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The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History

3.84 of 5 stars 3.84  ·  rating details  ·  1,220 ratings  ·  87 reviews
When the apprentices of a Paris printing shop in the 1730's held a series of mock trials and then hanged all the cats they could lay their hands on, why did they find it so hilariously funny that they choked with laughter when they reenacted it in pantomime some twenty times? Why in the 18th century version of "Little Red Riding Hood" did the wolf eat the child at the end? ...more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published February 12th 1985 by Vintage (first published 1984)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 2,437)
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David
Given the peculiarities of the Irish educational system, at the end of 10th grade there was a forced choice between physics and history, so my formal study of history ended when I was 14. I was happy to be rid of it at the time - my brain did fine with analytical stuff like science and languages, but history was just too unruly to get a handle on and it always brought down my grade average. And, of course, at age 14 it was completely impossible to think of it as anything but useless.

Naturally, I
...more
John David
Most history of the early modern period written more than a generation ago was what Robert Darnton identifies as “top-down” history: it is the history of royalty, nobles, and the intellectual elites whose ideas largely defined the times. But this contribution, along with Natalie Zemon Davis’ “The Return of Martin Guerre” and Carlo Ginzburg’s “The Cheese and the Worms,” is essential in introducing a more egalitarian, social, “bottom-up” history that emphasizes regular people. The book contains fi ...more
·Karen·
Do social conditions determine popular beliefs? Robert Darnton challenges the widely held assumption that cultural systems derive from social orders, and takes the beetle's eye view, picking out quirky sources that reveal the viewpoint of the 'native', dissecting what they say to then draw conclusions about the world they lived in. A careful and rather long-winded examination of fairy tales throws light on the living conditions of peasants under the Old Regime. Their lives were nasty, brutish an ...more
Kelly
This was seriously one of the best history books I've ever read, because it was chock full of weird and interesting information that was largely novel to me. I bought it because of the event referred to in the title, but that was only one of 6 chapters, each of which covered a very different topic, though each chapter helped to build up an understanding of real people's lives in 18th century France. Remember that this was a century that ended with revolution and the Terror and the wee man with h ...more
Victoria
Probably a bit biased going into it, having absorbed much of the criticism against it by cultural osmosis, but a very interesting read. Methodologically flawed, but makes some interesting points about the intersection of social and cultural histories -- ie. that one does not precisely flow into the other, and understanding society does not necessarily mean that you will understand its culture.

Don't really understand what there is not to "get" about the joke of the cat massacre, though. Whoops, I
...more
Oliver Bateman
Historiographically speaking, the Great Cat Massacre is "old news": The profession has long since embraced the "pastness of the past" and sent its leading practitioners plunging into the archives to discover what was so "other" about the lost mentalités of 18th century French journeymen, 17th century pirates, &c. Nevertheless, the titular essay retains much of its original luster, given the high entertainment value of the story that's being examined (a massacre of cats, most notably the favo ...more
Razvan Zamfirescu
O lucrare de antropologie foarte interesanta care a fost publicata acum cativa ani la Polirom si, din pacate, care nu mai este disponibila.
Volumul cuprinde cateva studii ale autorului cu privire la societatea franceza din Epoca Luminilor.
Eseul referitor la Marele Masacru al Pisicii cuprinde in detaliu reactia muncitorilor care s-au hotarat sa reactioneze la adresa sefului la care lucreaza spanzurand pisicile stapanei. Motivatiile si reactiile acestora sunt descrise pentru a face cititorul sa int
...more
Hilary
Really well written, although a bit long-winded at times, as if the author had way too much research to actually compress into a readable article and had to laundry-list the information at times to squeeze it all in. Two main comments: (1) cultural history is the best history EVER, and (2) the French are really sick, twisted weirdos -- or at least they were in all their history. If you love cats, don't read book's eponymous chapter, just skip right over it and read the rest.
Sherwood Smith
Darnton is one of the seventies scholars who have been delving into the lives of ordinary folks, a difficult task as there is relatively little written record. One has to trace the evidence of their lives, as people who didn't read or write didn't exactly leave diaries or letters.

Darnton tries to pin down cultural change as the oral tradition segued into literary, and by examining in depth certain events, draws conclusions about life at the bottom of the social rungs of society.
Qi Xiang
Fascinating book on French cultural history. Methodological approach comes under some flak for two major issues, which the author acknowledges in the conclusions. First is the pedigree of the sources used, and the second is how representative his "episodes" are of French culture in general. The interplay between text and context helps Darnton to build a believable account of French culture, though the criticism of Harold Mah suggests that Darnton has perhaps been a little too selective even with ...more
Leif Erik
Read this for an undergrad history course. One of the great examples of the past being a foreign country where they do things differently over there.
Chris
I read this for the essay on Perrault. The title essay was good as well. The rest were somewhat boring.
Nic Echo
About the Book:
This series of essays (or one long essay, depending on how you view it) looks into tales and writings to try and decipher how a variety of men from 18th century France would have thought.

Review:
First off, I will admit that I did not finish the entirety of the book so I am unable to make a judgement on the last section of The Great Cat Massacre. The book seemed stale to me by that time, to be honest. Overall, however, I found the book to be quite enjoyable, and it was certainly mor
...more
Cărăşălu
This is an enterprise in ethnographic history. The author,a historian, borrows from anthropology in an attempt to reconstruct the view of the world of the 18th century Frenchman. It focuses on different documents originating from different environments so as to present the worldview from several perspectives. First, it's the peasants and their fairy tales. The authentic ones, not those rewrote by Perrault or the Grimms. Second, it's an accout of a cat massacre by some journeymen. The next chapte ...more
Batgrl (Not Trusting GR With My Reviews/Shelves Now)
Full review found here at Booklikes.
Short version: I really like the use of primary documents in each chapter - some of which are a historical researcher's dream of great content. The chapter on fairy tales is probably the most enjoyable, but I'm a research junky so I'll confess that I loved Ch. 4 and 6 just as much.


Reason for the full review not being here (why I've felt I had to start making sure my reviews weren't just here at GR): In Case GR Deletes My Do Not Buy Shelf...


Contents:
List of Il
...more
Emily
As I've said in at least one other review, I've never really gotten into non-fiction the way I want to. That being said, The Great Cat Massacre changed that. It was assigned to me for a college history course by a professor who read it during his time as a student. For him, the book made such an impression that he remembered it two decades later. And I'm glad he did.

The reader is presented with very interesting stories from French cultural history. You learn about the origins and meanings of fai
...more
Poo1987 Roykaew
Aug 29, 2008 Poo1987 Roykaew rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Nick&Nack or all of my dear friends
Recommended to Poo1987 by: Aj. Thanes Wongyannawa
Robert Darnton tried to, as he stated in his preface, penetrate, if it be possible to do, the way French common people who lived during the Old Regime understanding the world and presenting their view into action or folklores which have kept telling around the countries of France from generation to generation till the early of twentieth century. Or in other cases, he observed the cat massarce publicly occured around the printing shop by its employees and discerned the problem of why they did suc ...more
Shari
Darnton's concentration of "l'histoire des mentalites" is probably best considered as cultural history. We of the 21st century have little understanding of the realities of living in the 18th century. For the Third Estate they were dire times--hard times we cannot fathom of the threat of starvation which brought the poor to the exposing of, selling of, or outright murder of babies they could not feed; of children sent into the work force at less than five years old, or trained to pick pockets, t ...more
Simon
The thesis of Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre is simple: actions are perceived in different ways by different cultures at different times. With such a general thesis, this publication is more of a discourse than a proof of any specific argument - and Darnton states this outright in his introduction. The first chapter clarifies differences in anthropological discourse of folklorists though an analysis of familiar European fables and folktales. The second chapter does as much to illustrate ...more
Matt
Darnton’s study of French peasants provides a superb analysis of French culture and allows for the reader to put themselves in the French peasants shoes in order to understand the ideas, insights, and pop culture of the time. Darnton shows a remarkable ability to shed his own, and in turn the readers modern day conceptions, in order to explore the French peasant culture and explore, “the history of culture in the lower case…”.
No doubt there are many more fairy tales than what Darnton has chosen
...more
Molly Olusunmade Corlett
This is a well-written book which provides interesting insights into life and culture in early modern France. The application of anthropological method to history allows Darnton to produce a convincing portrayal of behaviours and attitudes which are alien to the modern imagination. As questions to frame a book around go, asking why workers in a printing shop thought their massacre of cats to be the most hilarious joke of their lives is quite a good one, particularly given his avowed aim of "cult ...more
Jennifer Uhlich
A very entertaining read. I was undecided at first whether the premise was a bit of windmill-tilting, but I think ultimately it doesn't matter. What the book does is take some of the fun that can be had with historical research and bring it to the fore. Back in school these were the kinds of things you hoped your professor would mention in class to ease the textbook pain, the sweet reward for having forced down a hundred nourishing but tasteless pages of facts.

I will confess to having skimmed t
...more
Lori
Mar 18, 2012 Lori rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who have not read a lot of history
This is one of the first history books I read for pleasure. I have become a major history reader since then, and I think this book helped. I have re-read it several times over the past 30 years and still enjoy it.

Six 'episodes' are discussed, all from pre-revolutionary France (aka 'Ancien Regime') in roughly chronological order. All are based on written texts and most are private, handwritten items. The author examines aspects of culture that are not often covered because they can neither be qua
...more
Karen
The first chapter was interesting and had me hooked on the idea of the "otherness" of people in the past. Plus, the fairy tales were wonderfully odd and interesting (okay, and quite disturbing).

The second chapter (The Great Cat Massacre) has a unique pretext and continues the "otherness" theme, although it's even more disturbing to modern sensibilities. Which is, I believe, the thesis of the book. It's gruesome, but of special interest for its insight into a typesetting shop of the period.

It's a
...more
Rachel Hope
The title essay is one of the greatest history essays I've ever read. Worth the price of the book alone. It may change the way you understand history as a discipline, it certainly had that effect on many in the academy. Just do it.
Chrissa Kuntz
Well, that was incredibly dense! But really interesting! It was difficult to plow through some of it, but I felt that I learned lots about the terrible living conditions of peasants and workers through to the French Revolution AND about their intense dislike for the "bourgeois" (a much disputed word in itself, according to the book)
Lucie
En se focalisant sur des aspects particuliers de la France du XVIIIE siècle, Robert Darnton parvient à esquisser une histoire des mentalités avec succès. Cependant, je déplore le titre, qui semble destiné à interpeller le grand public, puisque ce titre ne correspond qu'à un chapitre du livre.
Emily
I really liked the beginning of this book. People's attitudes toward animals throughout time are fascinating to me. The other pieces were less fascinating, but just because I don't really care at all about Rousseau and minor writers of the olde regime. Whoever chose the title for this book did a really good job of sensationalizing what was mostly pretty dry content. Not saying it's bad, but most of the contents are significantly less juicy than the cat massacre parts. And if you're really sensit ...more
Julio César
El clásico libro de Darnton está bueno para nosotros, los que no somos historiadores ni antropólogos, porque nos permite mirar de lejos un tema más amplio y darnos cuenta de todo el quilombo que generó. A partir del relato de un obrero tipográfico hablás de la cultura de la Francia de la Ilustración. Es polémico, pero como decía Carlo Ginzburg, de su clase y de su cultura no escapa nadie. Llama la atención (y lo debilita un poco) la carencia del debate cultura alta-cultura popular.
Paul Hayes
Printing Apprentices ritually torturing cats for fun, an unknown bourgeois obsesivelly chronicling every aspect of Montpelier, proto revolutionary Encylopedists and the files of Paris police section charged with spying on authors (all authors). The Ancien Regime comes across as a full of characters straight out of a Graham Greene novel. I think he'd have loved it - I certainly did.

And did you know there is a classification system for folk tales? Indeed there is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aarn
...more
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18th Century French Culture 3 23 Jul 14, 2013 09:25AM  
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198840
Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the Harvard University Library
More about Robert Darnton...
The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France The Literary Underground of the Old Regime The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in Cultural History Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France

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“To eat one's fill, eat until the exhaustion of the appetite, was the principal pleasure that the peasants dangled before their imagination, and one that they rarely realized in their lives.
They [the peasants] also imagined other dreams coming true, including the standard run of castles and princesses. But their wishes usually remained fixed on common objects in the everyday world. One hero gets "a cow and some chickens"; another, an armoire full of linens. A third settles for light work, regular meals, and a pipe full of tobacco. And when gold rains into the fireplace of a fourth, he uses it to buy "food, clothes, a horse, land." In most of the tales, wish fulfillment turns into a program for survival, not a fantasy of escape. ”
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“The peasant of early modern France inhabited a world of step-mothers and orphans, of inexorable, unending toil, and of brutal emotions, both raw and repressed.The human condition has changed so much since then that we can hardly imagine the way it appeared to people whose lives really were nasty, brutish, and short. This is why we need to reread Mother Goose.” 1 likes
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