "Mops" dates even earlier than the 19th century. In 1788, Rabenhorst's Dictionary of the German and English Languages in Two Parts notes that a "Pug" or "Puggy" is a Pug-Dog, a Mops.

image: A screenshot of a paragraph from Rabenhorst's Dictionary of the German and English Languages in Two Parts, describing the translation for Pug in German.

Conclusion: Farewell, Vienna

Detail from a portrait of Princess Ekaterina Dmitrievna Golitsyna by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1759.

Mops, the adorable round pug who was taken from Marie Antoinette because of his Austrian origin, did not exist. There is no contemporary evidence for this story and it is not supported by historical context or documentation.
Mops instead refers to a breed of dog, known then and today as a pug dog. Marie Antoinette did ask for a Mops dog to be sent from Vienna, but it was not a specific dog that was separated from her during her official handover to the French. Instead, she asked for a particular type of dog, a popular "lap breed" which was a common choice as a companion for many European girls and women.
Yet the poignancy of Marie Antoinette's request should still be considered. When Marie Antoinette requested a Mops dog, she was still 14 years old, and had only been living at Versailles for several months. The court of Versailles was strict, decadent and filled with stressful pitfalls, particularly for an Austrian-born dauphine. As the correspondence of Mercy-Argenteau and the abbe de Vermond attest, during these early months Marie Antoinette struggled with feelings of loneliness, boredom and sadness at the separation from her family and childhood home.
These dogs were certainly not scarce in France, as one can see from the abundance of portraits of French women holding them in their laps. The young Marie Antoinette could have easily--to paraphrase the Sofia Coppola film--have had as many French Mops' as she liked, should she desire to add one to her growing retinue of pets.

Instead, the homesick Marie Antoinette, struggling with the trauma of being separated from her family and now living in a foreign land, asked specifically for a dog from her beloved Vienna. 

Marie Antoinette may not have been separated from a little pug during her ritualistic handover to France--but she did seek out a comfort from home in the form of a little lap dog, sent by special courier to her apartments at Versailles.

  1. Fraser, A. (2002). Marie Antoinette: The Journey. Anchor.
  2.  (Geffroy, M. A., & Arneth, A. (1874). orrespondance secrète entre Marie-Thérèse et le comtede Mercy-Argenteau, avec les lettres de Marie-Thérèse et de Marie-Antoinette (Vol. 1). Firmin-Didot.
  3.  Nezelof, P. (2015). La Vie Joyeuse et Tragique de Marie-Antoinette (French Edition). Frédérique Patat.
  4. Huisman, P., & Jallut, M. (1970). Marie Antoinette: l'impossible bonheur. Laussane.
  5.  Weber, C. (2007). Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution (PICADOR) (1st ed.). Picador.
  6. Younghusband, H. A. M. (1912). Marie-Antoinette, Her Early Youth (1770–1774). Nabu Press.
  7. Oberkirch, H. L. V. W. (1853). Mémoire de la baronne d’Oberkirch Volume 1 (French Edition). Charpentier. 
  8.  Lamothe-Langon, É. L. D. (1836). Souvenirs sur Marie Antoinette, Archiduchesse d’Autriche, Reine de France, Et sur la Cour de Versailles (Classic Reprint) (French Edition). L. Mame.

No comments:

Post a Comment