Robert Darnton

The Great Cat Massacre

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The Great Cat Massacre Summary

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The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History is a 1984 work of French history by cultural scholar and academic librarian Robert Darnton. Departing from traditional modes of writing about history, which often frame historical analysis around a central, predominant narrative, Darnton writes episodically about the eccentric beliefs and cultural phenomena experienced by everyday people in France at the beginning of the modern era (often defined as during and after the French Revolution). Darnton’s work tries to differentiate aspects of both rural and urban French culture from its popular depictions in literature. The novel has been praised by scholars of history for expertly piecing together a mosaic of forms of evidence from disparate sources, including folklore, police records, and the writings of the bourgeois class, to craft a vivid picture of France’s highly contingent early modern ontology.

The Great Cat Massacre shifts between subjects that might seem unrelated, and Darnton frequently reminds his readers that demonstrating contingency and multiplicity is a critical part of the realist approach to reconstructing history. He argues that mental life, just like physical life, transforms rapidly through time, often rendering itself almost unrecognizably distinct without any obvious signaling that it is the case. As a corollary to this argument, he contends that the structural narratives of one-directional change with which we typically organize history are always false. He believes that by scrupulously honing in on the nuances of singular events, a scholar is best equipped to extract historical truth – even truth that is generalizable to the level of national culture.

In the titular essay, “The Great Cat Massacre,” Darnton demonstrates his method of analysis using the autobiography of Nicolas Contat, a printmaker’s assistant who went on to become a journeyman. Contat’s narrative recalls watching, in horror, the butchering of the printmaker’s mistress’ cat at the hands of his fellow apprentices. Darnton connects this story to Contat’s context in French life, where the butchering of cats was normalized, partially due to their symbolic purpose in rural festivals. In general, little ethical foundation had been constructed regarding the treatment of animals. The act of cat killing was also subversive, in this instance, allowing these ostensibly subservient workers to exert rhetorical power on the patronage relationship that tried to govern them. These entangled meanings produce, together, what Darnton calls a “thick description,” showing how no one description suffices to fully render a historical truth.

Most of Darnton’s stories in The Great Cat Massacre critique common narratives of class resistance, showing how resistance often emerges during accidental and complex moments, rather than out of inevitable or concerted instances of radicalism or revolution. He contends that it is fatally reductive to retroactively assign revolution a cohesive narrative; this practice, frequently deployed by historians, obfuscates the real origin of social change. In his view, revolution is enacted in countless ordinary, singular events. For example, in the story about the cat, the workers clearly never intended to usurp their master. Rather, they hoped to inflict pain on him through a small subversive act. These small moments, individually inconsequential, collectively shift the course of history.

Darnton’s work also analyzes the common narrative of a plague of illiteracy infecting the lower classes. He asserts that reading is an act that anyone can “do,” therefore suggesting a capacious definition of the legible text that includes text-objects such as the urban environment, the cultural norm, and the daily routine.

By thinking in this capacious way, Darnton hopes to demonstrate that even conventionally “illiterate” people thought critically about their lives in the early modern era. Lacking any knowledge of written French, they still became deeply literate in quandaries of selfhood, in social life, and in features of the natural world. The Great Cat Massacre validates the surviving artifacts that point to these individuals’ rich subjectivities, and the modernities they postulated, with relatively few “conventional” resources, and to the benefit of every future generation.