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The Great Cat Massacre

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message 1: by Oana (new)

Oana | 17 comments The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History

Finally was able to get into Goodreads after reading chapter one (and two) of The Great Cat Massacre. So far I really enjoyed chapter one and two (despite the cat abuse) but I am having a hard time getting into chapter three.

Regarding chapter one, I was surprised to read about how the surviving French peasantry never got that boost in their fortunes after the Black Death. I had thought it was a universal silver lining throughout Europe, though Darnton explains that the French peasants didn't get quite as lucky as their peers over the English Channel.

A side effect of chapter one is that I am considering buying the latest translation of Perrault, which is quite good apparently.

message 2: by William (last edited Feb 28, 2011 11:03AM) (new)

William (alundi) | 8 comments Oana, you raise an interesting point on the lack of an impact that the Black Death had on the overall well being and advancement of the peasantry in pre-revolutionary France. It seems that there are two factors alluded to by Darnton that would account for the stagnant fortunes of agrarian labor after the plague epidemic; a lower population density in the French countryside, with "an average density of forty souls per square kilometer, and an average annual rate of forty births per thousand inhabitants." (page 24 first paragraph). Also, when taken in a broader comparative social and economic context, I think England's level of international trade and higher population densities, especially along major river and costal towns and cities during the same periods, increased the likelihood of exposure to the plague, and in turn, higher changes in the demographics of the English agrarian peasantry.

I'm probably mistaken, but I think there was a bit of a slight contradiction in Darnton's own interpretation of how fairy tales reflected the nature of life among the peasantry, namely the discussion of sexual abuse in the grouping of overall brutality, especially after readily dismissing the psychological interpretation of the sexual imagery as found in Bruno Bettleheim's interpretation of Perrault and Grimm. Darnton draws in the high infant mortality rate in his discussions on the peasantry, and in the telling of the tales, but I was surprised that the horrific problem child and sexual abuse among the peasantry wasn't explored a bit further as reflected in the folk and fairy tales. Uncomfortable as the topic is, this "glossing over", I think, lessens the impact and importance of using and analyzing fairy tales from the French oral tradition as a primary source for social history.

I may have missed it, but Darnton seems to be a bit short when seeing and directly conveying how the peasantry gained a bit of cold comfort from the earthy and brutal humorous aspects gained from and added to the oral tradition of fairy tales along the lines of the German concept of "Schadenfreude", or the pleasure derived from the seeing and telling of misfortunes of others. There is certainly no doubt about the harsh nature of not just living, let alone, merely existing in 18th century pre-revolutionary France.

In the way you may have been surprised about the lack of a demographic impact the plague had on the peasantry, I was really surprised at the level of anti-Semitism in the French fairy tales, especially the telling of "Jew Among The Thorns" translated from the French by Darnton. Yes, I was very aware of the tremendously high rates of anti-Semitism in Medieval France, let alone most of Europe, and I shouldn't have been surprised, considering that the Dreyfus Affair occurred some 130 year later in France. But in most other texts on the same period of French history prior to The Revolution, most of the analysis on anti-religious sentiments focuses primarily on the Church and the clergy.

Overall, the first chapter, though lengthy and laborious read, I think Darnton has already succeeded in that abandoning "the usual distinction between elite and popular culture", both "intellectuals and common people coped with the same problems" (pages 6-7).

Getting past the initial shock of flagrant animal cruelty in the second chapter on "The Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Severin", I think Darnton understates the glut of available skilled labor and advances within the established guild system, exemplified with the printers apprentices Jerome and Leveille, as a pre existing condition of the labor and social unrest that came to pass during the height of The Revolution. The print shop's master and owner, Jacques Vincent, whose predecessors advanced through the guild system that Jerome and Leveille strived to do, had become more removed and aristocratic in his own personal life and aiding his wife's indulgences and dotting on a beloved cat with little regard for position and well being of the shop's apprentices.

What were your thoughts on the second chapter?

message 3: by Oana (new)

Oana | 17 comments Hi William,

I'll respond to your first paragraph now. You are right about page 24 and the lower population density. I was thinking of Marseille, being among the first ports in western Europe to get the plague as I thought France was as hard hit as northern Europe.

I also agree with your assessment of Darnton glossing over the child abuse - that was interesting for me and probably for everyone, since we all at children learned at some point that the fairy tales weren't as nice as they were depicted in our modern storybooks. The church's rules against sleeping with infants (page 27-29) is new to me; I wonder just how prevalent this form of infanticide was.

Was the "Jew Among the Thorns" the French or German version?

I'll have to review the second chapter as it's been a while now since I read it - my initial feeling was, besides disgust at the animal abuse, that people haven't changed much. They have always hated their bosses and there have always been bosses who desperately need better managerial and people skills. This chapter reminds me of a more sinister version of contemporary films about work.

What do you think? I felt that Darnton made it clear that there was a huge pool of skilled but underemployed workers.

message 4: by sudacla (new)

sudacla | 2 comments hi all - are you guys still active? you're probably busy reading! I am really interested in this group but might not have time to read until July(!) - I'm actually taking a group of students to Paris so I'm swamped until after that's over - in general I feel like I've forgotten so much of my French civ. knowledge over the years so I'd be quite keen to read with you. I went ahead and joined just b/c I didn't want to forget later - plus I would like to see what you're reading until July and check in on the discussions every now and then. Happy reading!

message 5: by Oana (new)

Oana | 17 comments Hi Sudacla,

I am not sure about the others, but I am still reading on French history. I am just finishing up the last chapter in the Great Cat Massacre. I thought about something a little lighter next, and started reading Parisians: An Adventure History. But I would be open to reading other books too.


message 6: by sudacla (new)

sudacla | 2 comments hi Oana! _Parisians_ looks great! I just sent myself a sample to my Kindle. I'm going to have to add _The Great Cat Massacre_ to my list, too. I'm glad you're still reading - depending on time over the next few weeks I'll see how far I get with _Parisians_ and yack at you if I get very far during my trip. I have several other Paris history books on my shelf at home waiting - I'll let you know the titles first chance I get in case any spark interest for you as well - no pressure: I'm going to read them in any case... sometime :) !

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