The Great Cat Massacre

The Great Cat Massacre
Author Robert Darnton
Original title The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History
Country United States
Subject Early modern France
Genre Histoire des mentalités, Cultural History
Published 1984
ISBN 0-465-02700-8

The Great Cat Massacre is the title of a scholarly work on the cultural history of France by American historian Robert Darnton. The book, a series of essays, takes its name from its most famous chapter which describes and interprets an unusual source detailing the murder or "massacre" of cats during the late 1730s by apprentice printers living and working on Rue Saint-Séverin in Paris. 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 modern mind – the fact that killing cats might be funny. He has been criticised for this, however, as some people throughout history have doubtless found such cruelty amusing, and even today one could find examples of animal cruelty for fun – such as cockfighting, dog fighting, and bullfighting.

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.

See also


  1. Faculty, Harvard University Department of History, 2015. Accessed 2015-12-10.
  2. Robert Darnton (1985). The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. ISBN 0-394-72927-7.
  3. Mark Levene, Penny Roberts (1999). The Massacre in History. Berghahn Books. ISBN 1-57181-934-7.
  4. Robert Darnton (1989). "The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History".

Further reading

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