Review in Progress: The Great Cat Massacre (Testing This Review Format!)

The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History - Robert Darnton

So the idea is that I'll continue to update this entry rather than use the quote function, and then just change the post date when I update. I'll hide the previous updates under the page break. (This is a trial - we'll see how I manage. I'm marking it a review now even though it's still a Work In Progress and not yet a finished review.)


Full title:The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History.


 p. 94:

"There was a specific field for the exercise of cat power: the household and particularly the person of the master or mistress of the house. Folktales like "Puss 'n Boots" emphasized the identification of master and cat, and so did superstitions such as the practice of tying a black ribbon around the neck of a cat whose mistress had died."


When I finish the review on this I'll make a point of only describing this chapter on the Cat Massacre in the vaguest of ways. Because part of the chapter deals with the amazing amount of animal cruelty that went on in the past, in particular directed towards cats. These weren't the acts of children or the especially sadistic, and they weren't rare - these were killings that were village events and often a regular part of religious holiday celebrations. (Which is one of those bits of history that makes you very pleased to be living in the present day.)


The good thing is that the author doesn't dwell on the incidents - they're clearly described but he doesn't fixate on them or milk them for gore or the cruelty. The focus is primarily on what the events meant in context and why cats in particular. Which is enlightening from a history standpoint.


As someone who's owned a cat it was still hard reading. Thankfully it doesn't make up the majority of the chapter.



This is my second reading of this book, which I picked up after a really great history class in which we studied (among other things) fairy tales that were told by the peasant class and what we could learn from them. The first chapter of this book is a good summary of what we covered in that class, and it's really interesting. (The textbook for that class was Peasants into Frenchmen: Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 by Eugen Weber. If you were curious.)


So I primarily bought the book for one chapter. The rest is interesting to me as well, but the information being covered isn't as rich as the chapter on fairy tales. (Part of this may have to do with the fact that most of us have heard some form of these stories already, and the "story behind the story" is always interesting to delve into.)


The second chapter is the one that gives the book its name. The Cat Massacre in question is a story from an autobiography of a printing shop worker, Nicolas Contat.


[Here's a website that appears to have most of this chapter online.]


The short version: the master of the shop was treating his workers poorly; one example (out of many) was that the mistress of the house treated her cats to better food than the workers were given. One of the workers mimics cat noises during the night and keeps the master awake. The master then asks the workers to get rid of the cats. The workers go on a cat killing spree, making sure to kill the mistress' favorite, and hanging some of the cats as if they were condemned prisoners.


The author then goes through the story looking for veracity and meaning in the events. Unfortunately the treatment of the cats was typical in many counties at the time. (Since there wasn't such thing as spaying/neutering, the cat population was probably large.) But what the author focuses on is what the massacre says about the worker/master relations, and how the entire event expressed the workers feelings towards both master and mistress.


[more later....]



p. 27:

"...About 45 per cent of the Frenchmen born in the eighteenth century died before the age of ten. Few of the survivors reached adulthood before the death of at least one of their parents. And few parents reached the end of the procreative years, because death interrupted them. Terminated by death, not divorce, marriages lasted an average of fifteen years, half as long as they do in France today. ...Stepmothers proliferated everywhere - far more so than stepfathers, as the remarriage rate among widows was one in ten. Stepchildren may not have been treated like Cinderella, but relations between siblings probably were harsh. A new child often meant the difference between poverty and indigence."


The history behind, for example, all the fairy tales involving stepmothers is still fascinating. Similarly grounded in reality - the idea that parents would need to lose their children in the woods because they couldn't feed them (Hansel and Gretel).


Also the next time you hear anyone bemoan the loss of the good old days when divorce rates weren't so high - point out to them that one of the reasons is that in the past people didn't live that long, so death ended marriages. This is also the reason you'll rarely find historians rambling on about "the good old days" - because they usually weren't all that good.




p. 54:

 ...In "La Poupee" (tale type 571C), a simple minded orphan-girl fails to observe these three basic rules after receiving a magic doll, which excretes gold when she says, "crap, crap my little rag doll."


Just pause a moment and imagine reading that aloud (I don't think I'll ever get so old that I wouldn't snicker a bit at that line). The rules mentioned in that quote are about trusting no one when it comes to money, etc. And the doll excretes, er, excrement on the person that steals it and tries to have it crap gold for him. (La Poupee is French for doll. And should have an accent on the first e, but I never have remembered the key combo to add that. Sorry, French purists. At least I know where I am flawed!)


I had completely forgotten the stories mentioned in this chapter dealing with farting. (This is a reread for me, btw.) I'll be sure to add some lengthy quotes/examples of those when I finally review this. They're too weird to not discuss.





List of Illustrations, Acknowledgements


Chapter 1 - Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning in 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 Enclopedie

Chapter 6 - Readers Respond to Rosseau: The Fabrication of Romantic Sensitivity

Conclusion, Notes, Index