The Great Cat Massacre

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The Great Cat Massacre
The Great Cat Massacre.jpg
AuthorRobert Darnton
Original titleThe Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History
CountryUnited States
SubjectEarly modern France
GenreHistoire des mentalités, Cultural History

The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History is an influential collection of essays on French cultural history by the American historian Robert Darnton, first published in 1984. The book's title is derived from its most famous chapter which describes and interprets an unusual source detailing the "massacre" of cats by apprentice printers living and working on Rue Saint-Séverin in Paris during the late 1730s. Other chapters look at fairy tales, the writing of the Encyclopédie and other aspects of French early modern history.


Darnton, influenced by his colleague, anthropologist Clifford Geertz, aimed to gain greater insight into the period and social groups involved by studying what he perceived to be something which appeared alien to the late modern mind – the fact that killing cats might be funny.

The book containing this account, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, has become one of Darnton's most popular writings; it has been published in eighteen languages.[1]

Darnton describes how, as the apprentices suffered hard conditions, they came to resent the favours which their masters gave to their cats, and contrived to deal with the nuisance cats by slaughtering them so as to distress their masters. Darnton interprets this as an early form of workers' protest.[2][3] (As may the wife in the story, who says she believes that "they were threatened by a more serious kind of insubordination" beyond the simple stoppage of work.)[4]

The cats were a favourite of the printer's wife and were fed much better than the apprentices, who were in turn served 'catfood' (rotting meat scraps). Aside from this, they were mistreated, beaten and exposed to cold and horrible weather. One of the apprentices imitated a cat by screaming like one for several nights, making the printer and his wife despair. Finally, the printer ordered the cats rounded up and dispatched. The apprentices did this, rounded up all the cats they could find, beat them half to death and held a 'trial'. They found the cats guilty of witchcraft and sentenced them to death by hanging.

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