The Great Cat Massacre  

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The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History is an influential collection of essays on the cultural history of early modern France by the American historian Robert Darnton, first published in 1984. The book's title is derived from its most famous chapter which describes and interprets an unusual source detailing the "massacre" of cats by apprentice printers living and working on Rue Saint-Séverin in Paris during the late 1730s. Other chapters look at fairy tales, the writing of the Encyclopédie and other aspects of French early modern history.



Darnton, influenced by Clifford Geertz who was a colleague of Darnton's and had pioneered the approach of "thick description" in cultural anthropology, aimed to gain greater insight into the period and social groups involved by studying what he perceived to be something which appeared alien to the late modern mind – the fact that killing cats might be funny.

The book containing this account, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, has become one of Darnton's most popular writings; it has been published in eighteen languages.

Darnton describes how, as the apprentices suffered hard conditions, they came to resent the favours which their masters gave to their cats, and contrived to deal with the nuisance cats by slaughtering them so as to distress their masters. Darnton interprets this as an early form of workers' protest. (As may the wife in the story, who says she believes that "they were threatened by a more serious kind of insubordination" beyond the simple stoppage of work.)

The cats were a favourite of the printer's wife and were fed much better than the apprentices, who were in turn served "catfood" (rotting meat scraps). Aside from this, they were mistreated, beaten and exposed to cold and horrible weather. One of the apprentices imitated a cat by screaming like one for several nights, making the printer and his wife despair. Finally, the printer ordered the cats rounded up and dispatched. The apprentices did this, rounded up all the cats they could find, beat them half to death and held a 'trial'. They found the cats guilty of witchcraft and sentenced them to death by hanging. Darnton concluded:

"The joke worked so well because the workers played so skillfully with a repertory of ceremonies and symbols. Cats suited their purposes perfectly. By smashing the spine of la grise they called the master's wife a witch and a slut, while at the same time making the master into a cuckold and a fool. It was metonymic insult, delivered by actions, not words, and it struck home because cats occupied a soft spot in the bourgeois way of life. Keeping pets was as alien to the workers as torturing animals was to the bourgeois. Trapped between incompatible sensitivities, the cats had the worst of both worlds."

Darnton's approach to the historical texts he uses, both in the Cat Massacre chapter and others in the volume, has been criticised since shortly after the work's appearance for its simplistic assumptions. An early exchange between Darnton and French cultural historian Roger Chartier was subjected to a scathing analysis by Dominic LaCapra of the 'Great Symbol Massacre' involved. Harold Mah in 1991 focused directly on Darnton's account of the 'Massacre', arguing ultimately that the author had 'suppressed' the actual nature of the source in pursuit of an engaging interpretation.

Table of contents

  • Chapter 1 - Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning Of Mother Goose
  • Chapter 2 - Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre Of The Rue Saint-Severin
  • Chapter 3 - A Bourgeois Puts His World In Order: The City As A Text
  • Chapter 4 - A Police Inspector Sorts His Files: The Anatomy Of The Republic Of Letters
  • Chapter 5 - Philosophers Trim the Tree of Knowledge: : The Epistemological Strategy of the Encyclopedie
  • Chapter 6 - Readers Respond To Rousseau: The Fabrication Of Romantic Sensitivity

Pages linking in as of Dec 2020

History of mentalities, Cat-burning, The Three Enchanted Princes, The Great Cat and Dog Massacre, Kilkenny cats

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Great Cat Massacre" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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