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.