1) The Darnton Debate


The Great Cat Massacre

The Great Cat Massacre took place in the mid-1730s. Some printing apprentices from the Latin Quarter/5th arrondissement were upset with their master and mistress who fed them food scraps but would feed their pet cat much better food. The cats were treated much better than the printing apprentices were. The cats in the neighbourhood also howled late at night not letting the apprentices sleep. They asked the master to do something about it but he never did.

One night, one of them went above the master's window and started howling like a cat all night. In the morning, the master finally gave them permission to kill the cats, but they must leave La Grise, the mistress' cat, alone.

So, the printing apprentices went about killing the neighbourhood cats, but they started with La Grise. They supposedly killed them in numerous ways, like hanging them after having dressed them up in outfits etc.

This Great Cat Massacre was hilarious to the printing apprentices who told the story again and again, embellishing it each time. The story is not funny to us, but to understand it, Robert Darnton stated we have to understand it from their point of view.

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Darnton's 'The Great Cat Massacre' (1984)

Robert Darnton wrote his book, The Great Cat Massacre in 1984. Before this, the event seemed relatively unimportant, and is still to many historians. But, Darnton believed it related to the Enlightenment and could offer an insight into this. But, his book provoked a critical debate over how history should be studied.

It is very difficult to get the authentic voice of the working classes during this period as most couldn't write. But, printing apprentices had to be able to write allowing their story to be recorded in history. During this period in Paris it was very difficult to rise through the classes in society which created a tension and class rivalry that ultimately led to the French Revolution.

The hilarity of the story to the printing apprentices comes from the symbolism of the cats. Cats embodied witchcraft, Charivari (world upside down), and sex specifically of females. Killing the mistress' favourite cat was a symbolic r ape of her, calling her adulterous while also calling her a witch. Cats also represented the luxury of the upper classes who started using cats as status symbols so this was a further attack on the upper classes.

Darnton believed this event connected to the origins of the French Revolution.

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The Annales School and the History of Mentalities

The Annales School and Darnton believed that to study history effectively, it was important to think in the way of those being studied, otherwise it is hard to reach a true understanding. This is perhaps why the Great Cat Massacre had been ignored before Darnton.

But, there is heated debate concerning Darnton and his views. Many, like Harold Mah, believe Darnton is reading too much into the symbols of the cats suggesting that they perhaps didn't mean all he says they did to the apprentices. The account of the massacre was also written 10 years after the event and so will have likely been embellished over that period to make it look like something other than a mindless slaughter of cats.

But, no matter what is believed today, the symbolism of the cats would have certainly meant more to the apprentices that to the master and mistress. The master couldn't do anything about the massacre as it hadn't been a direct attack on the mistress, but he would have understood the symbolism to some extent.

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