ROBERT DARNTON. The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. New York: Basic Books, 1984. Pp. xix, 320. $17.99. Paperback. ISBN: 0-465-02700-8.

The Great Cat Massacre is the fourth and the most popular scholarly book written by the American cultural historian, academic librarian, and specialist of eighteenth-century France, Robert Darnton (b. 1939). The book is a neat compilation of six, chapter-length case-studies that Darnton calls “Episodes.” Each of these episodes uses a specific primary source as a point of departure for exploring the cultural landscape of Ancien Régime France between 1697 and 1784. The book is considered an example of how scholars can apply an anthropological methodology to existing source material. In this sense, Darnton is most concerned with looking at old documents in new ways—treating them as physical artifacts that serve as windows to foreign cultures, otherwise known as mentalités. As Darnton shows, this task requires a detailed contextual analysis of a given subject, alongside an acute reading of the particular source that has chosen as its representative. In the early 1980s, this process exemplified an emerging historical tradition that was—and indeed still is—known as Cultural History.  For this reason, Cat Massacre (either in whole or just its title chapter) is regularly assigned in both undergraduate and graduate Historiography classes across the country. Over thirty years later, the work is still an exemplar of Cultural History.

The Great Cat Massacre is a straight-forward and tidy book. In format, it is similar to a co-edited volume, though it has only one contributor or author. The book is composed of six chapter-length essays that are bookended by a short introduction and conclusion. Each of the main chapters ranges in length from 22-to-36 pages. They are all centered on a different primary source from the era of prerevolutionary France; and, in most cases, an excerpt of that particular source is appended to the end of its respective chapter. The first chapter is about the Tales of Mother Goose, recorded and published in 1697 by the French author Charles Perrault. Darnton compares several fables from this French collection with their English, Italian, and German counterparts in hopes of isolating an element that is distinctly French in a set of stories that is structurally universal. Darnton concludes that this element—tricksterism—reflects a peasantry that is coping with an unpredictable era of Malthusian misery sans the morals and philosophy of the Enlightenment.[1]

The second chapter of Cat Massacre is both the title chapter and the most famous piece of the larger work. It features an excerpt from a memoir, written by the journeyman Nicolas Contat in 1755, of a ritualized cat massacre that occurred among apprentices in a printing shop on the rue Saint-Séverin in Paris. Darnton argues that a close study of the cat massacre offers historical lessons that extend far beyond its explicit content. Some of these lessons include: the decline of small printing shops; the end of upward mobility in artisanal society; the changing relationships between apprentices, journeymen, masters, and mistresses; the sexual and violent connotations associated with felines; and the multifaceted role that carnivals, charivaris, mock trials, and copies played in eighteenth-century French culture.[2] The third chapter features excerpts from a lengthy manuscript (426 pages) about the city of Montpellier in southern France. It was written in 1768 by an anonymous, middle-class citizen. Darnton shows how the organizational shifts of the manuscript—from a procession of dignitaries, to a set of estates, to a style of living—reveal an attempt by the author to cope with a changing cultural world, one that defied all previous frameworks.[3]

The fourth chapter of Cat Massacre features the extensive investigative files of the inspector of the book trade in France, Joseph d’Hémery, from the years 1748-1753. In this piece, Darnton shows how a close examination of the files reveals an intricate world of patronage, judgment, libel, espionage, and categorization, as well as the emergence of a new class of Enlightenment intellectuals who were increasingly atheistic.[4] Cat Massacre’s fifth chapter revolves around two sources: the Encyclopédie (1751) by the French philosopher Denis Diderot and the Discours Préliminaire (1751) by the French philosopher Jean le Rond d’Alembert. Darnton shows how these taxonomists posed a new way of organizing knowledge that “succeeded in dethroning the ancient queen of the sciences and in elevating philosophy to her place.”[5] The sixth and final chapter features a dossier on the merchant Jean Ranson, from the western city of La Rochelle. This dossier comes from the archives of a Swiss publishing house, known as the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), between the years of 1774 and 1782. Darnton uses this source to show how the writings of certain popular authors, particularly Jean-Jacques Rousseau, influenced the way that a new generation of readers were interpreting the cultural milestones of their lives, such as falling in love, getting married, and bearing children.[6]

Without a doubt, Cat Massacre is one of the most exceptional History books that has ever been written. Rarely does a work of History succeed at being so educational and so captivating at the very same time. In addition, the format of Cat Massacre is such that it can be perused in short sittings, far apart and at the reader’s leisure. Each chapter is an isolated case-study in its own right. Indeed, each of them could have succeeded as stand-alone, journal articles. Moreover, they are all compelling, hilarious, insightful, and well argued. The story of the stepmother who lets out a “salvo of farts” in church perfectly illustrates the realistic tricksterism of the French fables.[7] On another note, Darnton gives us some deep and meaningful takeaways. He argues that “the best points of entry in an attempt to penetrate an alien culture can be those where it seems to be most opaque.”[8] The ritualized cat massacre—considered by its Rabelaisian perpetrators to be “the funniest thing that ever happened in the printing shop”[9]— is the perfect event to illustrate this argument. While the gruesome and burlesque nature of the massacre might offend the sensibilities of modern readers, it makes perfect sense when cast in the light of its underlying historical circumstances.

Darnton is careful to leave his readers with meaningful takeaways at the conclusion of each chapter. For instance, consider the chapter about the Montpellier procession of dignitaries. Darnton states that each dignitary has their own designated placement, musical accompaniment, and color-coded garb. As he concludes, these illustrate a conscious manipulation of an urban society that was based upon a rigid social superstructure, rather than a sense of geography, infrastructure, or history.[10] Similarly, when Darnton juxtaposes the trees of knowledge by Diderot and d’Alembert with their counterparts by Chambers and Bacon, readers can literally observe the deposition of theology on paper.[11] Similarly, the ordering, phrasing, word choice, and rhetoric of the investigative files in chapter four reveals a literary shift away from religion and towards a class of writers that presaged lumières or philosophes, despite the fact that d’Hémery never explicitly used these terms.[12]

All things considered, Darnton succeeds in each of his six chapters with his stated purpose. He contextualizes a primary source within a greater culture, and then reflects that source back upon the culture in a way that is meaningful and compelling. In doing so, Darnton creates an image of French culture in the Old Regime that is non-linear, non-elitist, anthropological, and kaleidoscopic. Like a scrupulous historian, he is careful not to overextend his argument (though, of course, there is room for disagreement in some cases), and he is generally willing to concede his methodological shortcomings, such as when he states that “we cannot [actually] look over the shoulders of eighteenth-century readers and question them as modern psychologists can question a reader today.”[13]

Perhaps the biggest critique of Cat Massacre is not a critique about either Darnton’s research, writing, or argument, but a critique of its advertising and packaging. Despite its prominence in the title and in popular culture, the namesake chapter amounts to less than one-ninth of the entire text (only 29 of 263 pages). Although this title is useful as a shocking and curious hook, it elevates what might be the weakest chapter of the entire collection to the spotlight. For example, while the sixth chapter on Rousseauistic readers draws supplemental evidence from a corpus of very diverse sources—including the Ranson dossier, the book orders, private correspondence between Ranson and Ostervald, interviews with Rousseau, and a massive amount of fan mail regarding the publication of the popular and lurid epistolary novel La Nouvelle Héloïse—the cat massacre is essentially based upon one account of one incident that happened, allegedly, at one printing shop twenty years prior. But perhaps this critique is also a complement. The downplayed chapters of The Great Cat Massacre are simply too strong to be relegated to the status of “other episodes.”


[1] Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic

Books, 1984), 64-65.

[2] Ibid, 75-104.

[3] Ibid, 140.

[4] Ibid, 145-189.

[5] Ibid, 209.

[6] Ibid, 251-252.

[7] Ibid, 71.

[8] Ibid, 78.

[9] Ibid, 75.

[10] Ibid, 116-117.

[11] Ibid, 210-213.

[12] Ibid, 181.

[13] Ibid, 217.