The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History. First Edition. Robert Darnton. New York: Basic Books, 1999 XIII + 298.
The Great Cat Massacre with out a doubt has one of the most unusual titles ever created especially for a book about history. Now this unusual title perhaps fits this book better than any other straight – forward title Mr. Darnton could have conjured. You see the text contained in the book isn’t just your standardized, boring, and redundant view of history. Most historical text looks at history from a political standpoint, of which king did what and what were the political effects of a war; then what were the politics like after the war, how were they changed and by which major political figures did the changing. Darnton instead of the old style of viewing history looks at it through the eyes of the people, and not the figures of history. Mr. Darnton’s book The Great Cat Massacre, reexamines French culture during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteen century with the eyes of the peasant’s. Robert Darnton looks at the writings of the peasant’s, and traces them to their origins and compares them to other text of similar origins and text, to create credible accounts or views of particular topics of the people during the era. In this review your going to see a summarization of the book, describing the various subjects of this book. After that I will comment on Mr. Darnton’s on some topics like his organization, writing style, and fairness to his subject material, then discuss the historical importance of the topics that Robert Darnton mentions in his book and give you my personal opinion of the book its self. Next I will discuss with you a battery of topics like why I choose the book, is the book controversial, what was the authors purpose for writing the book, what were some of the major theses, who or what Darnton’s sources were? Lastly I will end this review with a compare and contrast of potentially different views of what Robert Darnton is telling us in his book.
Robert Darnton starts The Great Cat Massacre with a rather repulsive version of Little Red Riding Hood. Red Riding Hood unknowingly eats her grandmother and drinks her blood, to be stripped naked and then eaten by the wolf. Now this is one of the earliest versions of this story ever found in fact Little Red doesn’t even have a name she’s just the “little girl”. (Darnton Pg. 9) Darnton later explains that this version was the first recorded from oral tradition passed from generation to generation. Darnton uses the text to shatter the previous conceptions of this story. Next Darnton goes to explain the standard mode of processing the text, which would be to hire some psychoanalysts to break down the hidden meaning and intentions of the story’s creator and or creators. In the case of Little Red Riding Hood they did just that two of the best known psychoanalysts, Erich Fromm and Bruno Bettelheim. The two psychoanalysts decipher the children’s tale stating that the story concerns an adolescent’s confrontation with adult sexuality and that the red hood as a symbol of menstruation and the bottle of milk a sign of virginity. Darnton goes on to later explain that this is not an accurate depiction of peasants concerns, but more so of the middle to upper class. Fromm and Bettelheim, according to Darnton never mentions their source, but Darnton would later state that it was derived from the Brothers Grimm tales.
In the following chapter we find out where the book’s title comes from an actual historical event called “The Great Cat Massacre”. In the chapter Darnton examines the gruesome yet comical account of some apprentices and journeymen working in the printing shop of Jacques Vincent. (Darnton Pg. 75) Told from the accounts of Nicolas Contat and other collaborating sources to explain the thought process behind their actions of that day. The event itself was a massive killing of cats in a sense to pay back for the frustrations the workers had towards the shops master printer Jacques Vincent and his wife. The event how ever wasn’t Darnton’s main point for the chapter it was the thought process of Nicholas and his friend Jerome. Darnton would explain just this through the remainder of the chapter. “It strikes the modern reader as unfunny Where is the humor in a group of grown men bleating like goats while an adolescent reenacts the ritual slaughter of a defenseless animal? Our own inability to get the joke is an indication of the distance that separates us from the workers of preindustrial Europe.” (Darnton Pg. 78)
The third and forth chapters continue to look at French classes and cultures. In chapter three you jump into the world of the Bourgeois in Montepellier. Darnton describes with the aid of Joseph Berthele, every nuance of the Bourgeois in Montpellier. “The Bourgeois is the modes of production, a certain variety of Economic Man with his own way of life and his own ideology.” (Darnton Pg. 110) The fourth chapter instead of looking at another economic class Darnton examines the Intellectuals of French Culture enlisting the aid of a policeman, Joseph d’Hemery “an inspector of the book trade”. (Darnton Pg. 145) Joseph you might say was a little obsessed often in addition to inspecting the books that came through he would also investigate the writer. The Officer built up a rather large census of the literary population in Paris, every one “from the most famous Philosophes to the most obscure hacks.” (Darnton Pg. 145) Darnton in this chapter talks about a lot of published literary people, from “Le Dieux” (Darnton Pg. 161) to “D’Hermery” (Darnton Pg. 159)
The fifth and sixth chapters of the book move away from people and classes and more towards education of sorts. Chapter five looks at the creation of the encyclopedia, or Encyclopedie the creation of Diderot. Darnton looks at is creation from categorization of plants and animal to the “traditional orthodoxies, it contains thousands of words about grinding grain, manufacturing pins, and declining verbs.” (Darnton Pg. 191) Darnton’s main topic of this particular dealt with why a jumble of words could bring up such a conflict and what set it apart from other “learned compendia” that came before it. The final chapter in the book deals with reading. To be a little more specific the emotions that went behind the task. One way Darnton examines the views of the French literature is by examining the life of Jean Ranson. Ranson was an upper middle class man with high standings in the community. What Darnton looks at are some of his selections of reading tracked down threw private orders through publishers and the archives of Societe Typograpique de Neuchatel (STN) and the record they provided to keep and accurate record of his reading tastes.
At this point of the essay I’m going to add some comments and criticisms I have about Mr. Darnton’s book The Great Cat Massacre. On the whole I did enjoy reading this book, it’s simply not your standard history book. Organizationally Mr. Darnton has laid out this book rather loosely often jumping right to work explaining the background info for the chapter some times giving a faint hint of a minor thesis. “A police officer in Paris was sifting and filing information on another species of urban animal: the intellectual.” (Darnton Pg. 145) Despite the looseness of the book Darnton’s great sense of word play keeps you reading it’s more like reading a collection of stories instead of stagnant old recounts of historical events, “He never passed up an opportunity to criticize the nobles’ tax exemptions, meager as they were in a province where the main tax (la taille) fell on land irrespective of the proprietor’s status;”. (Darnton Pg. 129) Although much of the book reads very well I have one criticism to make on the book The Great Cat Massacre and that is “wordy” now it’s not necessarily a bad thing but it would slowdown the flow in which a person might read. Some great examples can even be taken from the same page, with words like “embourgeoisement”, “furthermore”, and “propounded”; (Darnton Pg. 130) Darnton seems to have a way with ten – plus – letter words. There were times I would need to pull out and dust off a dictionary and find the meanings to a couple of those words.
I feel that Mr. Darnton is extremely fair to his subject, I think maybe Roger Darnton loves subject you would have to in order to research the topics that Darnton choose for his book. In order to find all the possible resources you could tracing them to their origins like Darnton did with the first chapter tracing all those fairy tales in the first chapter back to there earliest recorded version, weeding out fakes, and comparing them to other tales of similar subject material. All of that work you would have to be fair to your subject; you’d probably completely dedicated and or obsessed with your subject.
Darnton didn’t use an incredible amount of aids in his book. No charts, graphs, and or maps, but he did use pictures. Darnton actually used quite a few of them, seventeen of them all together. Pictures of everything from Puss n Boots to The tomb of Rousseau. The photo on page seventy-four is with out a doubt is one of the worst in the book, but matches the title of the book. In the picture you see just what might of occurred during the great cat massacre, people maiming and torturing cats.
Contained in this book is a conglomeration of peoples and events. It all starts with a rather bloody event in history called The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Severin, which started in the printing shop of Jacques Vincent, and is told by an apprentice of his Nicolas Contat. Other events described in the book are things like Montpellier on parade, which was a giant parade through the town of Montpellier. We also here about Joseph d’Hemery a police officer in eighteenth-century France whom made it his job to track the rise of what would later bee called intellectuals. Darnton wrote about Diderot and Johann Zelder the men who wrote the first encyclopedias.
This book has given me a tremendous understanding of a class which has mostly been over looked the middle and lower class of eighteenth-century French society. In chapter three Darnton examines the Bourgeois a social class mostly over looked in my history classes. I’ve heard of the Bourgeois since I was a freshman in high school, but really never had a face to put with a name. In most of my classes the word Bourgeois meant simply the middle social class and a percentage of the French population.
The importance of the topics discussed in this book may not be of the greatest importance to the history of Western Civilization; otherwise the peasant class along with the Bourgeois would have larger roles in our history classes. To me they are of importance just because it another piece of a very big puzzle, another point of view, and it all adds to the general perception that we have of the French Culture during the eighteenth-century. My general opinion of the book is very high. Robert Darnton took pieces of French history and its society; like the Journeymen, Bourgeois, and the Intellectuals and put them into the spotlight and given them there fifteen minutes of fame. Adding to all of that I thought it was written very well, most books especially History and English books put me to sleep like nothing of else can. Mr. Darnton on the other hand has great writing ability and The Great Cat Massacre reads more like a novel then a stiff history book.
The reason I selected this particular book is probably two reasons. One is the title The Great Cat Massacre, it without a doubt stood out on the shelf of the bookstore. The second reason I selected the book was the description on the back of the book, “So begins Robert Darnton’s exploration of the violent rituals practiced by artisans in mid- eighteenth century France”. Mr. Robert Darnton doesn’t have a whole lot written of him biographically yet, but what I do know is that he’s the Professor of History at Princeton University, Mac Arthur Prize fellow, and that his book The Literary Underground of the Old Regime received a nomination for an American Book Award in 1983. Robert Darnton has written a good number of books dealing with French culture, like What Was Revolutionary About the French Revolution, The Corpus of Clandestine Literature in France, and The Kiss of Lamourette.
Mr. Darntons purpose for writing this book is the same reason why I liked this book it sheds some light on French culture which was often over looked. Darnton thought that if you can discover the answers to questions about other civilizations why not apply it to eighteenth century France. “Claude Levi-Strauss applied that question to the totems and tattoos of Amazonia Why not try it out on eighteenth century France?” (Darnton Pg. 4) Another purpose I think Darnton has is to disprove people who said, “a archive is no substitute for fieldwork.” (Darnton Pg. 4) Darnton’s main thesis was more or less the same, to disprove the “Skeptics” stating “that you can always put new questions to old material.” (Darnton Pg. 4) That’s just what he did, in thesis of this book. The main thesis would have to be “This book investigates ways of thinking in eighteenth century France 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.” (Darnton Pg. 3) In the first chapter Peasants Tell Tales Darnton says in a thesis that last for a whole paragraph asks, “it maybe impossible to locate the common man consider a story – a story everyone knows, though not in the following version, which is the tail more of less as it was told around firesides” (Darnton Pg. 9) In Darnton’s wordy way what he is saying is he is going to take tales we all know and trace them back to their oral traditions if possible and start asking questions to locate the common man and his culture. The rest of the book’s chapters lack any real theses. The other chapters just follow the same thesis of asking new questions to old material. In chapter two Darnton examines the journal of a Journeyman and other accounts of the “The Great Cat Massacre”, chapter three applies the same thesis to a book called Descriptions about the Bourgeois.
This book in general is rather controversial, asking questions and looking in to places of history most historian stick up their noise; Darnton dives right in. “Instead of following the high road of intellectual history, the inquiry leads into unmapped territory.” (Darnton Pg. 3) Darnton’s uses thousand of sources in this book; each chapter utilizes several primary sources such as Le Conte Populaire Francais by Marie Teneze, The Singer of Tales by Albert B. Lord, and the Encyclopedie by John Lough. Darnton’s use of so many sources makes it extremely hard to find any mainly used sources. Darnton seem to spread out sources, each chapter having there own list of sources. In chapter one Darnton did used Le Conte Populaire Francais by Teneze and Complete Grimms’ by Hunt and Stern quite often.
To give you a perspective on different interpretations of the French Culture I’m going to contrast the views of Darnton with those of Roger Chartier’s who is another Professor of History doing substantial work in the fields of early modern French politics, the French Revolution, and early modern society. (Dewald) Finding anything close to compare or contrast the topics discussed by Darnton in The Great Cat Massacre have proven to be rather difficult. After searching the library I found something from a man named Jonathan Dewald and his analysis of Mr. Roger Chartier and all his major published works. The reason I choose this is Dewald directly states ideas Chartier had about French culture almost directly contrasting some of Darnton’s views in the The Great Cat Massacre.
Chartier had a couple problems with Darton’s work mainly routed in the ideas Darnton used in his books. Chartier thought that in that using “large categories of national culture and stretching the concept across diverse periods and social group” (Dewald) Chartier didn’t see the how you take such a broad topic like French Culture and examine the “Idea of popular culture” (Dewald) Where Darnton uses the idea of popular culture in the last chapter of The Great Cat Massacre to give us an idea of the particular ideas and tastes French culture. “over a period of eleven years – provide enough information for one to form a general idea” (Darnton Pg. 218) Chartier stressed problems with the idea of “the unwarranted assumptions about the boundedness cultural groups; that the rich and poor read the same text” (Dewald) Chartier once again contrast Darntons views about the idea of popular culture. Chartier stresses the idea that “Periods and social groups shape their views of the world according to dominant structures of thinking” and “turns to the close study of individual texts, writers and situations” (Dewald) So what Chartier is trying to establish is that it’s better to dive more into the idea of popular culture examining other sources to gain an the insight of a smaller demographic than that of Darnton’s “Idea of Popular Culture”
In conclusion of this review lengthy of The Great Cat Massacre; I’ve given a rather lengthy insight into the book, Mr. Darnton’s motivation for writing the book, and a different view of the The Great Cat Massacre with the aid of Roger Chartier. In retrospect I enjoyed reading this book very much, however I do not feel that it was the best book for this review. The book itself was looking at history in a different way and it made it extremely difficult to compare or contrast it with another source. Mr. Darnton whose views in my opinion are sound it’s just that are very narrow questions about a very large subject “French Culture” and it was hard to locate different opinions.
Darnton, Robert. The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History. First Edition. New York: Basic Books, 1999
Dewald, Jonathan. Roger Chartier and the fate of cultural history. French Historical Studies, Baton Rouge, Spring 1998