The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History available in Paperback
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 Robert Darnton answers in this classic work of European history in what we like to call “The Age of Enlightenment.”
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the Harvard University Library. A MacArthur Fellow, he is the author of the National Book Critics Circle award-winning The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Table of Contents
|List of Illustrations||ix|
|1||Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose||9|
|2||Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Severin||75|
|3||A Bourgeois Puts His World in Order: The City as a Text||107|
|4||A Police Inspector Sorts His Files: The Anatomy of the Republic of Letters||145|
|5||Philosophers Trim the Tree of Knowledge: The Epistemological Strategy of the Encyclopedie||191|
|6||Readers Respond to Rousseau: The Fabrication of Romantic Sensitivity||215|
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Most history of the early modern period written more than a generation ago was what Robert Darnton identifies as "top-down" history: it is the history of royalty, nobles, and the intellectual elites whose ideas largely defined the times. But this contribution, along with Natalie Zemon Davis' "The Return of Martin Guerre" and Carlo Ginzburg's "The Cheese and the Worms," is essential in introducing a more egalitarian, social, "bottom-up" history that emphasizes regular people. The book contains five chapters loosely interwoven around an attempt to carve out this special niche in historiography.The opening chapter, "Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose" gives a close historical reading to many of the fairy tales that we remember reading with innocent delight as children. Darnton scours the interpretations of Bettelheim and Fromm, dismissing them for not paying enough attention to the historical circumstances of their construction and their telling. Little did they even realize that their readings, based on the Grimm's compilation instead of Perrault's, were bowdlerized of most of the blood, violence, and scatological humor that existed in the originals, probably because of the reading demands of a growing European moralistic bourgeois. Why are some of these seventeenth and eighteenth-century fairy tales so gory? His answer is, quite simply, that our shock is just a function of how much times have changed. These were times in which children (this is before the birth of childhood as we know it) were subjected to backbreaking dawn-to-dusk labor (reminiscent of Rumpelstiltskin); in which peasants, unable to feed another child, were forced to abandon newborns (Hansel and Gretel); and, in a peculiar demography in which one of every five Norman men re-wed after the death of his first wife, stories of stepmothers abounded (Cinderella). Once familiar with these details, the innocence we thought we knew is quickly upset. These stories were the work of imagination and whim, but Darnton does a superb job of detailing the degree to which they were very social products of social history as it was happening "on the ground."The eponymous chapter details many aspects of the growing print culture in the Ancien Regime. Master printmakers would hire journeymen to come into their shop and learn their craft. But one day in a Paris shop, these journeymen slaughtered hundreds of cats, much to their amusement, and repeated the episode in mock trials no less than a dozen different times over the next few months. As in the chapter on fairy tales, why we no longer see this as humorous, and indeed see it as barbaric, tells us just how much, as Darnton says, the "ontological position" of the cat has changed. The journeymen were upset that younger, much less experienced workers were being brought in to perform their work for almost nothing while the masters would retire to their personal rooms and lounge, eat, sleep, and take care of their cats. In a sort of Rabelasian logic of social carnival, the journeymen saw the murder of the cats as retribution meted out for the wrongs perpetrated against them.The book has three other chapters: one on a police inspector who keeps a personal file on French intellectuals, ensuring that their thinking never becomes too freewheeling, another with one man's, and largely one culture's, growing obsession with the work of Rousseau (why was "La Nouvelle Heloise" such a big seller, anyway?), and the somewhat less interesting "A Bourgeois Puts His World In Order: The City As Text." Each of these renders very important and insightful ideas for those readers who are as interested in the caprices of history-telling and historiography as they are the events of history themselves.
Honestly, as a scholar and a University instructor, I used to believe that academic "disciplines" had become way too rigid. After reading this book, I now believe that scholars should not start blurring the disciplinary lines until they fully understand what has already been done in disciplines other than their own. This book is not bad academic work--in fact it's quite interesting--but it's clearly a history scholar trying to put together a Rubik's Cube from the fields of sociology, anthropology and literary studies--and working it right there in the public press. It's earnest, hard-working scholarship, but I still kind of feel bad for him.....