Simon's Reviews > The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History

The Great Cat Massacre by Robert Darnton
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Dec 15, 2010

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Read in November, 2010

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 differences in cultural standards with a recounting, through the prism of a gruesome yet civilized mock trial, of an 18th century France print shop workers’ rebellion: The Great Cat Massacre. Following that, Darnton details the degradation of class boundaries at the beginning of France’s Enlightenment, and posits that cultural systems derive from social identities. The French history lesson continues with an introduction to the Age of Reason, beginning with the rise of irreligion and modern philosophy and ending with the ceding of oral tradition to literary culture. As a whole, the book is a rapid-fire chronology of cultural motives and practices during Europe’s transition between literate and illiterate eras. Each chapter leads with an anthropological conclusion, which is then supported by a number of examples. Despite the plentiful discussion, the chapters are tied together by little more than keywords defining the basic fundamentals of existence: societal growth and the evolution of knowledge. While Darnton exhibits a strong knowledge of the anthropology informing these issues (as they relate to 18th century France, in particular), the book’s lack of cohesion and chapter lengths makes it a somewhat tiresome read for the non-history buff.

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