The Great Cat Massacre

And Other Episodes in French Cultural History


By Robert Darnton

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The landmark history of France and French culture in the eighteenth-century, a winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize

When the apprentices of a Paris printing shop in the 1730s 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 eighteenth-century version of Little Red Riding Hood did the wolf eat the child at the end?

What did the anonymous townsman of Montpelier have in mind when he kept an exhaustive dossier on all the activities of his native city?

These are some of the provocative questions the distinguished Harvard historian Robert Darnton answers The Great Cat Massacre, a kaleidoscopic view of European culture during in what we like to call “The Age of Enlightenment.” A classic of European history, it is an essential starting point for understanding Enlightenment France.


Table of Figures
FIGURE 1 Authors’ Ages in 1750
FIGURE 2 Authors’ Birthplaces
FIGURE 3 Authors’ Socio-Occupational Positions

for Nicholas

THIS NEW EDITION of my book gives me an opportunity to address new readers, and I am happy to take advantage of it. Publishing a book is similar to throwing a stone down a deep well: you wait and wait, expecting to hear a splash, but sometimes you hear nothing. Of all the books I have written, The Great Cat Massacre made the greatest splash—perhaps, as some have said, because it has a catchy title. When the title caught their eye, readers apparently were intrigued. Why, they asked, should a serious historian occupy himself with such a bizarre event as the ritual slaughter of cats in an obscure neighborhood of eighteenth-century Paris? I hope that question will draw readers into the text and, more importantly, into a new kind of history.
In the 1960s, when everything new seemed to originate on the Left Bank of Paris, this history was heralded as l’histoire des mentalités—the history of mentalities, or the study of the mental universe of ordinary people. Before then, historians had concentrated on the intellectual life of the elite, but they could not deny that peasants and workers had ideas, too. If some way could be found to penetrate into the worldview of the masses and study the values and attitudes of people in the bottom ranks of society, a whole new dimension of history would open up. But the problems posed by this kind of research seemed to be insurmountable. Most Europeans were illiterate before the nineteenth century. How could a historian find traces of mental activity by people who had left no written record of it?
The first attempts to find a solution to this problem produced some inferences but little in the way of rigorous argument. Historians studied chapbooks that were read aloud to peasants. They compiled statistics from wills, which suggested how the poor imagined the afterlife. They investigated exotic subjects like witchcraft, magic, banditry, and folk medicine. But they did not make systematic advances into this field of study until they began borrowing concepts and methods from a neighboring discipline, anthropology.
Anthropologists had made the worldviews and value systems of illiterate people a principal subject of their research since the beginning of the twentieth century. To be sure, they divided into rival camps and disagreed among themselves just as heartily as historians do, so their concepts could not be imported wholesale into history. But by the 1990s historians were making such effective use of so many varieties of anthropology that even the French abandoned their trademark notion of the history of mentalities and took up anthropological history.
The Great Cat Massacre, first published in 1984, is an early attempt to write history in this vein. I intended it for the general reading public as well as for scholars, so I did not include much in the way of theoretical discourse. I wanted to show how anthropological history could work by writing it instead of writing a treatise on how it should be written. I also adopted a particular strategy in my mode of exposition. I began with the general stock of folk tales, which existed everywhere and reached everyone, among the elite as well as the peasants, through the many dialects that proliferated in eighteenth-century France. By systematically studying and comparing the versions recorded by folklorists in the nineteenth century, I thought it possible to characterize an oral tradition that expressed a general orientation to the world—not a national spirit, as some of my critics have claimed, but a pattern of culture that existed on a national scale, despite regional variations. Having established this pattern as a general background, I went on in the succeeding chapters to produce a series of case studies, which covered different social groups and led ultimately to the intellectual elite among writers and readers. By proceeding in this manner, I attempted to write cultural history “from below,” just as earlier historians had treated social and economic history—that is, I began in the world of peasants and artisans and worked up into the world of the Enlightenment. But I did not try to integrate everything into a single, seamless account of eighteenth-century French culture because I do not believe that any such thing existed. Like many modern or postmodern writers, I did not worry about presenting my work in a fragmented and nonholistic way. But I did fret over the need to be rigorous—to deploy evidence in a manner that supports a compelling interpretation.
I stress interpretation because I understand history, like all the human sciences, to be interpretive by its very nature. It makes sense of how other people made sense of the human condition. To study a cultural episode like the massacre of cats is similar to going to a play: you read the actions of the actors in order to understand what they are expressing.You don’t reach a conclusion comparable to the bottom line of a bank account or the verdict of a judge, because interpretive history is necessarily open-ended, capacious enough to admit many nuances. But open-endedness does not mean that anything goes or that an interpretation cannot be wrong.To interpret Hamlet as a slapstick comedy is to get it wrong, even though other interpretations can be both valid and divergent—those, for example, that construe Hamlet as a play about psychological forces as opposed to those that see it as a drama about power in the body politic.
I have borrowed these ideas from Clifford Geertz, a master anthropologist with whom I taught a seminar on history and anthropology for twenty years. But they also fit the views of Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, and younger scholars such as Keith Basso and James Clifford. For all their differences, these anthropologists stress the multivocal character of symbols, and they understand rituals as complex patterns of behavior, which express multiple meanings.
I stress the complexity and multiplicity inherent in symbolic expression because some of my critics have failed to take account of that fundamental point. Roger Chartier, for example, argues that symbols link signifier to signified in an unambiguous, linear manner, as in an example he took from an eighteenth-century dictionary: the lion is the symbol of valor. I would agree that the figure of a lion can suggest valor, but it can also convey strength, ferocity, royalty, and other qualities, including various combinations of them, all at the same time. Anthropologists have demonstrated again and again that ordinary people manipulate symbols in this manner. So there is nothing extravagant about the notion that cats symbolized witchcraft, sexuality, and domesticity—or that the ritual murder of them was meant simultaneously as a trial, a gang rape, a rebellion of the workers against their boss, and a carnivalesque kind of street theater, which the workers later repeated in the form of pantomime. Not all of the men who staged the massacre understood it in the same fashion. It had a wide range of meanings that could be construed and combined in several ways. To reduce them to one conclusion, as in the ending of a whodunit mystery story, is to misunderstand the way humans make meaning in general and how workers were able to twit their bosses in the eighteenth century.
Put so abstractly, the issue may sound like what we call an academic question—one of those debates that interest academics but have little to say to ordinary persons in the workaday world. But I believe that the cat massacre and the attempt to decipher its meanings can interest everyone outside of academia who is curious about the human condition and the way human beings construe it. One way is through joking. Although it seems strange to us—and downright repugnant to the cat lovers among us—the cat massacre was the funniest thing that ever happened to the workers in the rue Saint-Séverin. If we can get the joke, we should be able to shed some of our modern worldviews and enter into the alien mental world of ordinary persons who lived two centuries before us. That kind of contact is an experience that makes this kind of history rewarding. If my readers enjoy this experiment in anthropological history, I hope they will pursue it further, for history and anthropology have continued to reinforce each other, and now, a quarter of a century after The Great Cat Massacre first appeared, they have combined to create a fertile field of study that looks more promising than ever.

THIS BOOK investigates ways of thinking in eighteenth-century France. It attempts to show not merely what people thought but how they thought—how they construed the world, invested it with meaning, and infused it with emotion. Instead of following the high road of intellectual history, the inquiry leads into the unmapped territory known in France as l’histoire des mentalités. This genre has not yet received a name in English, but it might simply be called cultural history; for it treats our own civilization in the same way that anthropologists study alien cultures. It is history in the ethnographic grain.
Most people tend to think that cultural history concerns high culture, culture with a capital c. The history of culture in the lower case goes back as far as Burckhardt, if not Herodotus; but it is still unfamiliar and full of surprises. So the reader may want a word of explanation. Where the historian of ideas traces the filiation of formal thought from philosopher to philosopher, the ethnographic historian studies the way ordinary people made sense of the world. He attempts to uncover their cosmology, to show how they organized reality in their minds and expressed it in their behavior. He does not try to make a philosopher out of the man in the street but to see how street life called for a strategy. Operating at ground level, ordinary people learn to be “street smart”—and they can be as intelligent in their fashion as philosophers. But instead of deriving logical propositions, they think with things, or with anything else that their culture makes available to them, such as stories or ceremonies.
What things are good to think with? Claude Lévi-Strauss applied that question to the totems and tatoos of Amazonia twenty-five years ago. Why not try it out on eighteenth-century France? Because eighteenth-century Frenchmen cannot be interviewed, the skeptic will reply; and to drive the point home, he will add that archives can never serve as a substitute for field work. True, but the archives from the Old Regime are exceptionally rich, and one can always put new questions to old material. Furthermore, one should not imagine that the anthropologist has an easy time with his native informant. He, too, runs into areas of opacity and silence, and he must interpret the native’s interpretation of what the other natives think. Mental undergrowth can be as impenetrable in the bush as in the library.
But one thing seems clear to everyone who returns from field work: other people are other. They do not think the way we do. And if we want to understand their way of thinking, we should set out with the idea of capturing otherness. Translated into the terms of the historian’s craft, that may merely sound like the familiar injunction against anachronism. It is worth repeating, nonetheless; for nothing is easier than to slip into the comfortable assumption that Europeans thought and felt two centuries ago just as we do today—allowing for the wigs and wooden shoes. We constantly need to be shaken out of a false sense of familiarity with the past, to be administered doses of culture shock.
There is no better way, I believe, than to wander through the archives. One can hardly read a letter from the Old Regime without coming up against surprises—anything from the constant dread of toothaches, which existed everywhere, to the obsession with braiding dung for display on manure heaps, which remained confined to certain villages. What was proverbial wisdom to our ancestors is completely opaque to us. Open any eighteenth-century book of proverbs, and you will find entries such as: “He who is snotty, let him blow his nose.” When we cannot get a proverb, or a joke, or a ritual, or a poem, we know we are on to something. By picking at the document where it is most opaque, we may be able to unravel an alien system of meaning. The thread might even lead into a strange and wonderful world view.
This book attempts to explore such unfamiliar views of the world. It proceeds by following up the surprises provided by an unlikely assortment of texts: a primitive version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” an account of a massacre of cats, a bizarre description of a city, a curious file kept by a police inspector—documents that cannot be taken to typify eighteenth-century thought but that provide ways of entering into it. The discussion begins with the most vague and general expressions of world view and becomes increasingly precise. Chapter 1 provides an exegesis of the folklore that was familiar to nearly everyone in France but was especially pertinent to the peasantry. Chapter 2 interprets the lore of a group of urban artisans. Moving up the social scale, chapter 3 shows what urban life meant to a provincial bourgeois. The scene then shifts to Paris and the world of the intellectuals—first as it was seen by the police, who had their own way of framing reality (chapter 4), then as it was sorted out epistemologically in the key text of the Enlightenment, the Discours préliminaire of the Encyclopédie (chapter 5). The last chapter then shows how Rousseau’s break with the Encyclopedists opened up a new way of thinking and feeling, one that can be appreciated by rereading Rousseau from the perspective of his readers.
The notion of reading runs through all the chapters, for one can read a ritual or a city just as one can read a folktale or a philosophic text. The mode of exegesis may vary, but in each case one reads for meaning—the meaning inscribed by contemporaries in whatever survives of their vision of the world. I have therefore tried to read my way through the eighteenth century, and I have appended texts to my interpretations so that my own reader can interpret these texts and disagree with me. I do not expect to have the last word and do not pretend to completeness. This book does not provide an inventory of ideas and attitudes in all the social groups and geographical regions of the Old Regime. Nor does it offer typical case studies, for I do not believe there is such a thing as a typical peasant or a representative bourgeois. Instead of chasing after them, I have pursued what seemed to be the richest run of documents, following leads wherever they went and quickening my pace as soon as I stumbled on a surprise. Straying from the beaten path may not be much of a methodology, but it creates the possibility of enjoying some unusual views, and they can be the most revealing. I do not see why cultural history should avoid the eccentric or embrace the average, for one cannot calculate the mean of meanings or reduce symbols to their lowest common denominator.
This confession of nonsystematism does not imply that anything goes in cultural history because anything can pass as anthropology. The anthropological mode of history has a rigor of its own, even if it may look suspiciously like literature to a hard-boiled social scientist. It begins from the premise that individual expression takes place within a general idiom, that we learn to classify sensations and make sense of things by thinking within a framework provided by our culture. It therefore should be possible for the historian to discover the social dimension of thought and to tease meaning from documents by relating them to the surrounding world of significance, passing from text to context and back again until he has cleared a way through a foreign mental world.
This kind of cultural history belongs to the interpretive sciences. It may seem too literary to be classified under the appellation contrôlée of “science” in the English-speaking world, but it fits in nicely with the sciences humaines in France. It is not an easy genre, and it is bound to be imperfect, but it should not be impossible, even in English. All of us, French and “Anglo-Saxons,” pedants as well as peasants, operate within cultural constraints, just as we all share conventions of speech. So historians should be able to see how cultures shape ways of thinking, even for the greatest thinkers. A poet or philosopher may push a language to its limits, but at some point he will hit against the outer frame of meaning. Beyond it, madness lies—the fate of Hölderlin and Nietzsche. But within it, great men can test and shift the boundaries of meaning. Thus there should be room for Diderot and Rousseau in a book about mentalités in eighteenth-century France. By including them along with the peasant tellers of tales and the plebeian killers of cats, I have abandoned the usual distinction between elite and popular culture, and have tried to show how intellectuals and common people coped with the same sort of problems.
I realize there are risks in departing from the established modes of history. Some will object that the evidence is too vague for one ever to penetrate into the minds of peasants who disappeared two centuries ago. Others will take offense at the idea of interpreting a massacre of cats in the same vein as the Discours préliminaire of the Encyclopédie, or interpreting it at all. And still more readers will recoil at the arbitrariness of selecting a few strange documents as points of entry into eighteenth-century thought rather than proceeding in a systematic manner through the canon of classic texts. I think there are valid replies to those objections, but I do not want to turn this introduction into a discourse on method. Instead, I would like to invite the reader into my own text. He may not be convinced, but I hope he will enjoy the journey.
Mother Goose tales, from the original illustration to Perrault’s Contes de ma mère l’oye

THE MENTAL WORLD of the unenlightened during the Enlightenment seems to be irretrievably lost. It is so difficult, if not impossible, to locate the common man in the eighteenth century that it seems foolish to search for his cosmology. But before abandoning the attempt, it might be useful to suspend one’s disbelief and to consider a story—a story everyone knows, though not in the following version, which is the tale more or less as it was told around firesides in peasant cottages during long winter evenings in eighteenth-century France.1
Once a little girl was told by her mother to bring some bread and milk to her grandmother. As the girl was walking through the forest, a wolf came up to her and asked where she was going.
“To grandmother’s house,” she replied.
“Which path are you taking, the path of the pins or the path of the needles?”
“The path of the needles.”
So the wolf took the path of the pins and arrived first at the house. He killed grandmother, poured her blood into a bottle, and sliced her flesh onto a platter. Then he got into her nightclothes and waited in bed.
“Knock, knock.”
“Come in, my dear.”
“Hello, grandmother. I’ve brought you some bread and milk.”
“Have something yourself, my dear. There is meat and wine in the pantry.”
So the little girl ate what was offered; and as she did, a little cat said, “Slut! To eat the flesh and drink the blood of your grandmother!”
Then the wolf said, “Undress and get into bed with me.”
“Where shall I put my apron?”
“Throw it on the fire; you won’t need it any more.”
For each garment—bodice, skirt, petticoat, and stockings—the girl asked the same question; and each time the wolf answered, “Throw it on the fire; you won’t need it any more.”
When the girl got in bed, she said, “Oh, grandmother! How hairy you are!”
“It’s to keep me warmer, my dear.”
“Oh, grandmother! What big shoulders you have!”
“It’s for better carrying firewood, my dear.”
“Oh, grandmother! What long nails you have!”
“It’s for scratching myself better, my dear.”
“Oh, grandmother! What big teeth you have!”
“It’s for eating you better, my dear.”
And he ate her.
What is the moral of this story? For little girls, clearly: stay away from wolves. For historians, it seems to be saying something about the mental world of the early modern peasantry. But what? How can one begin to interpret such a text? One way leads through psychoanalysis. The analysts have given folktales a thorough going-over, picking out hidden symbols, unconscious motifs, and psychic mechanisms. Consider, for example, the exegesis of “Little Red Riding Hood” by two of the best known psychoanalysts, Erich Fromm and Bruno Bettelheim.
Fromm interpreted the tale as a riddle about the collective unconscious in primitive society, and he solved it “without difficulty” by decoding its “symbolic language.” The story concerns an adolescent’s confrontation with adult sexuality, he explained. Its hidden meaning shows through its symbolism—but the symbols he saw in his version of the text were based on details that did not exist in the versions known to peasants in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Thus he makes a great deal of the (nonexistent) red riding hood as a symbol of menstruation and of the (nonexistent) bottle carried by the girl as a symbol of virginity: hence the mother’s (nonexistent) admonition not to stray from the path into wild terrain where she might break it. The wolf is the ravishing male. And the two (nonexistent) stones that are placed in the wolf’s belly after the (nonexistent) hunter extricates the girl and her grandmother, stand for sterility, the punishment for breaking a sexual taboo. So, with an uncanny sensitivity to detail that did not occur in the original folktale, the psychoanalyst takes us into a mental universe that never existed, at least not before the advent of psychoanalysis.2
How could anyone get a text so wrong? The difficulty does not derive from professional dogmatism—for psychoanalysts need not be more rigid than poets in their manipulation of symbols—but rather from blindness to the historical dimension of folktales.
Fromm did not bother to mention his source, but apparently he took his text from the brothers Grimm. The Grimms got it, along with “Puss ’n Boots,” “Bluebeard,” and a few other stories, from Jeannette Hassenpflug, a neighbor and close friend of theirs in Cassel; and she learned it from her mother, who came from a French Huguenot family. The Huguenots brought their own repertory of tales into Germany when they fled from the persecution of Louis XIV. But they did not draw them directly from popular oral tradition. They read them in books written by Charles Perrault, Marie Cathérine d‘Aulnoy, and others during the vogue for fairy tales in fashionable Parisian circles at the end of the seventeenth century. Perrault, the master of the genre, did indeed take his material from the oral tradition of the common people (his principal source probably was his son’s nurse). But he touched it up so that it would suit the taste of the salon sophisticates, précieuses, and courtiers to whom he directed the first printed version of Mother Goose, his Contes de ma mère l’oye of 1697. Thus the tales that reached the Grimms through the Hassenpflugs were neither very German nor very representative of folk tradition. Indeed, the Grimms recognized their literary and Frenchified character and therefore eliminated them from the second edition of the Kinder-und Hausmärchen—all but “Little Red Riding Hood.” It remained in the collection, evidently, because Jeannette Hassenpflug had grafted on to it a happy ending derived from “The Wolf and the Kids” (tale type 123 according to the standard classification scheme developed by Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson), which was one of the most popular in Germany. So Little Red Riding Hood slipped into the German and later the English literary tradition with her French origins undetected. She changed character considerably as she passed from the French peasantry to Perrault’s nursery, into print, across the Rhine, back into an oral tradition but this time as part of the Huguenot diaspora, and back into book form but now as a product of the Teutonic forest rather than the village hearths of the Old Regime in France.3
Fromm and a host of other psychoanalytical exegetes did not worry about the transformations of the text—indeed, they did not know about them—because they got the tale they wanted. It begins with pubertal sex (the red hood, which does not exist in the French oral tradition) and ends with the triumph of the ego (the rescued girl, who is usually eaten in the French tales) over the id (the wolf, who is never killed in the traditional versions). All’s well that ends well.


  • "Robert Darnton has the inquisitiveness of an investigative reporter, the thoroughness of a rigorous scholar, and the sensitivity of a novelist."—New Republic
  • "Brilliant....The job description for the historian is simple; he must read well. Darnton does. He will read anything, take it seriously, and, applying a fertile imagination, write beautifully about what he has learned."—Washington Post Book World
  • "An exercise in culture shock."—Chronicle of Higher Education

On Sale
May 12, 2009
Page Count
320 pages
Basic Books

Robert Darnton

About the Author

A former professor of European history at Princeton University, Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the Harvard University Library. The founder of the Guttenberg-e program, he is the author of many books. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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