The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780465010486
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 05/12/2009
Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor, Emeritus, and University Library, Emeritus, at Harvard University. A MacArthur Fellow, he is the author of the National Book Critics Circle award-winning The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, The Case for Books, and several other books. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsix
1Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose9
2Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Severin75
3A Bourgeois Puts His World in Order: The City as a Text107
4A Police Inspector Sorts His Files: The Anatomy of the Republic of Letters145
5Philosophers Trim the Tree of Knowledge: The Epistemological Strategy of the Encyclopedie191
6Readers Respond to Rousseau: The Fabrication of Romantic Sensitivity215

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The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this to be a charming and well-written book. It is based on a series of short stories that deals and illuminates the France of the late 1700 to modern readers without being pedantic. Darnton manages to write this in a humorous and entertaining way, while including historical data. It has helped me to understand French literature, culture and history. 'The Great Cat Massacre' is about how apprentices weren't treated very well, while the Madam had pampered cats. The apprentices snuck out on the roof and yowled like cats over the master's bedroom. Finally, the master told them to get rid of the cats, while he and his wife were gone. The apprentices killed lots of cats, starting with the wife's favorite. In spite of the grim subject, Darnton uses humor and lively language to explain how the apprentices were often ill-fed, and they had to watch the wife give her cats choice morsels. It also explains the strict guild rules that limited social mobility. Another chapter is the different interpretations of fairy tales by different cultures. We're all familiar with the dark German fairy tales, and I knew some French fairy tales but I wasn't aware of how their meanings had changed through cultural interpretation until I read this book. Darnton explains that the quick wit of the hero is the deciding factor in French fairy tales, while the English use magical intervention. Another chapter is on police reports about authors (trouble makers), booksellers and, even, book buyers, which made most university students suspect. I'm glad that I bought this bookbecause it has helped me to be a better reader and to think outside of the box, while being entertained.
carlym on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Darnton takes six texts from pre-Revolutionary France and uses them to delve into the mentality of the peasant and bourgeois French. The first set of texts is the recorded versions of Mother Goose stories, like Little Red Riding Hood. The stories are far darker than today's versions, and Darnton discusses how the French versions differed from English and German versions. The second text is an apprentice printer's description of a cat massacre carried out by the journeyman printers in his shop. Darnton explains why the printers would have seen this episode as funny (today we obviously see it as horrible). The third text is a description of Montpellier written in the late 18th century by a middle-class citizen of that town. That text shows the class divisions of that time, and how the lines were changing and being blurred. The fourth text is the set of files kept by a police inspector whose job was to keep an eye on writers. Darnton looks at the writers' backgrounds, the patronage system (writers couldn't make a living by just selling books), and how writers were perceived by the state. The fifth text if the "tree of knowledge" in the Encyclopedie. Darnton explains why this arrangement of knowledge was revolutionary. The sixth and final text is a dossier of letters from a successful merchant in La Rochelle to a Swiss publisher. The merchant wrote the publisher seeking a variety of books and was intensely interested in Rousseau, both his works and his personal life. Darnton discusses how people read in the late 18th century--how they related to books.Darnton tells the reader what he sees in these texts and also explains how he analyzes them, which is a little peek behind the scenes. On the whole, the book was extremely interesting. The style is approachable and does not require significant background knowledge. Some of the sections were more interesting than others. The section on the Mother Goose tales was the most interesting to me, both for the comparative analysis of folktales in several countries and for the look at how peasants lived at that time. The section about the police inspector was interesting in part because the idea that a country would have someone devoted to following the lives and works of authors is so foreign. The last section, on the nature of reading, was also interesting because I had not thought before about whether readers' relationship with books (other than obvious matters like accessibility) has changed over time. While a few parts were a little slow for me, this book was quite enjoyable and has given me a lot to think about.
ex_ottoyuhr on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An analysis of French culture in the 18th century, with embarrassingly funny introductory stories about subjects like massacring cats. Basically, you know from the title whether you'll like this book and find it interesting; I'm one of those who did.
AlexTheHunn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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When I first picked up this book I was a little skeptical about reading it. I mean I have two cats at home. So I decided to read this book and it was very interesting. This book goes into the details of many intriguing from the great cat massacre to the true origins of some of the most famous fairy tales. One thing that kept me into this book is the reasoning behind everything. When i first started to read this book I was so interested in way all of these things happened like why would anyone just hang and torture a cat. Robert Darnton does a great job in explaining these weird occurrences. I believe that Roberts main goal of writing this book or more of a collections of essays was to inform of all the weird stuff that went on in France. Darnton did an amazing job on getting this across. Sure Ive heard of the witch trials and heard that some fairy tales had other meanings but that is it. Robert did such an amazing job informing on this topic that i was basically brand new too. I honestly do recommend this book to anyone who is curious on how these weird things happen or is just interested in learning new things. I loved this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book, while often entertaining, isn¿t written to please the masses. It develops ideas in an almost ridiculously slow fashion. However, the knowledge that one can gain from this author is amazing. The fairy tales give a previously unknown insight into the thoughts of French peasants, the Cat massacre itself plays out the peasant¿s relationship with the bourgeois, and explanations of Rousseau provide a caricature of the 18th century French intellectual. This may sound trivial nevertheless, the mentalities explained build the framework for one of the most influential historical events of all time: the French Revolution. Understanding the ¿why¿ of these events, while often impossible, can only be achieved through the thorough analysis of the way people thought. Darnton does this more than adequately.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This has to be the worst book that I have ever read. It presents topics that we could care less about, goes into depth on them (75 pages on French fairy tales? who cares?),and then takes sidetracks on random topics that are as equally boring as the point the author is trying to make. The book has no flow to it whatsoever it jumps around touching on multiple points but never really enlightens the reader about what the author is trying to say. If you even think about picking up this book, just don't. Save yourself the time, money, and from the mental boredom that this book will impose on you.