‘The Great Cat Massacre’ Review

Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre is not exactly what it sounds like.

It’s an investigation into the mindset of the 18th century Frenchman, on all levels of culture from peasantry to intellectual to the working class and the slowly emergent ‘writer’. Only one chapter is about the massacring of cats, and given the reactions of the people involved one would be forgiven for thinking ‘great’ was used in the more informal sense.

Darnton reconstructs the 18th century minds of the peasantry through their folk tales, of a worker in a printing factory, a newly emerged bourgeois perspective of Montpellier, the method in which a policeman kept tabs on writers, the method by which Diderot constructed his Encyclopedia, and the way an average reader responded to the work of Rousseau. The book is six chapters, or more accurately, six questions long, and each question is fundamentally the same: how did the French of the 18th century map their world? What frameworks did they use to understand their lives, and how were those frameworks changing, considering the early 18th century was the prelude to a time of incredible social upheaval?

The questions are well answered, I feel, and this is accomplished through the liberal use of primary sources. It does become slightly jarring – the chapter on folk stories often lists classic archetypes and rattle off a classification (tale type 324) and while it would be easy to look this up, it’s peppered so frequently throughout the text that the page itself is just a collection of ‘(tale type 64).’

The chapter for which the book is named is the shortest in it, and the easiest to explain, if only because it was so drastically brutal by modern standards. Why did a factory-full of journeyman printers find the gory murdering of cats so hilarious that they mimed it at least 20 times, and thought it ridiculously funny each time? I won’t spoil it. It’s a fun little episode in among thousands of small episodes of French cultural history that go unexplored, buried underneath reports on grain reserves and dull treatises on official business. I suspect Darnton has had to crawl through thousands of terribly boring, utterly insignificant documents to dig out the material for the chapters of this book.

The next chapter, where a member of the relatively new bourgeoisie explains his society, was the start of the second half of the book – the revealing of the new elements in French society.

The framework he tried to use to describe Montpellier didn’t really fit the changing world he lived in – and he changed that framework over the report twice. Up till that point the book’s perspective on the actual culture the French lived in had been rather static, if only because those classes were – ‘the peasants lived and thought like this,’ and ‘the workers lived and thought like this’. But from this chapter onward each essay is to some extent about people trying to reconcile their view of the world with how it changed around them. We witness a period of change in the documents, Darnton reveals, where not even the contemporary writers fully understood what was happening.

The chapter on ‘writers’ was a personal favourite. Investigating the files of a particularly erudite police officer, D’Hemery, Darnton discusses his judgement of D’Hemery’s mindset and framework of the world. Of interest was how ‘writer’ in itself wasn’t considered a profession, and merely supplementary to a more proper occupation such as law – so writers from low backgrounds or without other forms of income were lower on the implicit totem pole.

(One wishes it were possible to conduct a similar study on Australian university students if only to run into someone interesting.)

Next: How did the writers of the time classify things, put their world into rational order? At this point, I’m sure you’ve noticed something – we’ve rapidly risen through social classes since the first chapter, even as the question remains the same – how did 18th century French people map their world, define life? Ironically, the chapter which strays furthest from the question is the titular one. While it does lay out the same precepts – worldview of the factory worker, average life experience of someone in the position, and behaviour, it’s also much shorter, and rather than creating a general picture really aims at the more specific question of why the workers found the cat massacre funny.

‘Readers responding to Rousseau,’ the final chapter, considers how people used to read. Rousseau rejects the method people used to read, and proposes that they immerse themselves fully in a work, mediating on it in relative isolation, rather than speeding through hundreds of books and not really digesting them in order to discuss them with all one’s high society friends. His fictional account of the letters of Heloise and Abelard relegate him to the role of editor, but also reduce the reader to the level of voyeur, and invite them to believe in his fiction – that the two medieval writers corresponded in the exact way he wrote – despite the paradox of Rousseau obviously having written it all himself. Rousseau was hugely popular, his characters were ridiculously relatable for contemporary readers, and thus his fame was assured, independently of his impact on the philosophical aspects of the enlightenment. He had a part in typifying the romantic novel that was to dominate the next century.

As you may have noticed, the book just gets more complex as it continues.

This is a book for the general history enthusiast – those looking for bloodshed and carnage will find themselves quickly bored, marooned in the first chapter’s complex comparison and analysis of fairytales. In exploring a cultural mentality, Darnton analyses the sources on a deeper level than most would be used to – especially undergrads. The Great Cat Massacre, then, perfectly fits into the metaphysical mold I enjoy, and in fact try to frequently use.

Is it a must for anyone interested in French cultural history? Lacking experience in the field, I can’t answer that. But it’s certainly worth a look.


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