Review: The Great Cat Massacre

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

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


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 format of the book is that each chapter has some primary bit of research that's from the time period (1700s), and the author attempts to pull from that his ideas on what people were thinking at the time - with plenty of confession that these are only his ideas and interpretations of the texts. At the end of each chapter are two or three pages of the content quoted from the original documents - translated from the French, of course.


A gushy aside here from a history nerd. I really like this use of primary documents in each chapter - some of which are a historical researcher's dream of juicy content. The first chapter on fairy tales is probably the most enjoyable, but as a research junky I confess that I loved chapters. four and six just as much.


And now some random thoughts about various parts of the book...


One story I have to share from chapter one, because it's not at all what you expect from the now-cleaned up versions of fairy tales that we've inherited. The setup: a poor shepherd boy shares his food with a fairy and is given three wishes. Here's the rest - well, the humorous bits. And be sure you imagine this being told aloud, with the teller making sound effects. (First quote is from earlier summary of the story, second is from the longer, complete version of the tale at the end of the chapter)


p. 52, The boy's wishes: "...that he can hit any bird with his bow and arrow, that he can make anyone dance with his flute, and that he can make his wicked stepmother fart whenever he says "atchoo.""


p. 71: "...In the evening the little boy led his flock back; and as he entered the house, he sneezed. Immediately, his stepmother, who was busy making buckwheat cakes at the hearth, let out a loud, resounding fart. And every time he said "atchoo" the old woman answered with such an explosive sound that she was covered with shame. That night when the neighbors gathered together at the veillee [evening gathering], the little boy took to sneezing so often that everyone reproached the woman for her nastiness.


The next day was Sunday. The stepmother took the little fellow to mass, and they sat underneath the pulpit. Nothing unusual happened during the first part of the service; but as soon as the priest began his sermon, the child began to sneeze and his stepmother, despite all her efforts to contain them, immediately let out a salvo of farts, and turned so red in the face that everyone stared at her and she wished she were a hundred feet under the ground. As the improper noise continued without letting up, the priest could not go on with his sermon and ordered the beadle to usher out this woman who showed so little respect for the holy place.


The next day the priest came to the farm and scolded the woman for behaving so badly in church. She had scandalized the entire parish. "It's not my fault," she said. "Every time my husband's son sneezes, I can't prevent myself from farting. It's driving me crazy." Just at that moment the little fellow, who was about to leave with his sheep, let out two or three sneezes, and the woman responded immediately."


p. 52 again: "...Later, when she explains her problem [to the priest], he tries to trick the boy into revealing his secret. But the little shepherd, who is trickier still, shoots a bird and asks him to fetch it. When the priest tries to grab it in a thorn bush, the boy plays the flute, forcing him to dance until his robe is torn to shreds and he is ready to drop."


The priest takes the boy to court on accusations of witchcraft, but the boy uses the flute until everyone is dancing and they are forced to set him free.

And that is what you could call a peasant tale, versus one that's been tidied up for the children. Which seems silly when you know the giggles children would get from this version.


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. The one thing I don't think we can ever quite grasp - and at this time distance may be impossible - is why the people felt the killing of cats was so hysterical. The author proposes some ideas - but in the end, I think it's one of those "you had to be there." And heavy emphasis on "there" as in "the time in which killing could be funny."



And now, as usual, I'll got a bit crazy with the quotes...



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.




 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.



p 132, in Ch 3 - description of Montpellier written in 1768 by unnamed author:

"He [the author] noted  approvingly that the modern bourgeois and the modern nobleman did not drink to inebriation and kept to delicate wines, usually imported from other provinces. Artisans and laborers preferred the local gros rouge, which they swilled in huge quantities, gargling to give it a kick."



Explaining a game played by various classes, p 132:

"...the ancient game of perroquet... ...It involved two companies of "knights" from the "Second Estate," who were commanded by officers from the "First Estate" and dressed in costumes of red and blue silk with gold trim and plumed hats. For several days they paraded through town behind a marching band and a large wooden parrot mounted on a pole. Then they attached the parrot to the top of a ship's mast in a grassy moat outside the city walls and held an archery contest. The knight who felled the parrot was proclaimed king. A triumphal arch was raised in front of his house, and the knights danced there with their ladies all night long, then retired for a feast give by the king, while gros rouge was distributed to the populace."



I am completely in love with Chapter 4, A Police Inspector Sorts His Files: The Anatomy of the Republic of Letters, because it's the type of story that would make any historical researcher gleeful.


p. 145-6: "Our policeman, Joseph d'Hemery, was an inspector of the book trade; so he also inspected the men who wrote books. In fact, he investigated so many of them that his files constitute a virtual census of the literary population of Paris, from the most famous philosophes to the most obscure hacks. The files make it possible for one to trace a profile of the intellectual at the height of the Enlightenment, just when he was beginning to emerge as a social type."


And the really fun bit is that d'Hemery also shares gossip and his own feelings about literature - he's very open about who he considers a good writer. The author suspects that because d'Hemery is so open with such feelings that the files were meant for his own use, to keep track of the many people involved in the book trade.


p 152:

"The privileged orders occupied a far more important place in d'Hemery's files than they did within the population at large. Seventeen percent of the identified authors were noblemen. Although they included some serious writers, like Montesquieu, they tended to be gentlemen amateurs and to write incidental verse or light comedies. As in the case of the marquis de Paulmy, who published novelettes under the name of his secretary, Nicolas Fromaget, they did not often want to be identified with such frothy stuff."


p 154:

"...Women presided over the famous salons and therefore won a few  places in the police files. But only sixteen of them ever published anything. Like Mme. de Graffigny, the most famous of their number, the female authors often turned to writing after being widowed or separated from their husbands. ...The report on the courtesan, Mlle. de Saint Phalier, reads like the precis of a novel. After leaving her father, a wealthy horse dealer in Paris, she became a chambermaid in the house of a wealthy financier. The son of the house seduced and abducted her, only to be arrested by the father, who then forced him to marry a more suitable woman, leaving Mlle. de Saint Phalier in the streets. By the time the police ran across her, she had become a kept woman, consorted with actresses, and was about to publish her first book, Le Portefeuille rendu, dedicated to Mme de Pompadour."


I could go on and on quoting little stories like that from this chapter, so I'll stop myself now!




I found nothing to quote in Chapter 5, though there were interesting bits about the writers of the Enclopedie. Chapter 6 however is quite fun in trying to decipher how people of the 1700s read, and if it was anything like the way we read books now.


p. 215-216: "Reading still remains a mystery, although we do it every day. The experience is so familiar it seems perfectly comprehensible. But if we could really comprehend it, if we could understand how we construe meaning from little figures printed on a page, we could begin to penetrate the deeper mystery of how people orient themselves in the world of symbols spun around them by their culture. ...For a history or anthropology of reading would force us to confront the otherness in alien mentalites. As an example, consider the place of reading in the death rites of Bali.


When the Balinese prepare a corpse for burial, they read stories to one another, ordinary stories from collections of their most familiar tales. They read them without stopping, twenty-four hours a day, for two or three days at a time, not because they need distraction but because of the danger of demons. Demons possess souls during the vulnerable period immediately after a death, but stories contain tales within tales, so that as you enter one you run into another, passing from plot to plot every time you turn a corner, until at last you reach the core of the narrative space, which corresponds to the place occupied by the corpse within the inner courtyard of the household. Demons cannot penetrate this space because they cannot turn corners."




So the research our author has turned up for Chapter 6 is the correspondence of Jean Ranson, a merchant from La Rochelle, who regularly ordered books from the publisher Societe Typographique de Neuchatel. And because Ranson knew Frederic-Samuel Ostervald, the founder of that publishing house - in fact he'd been Ranson's teacher - Ranson's letters ordering books were like letters to a friend, sharing both personal news and discussions of literature. Through that file of letters we have both Ranson's reading list for multiple years, and his thoughts on books and authors. Especially Jean-Jacques Rousseau.


Think about the way fans of certain authors write in their reviews and blog posts (not the overly-intense obsessive ones, the ones who just honestly love their books), and consider the following thoughts of Ranson:


p 222 - "I thank you, Monsieur," he wrote to Ostervald in 1775, "for what you were so kind as to tell me about l'Ami Jean-Jacques. You give me great pleasure every time you can send me anything about him."


p 235 - "...Unfortunately Ostervald's side of the correspondence is missing, but it probably contained some accounts of meetings with Rosseau; for Ranson kept calling for news of his ami and complained when it failed to arrive: "What! You have seen l'Ami Jean-Jacques and you do not tell me all about it! I hope you have only postponed the report for another letter."


p 237 - "So, Monsieur, we have lost the sublime Jean-Jacques. How it pains me never to have seen or heard him. I acquired the most extraordinary admiration for him by reading his books. If some day I should travel near Ermenonville, I shall not fail to visit his grave and perhaps to shed some tears on it. Tell me, I pray, what you think of this famous man, whose fate has always aroused the most tender feelings in me, while Voltaire often provoked my indignation...  ...I hope he was left behind some manuscripts that will make it possible for one to have an edition free of all those faults [Rousseau's works were often changed/cut by printers]. If you learn anything about that, or anything else concerning Rousseau, please share it with me. You would give me the greatest pleasure."


Ranson often referred to Rousseau - and obviously thought of him - as "friend Jean-Jacques." There's a kind of closeness in those references that - for me anyway - says this is the kind of fan of an author that we still see now. (The book's author doesn't delve into fan-dom exactly; he's more focused on the relationship of readers and books.) Another part of the Ranson story I think is sweet: Ranson named one of his sons Emile, after one of Rousseau's works. I really love this glimpse into Ranson's life - and the fact that it exists entirely in an ancient file of letters from a publishing house.


There's a lot in this chapter about Rousseau's La Nouvelle Heloise and how it touched the emotions of so many people - which reminds me that that book has been on my reading list for years. (And in fact it went on my To Read list the first time I read The Great Cat Massacre! I only just now remember that part.) References to that book have come up in so many other books of the time period that I've read, and I've continually wanted to read it myself. But it's around 700-800 pages, and that's a bit long to just bounce into all willy nilly. But at the time it was the book EVERYONE was talking about - similar to today's book/television followers of Game of Thrones. Rousseau got tons of fan mail (which he kept - so I gather from the footnotes) from people, many of whom really wanted to believe that the characters in the novel were real.


Here, let me quote this bit to show you how a really intense "fan" letter of the time sounds:


p. 247 - "...How many tears did I shed over it! How many sighs and torments! How often did I see my own guilt. Ever since I read your blessed book, I have burned with the love of virtue, and my heart, which I had thought extinguished, beats harder than ever. Feeling has taken over once again: love, pity, virtue, sweet friendship have for ever conquered my soul."


And that from C.J. Panckoucke, "who disapproved of all novels" - at least before he read La Nouvelle Heloise. And he's a man, in case you wondered whether it was only female fans who gushed over the love story.


I'll hazard a guess that La Nouvelle Heloise is one of those books that I probably can't find as fascinating as people at the time did  - but as I say that, suddenly I remember that no, not everyone is following and in love with Game of Thrones. Anyway, the question "will this book hold my attention now, even though I can't read it in the same way as everyone in the late 1700s did" is one that interests me. We'll see if I can't find a copy of La Nouvelle Heloise sometime soon. (After I finish the monster Dumas that I'm working on.)




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