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The Great Cat Massacre and Other Essays [Paperback]

Robert Darnton
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1 Oct 1998
When the apprentices of a Paris printing shop in the 1730's 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 18th 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 attempts to answer in this dazzling series of essays that probe the ways of thought in what we like to call "The Age of Enlightenment."

Product details

  • Paperback: 298 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books; 1st Vintage Books Ed edition (1 Oct 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0394729277
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394729275
  • Product Dimensions: 20.3 x 13.2 x 1.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 893,984 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"* 'A brilliant work of popular history' - NEWSWEEK * 'Authoritative... elegant and searching' - DAILY TELEGRAPH * 'A rich and splendid book' - Marghanita Laski" --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
THE MENTAL WORLD of the unenlightened during the Enlightenment seems to be irretrievably lost. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cultural history as it should be 6 Jan 2010
By reader 451 TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Darnton's The Great Cat Massacre, though it's not entirely new (first published: 1985), surely represents a landmark in cultural history. It isn't just that it is hugely entertaining. Its approach is fascinatingly different. Darnton focuses on the narrowly particular, or appears to do so, and yet draws parallels of the widest breadth. The Great Cat Massacre consists of the analysis of six cultural artefacts, all from eighteenth-century France, layered by social group of origin and level of sophistication. Thus the book starts with peasants' Mother Goose rhymes, goes on to urban workers (the cat massacre), and to the philosophers' encyclopaedia, via a captivating chapter based on police reports.

What makes Darnton's book unique is that it doesn't start with, or even much deal in, concepts. This is controversial: historians have criticised Darnton, though for his work on `grub street' (the Paris pamphleteers) more than for the Cat Massacre. But his approach avoids preconceptions and anachronisms. It also makes its object spring from the page. Ancien régime France appears in its full foreignness, an odd and alien world that seems the blinding proof that the past indeed is a different country. No one can think about Louis XVI's reign or the French Revolution in the same way after having read the Cat Massacre: it simply happened to different people than one had originally thought. Beyond this, Darton's book serves as both inspiration and warning to anyone interested in history. A warning because it is a reminder one can't assign modern mentalities to actors buried deep in the historical past. An inspiration because there must be so much more for historians to work on along similar lines in various periods.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars the strange mentality of 18th century French 3 Oct 2000
By A Customer
I was given this book as part of an assignment in my history class as an introduction to semiotic history. Robert Daunton aims to unleash the mystery surrounding the mentalities of the French during the Enlightenment period. Throughout the chapters he builds his case but has invited the reader to decide if he has succeeded in his investigations and evidence. The folk tales of the peasant villagers, the bizarre massacre of cats in a printing shop are samples of his ideas. His theory is that if one cannot understand a joke from the past that this is the place to start to unravel the lost meaning behind it. It was a fascinating read and I am sure that I will benefit from his "enlightenment" into this obscure period in times past.
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  19 reviews
77 of 84 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing book 30 Aug 2000
By Jay Stevens - Published on Amazon.com
Darnton's book is a series of essays on the life of the common folk in Enlightenment France. Its topics are superb, ranging from fairy tales to cat massacres. Darnton is thorough in his approach and writes well, keeping his audience entertained.
As a result of the book's essays and the conclusions we make about their participants, we realize that 18th century Frenchmen were vastly different from their contemporary progeny, yet also remarkably human. It's the kind of work that leaves Goosebumps as the author's arguments stack neatly into place, and a formerly incomprehensible event suddenly becomes clear.
The book does have an identity problem. It's caught between academia and pop nonfiction. Some chapters are fascinating-especially the chapter which shares the book's title, "The Great Cat Massacre"-others are tedious in that academic way, citing works, exhausting every possible angle, and so on.
I first read this book in a high school history class, and then recently reread it-over ten years later. In the atmosphere of a class, it was a witty, exciting alternative to standard texts, and thrilled us by revealing how the study of history can give insight into human nature. Outside class, however, I skipped over passages, skimmed conclusions, and failed to give it the same attention I had in class.
47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the most interesting books I ever read 30 April 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
I read this book many years ago, and still remember it as one of the best, most interesting books I ever read. Based on the premise that all the books that state that the Enlightnment mind (pre French Revolution)was very similar to ours are wrong, this book sets out to prove, through glimpses of each class, (monarchy, peasant, the growing craftsman class, etc.) that there was a huge difference in the way they thought, and through that manner of thought, lived their lives. VERY worth reading.
45 of 48 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Broad ranging, entertaining, with an interesting method of discovery 6 May 2006
By C. B Collins Jr. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Whereas I enjoyed most of this book, I found it somewhat uneven with some chapters written in a far more academic manner than others.

In the first chapter, Darnton explores the folk tale with the argument that a full exploration of such tales gives insight into the social construction of reality and thought in previous generations and eras and we can thus explore better the vast differences between modern thought and thought from the Middle Ages. Darnton ridicules the psychoanalytic interpretations of folk tales offered by Bettelheim and Fromm. However he just glosses over the archtypal interpretations of Jung or the structural interpretations of Levi-Strauss. After pages and pages of half told folk tales he concludes that folk tales conveyed conventional wisdom to common folk in a time of great economic and social uncertainty. Life was fragile and this was reflected in these odd tales. Of course some tales have as the moral that we should be kind to strangers and other folk tales have as the moral that we should be careful around strangers, but what the heck, Darnton thinks there are lessons to be learned from them all. He observes that common sense varies from culture to culture and is basically a social construct. I am not sure if I totally agree with him. I would think in all cultures it is best not to argue with a drunk man who holds a gun. However, for some phenomena, Darnton may be correct, common sense differs from culture to culture and era to era. He does point out an observation from study of folk tales across Europe. He finds that Italian and French folk tales are more playful, full of trickstes who jest and humble the powerful; whereas German folk tales are more dark and more often violent. We are immediately struck by the weakness of Darnton's work, which is the issue of sampling. Does he select a random sample of such tales, or all tales, or just the ones he wishes to discuss? I found his arguement that for many peasants who toiled continually in the fields, that history was not conceived as a series of political events to which they were not privy. This is an interesting thought but I suspect that common villagers made up for this with a sense of seasonal history based on planting, harvesting, and storing crops; religious history based on multiple Saint days and other Christian holidays throughout the year; and personal history as one experiences births, marriages, childhoods, deaths in families and friends. Another interesting item from Darnton is that when someone is given a wish in a folk tale, they ask for food. He relates this to the lack of food during much of Europe's history. On this point, I think he wins.

The second chapter is an analysis of a printer's journal where he relates a story from his youth where he and other workers beat to death neighborhood cats. Darnton first puts this story in a context of general cruelty to animals, especially cats. However he then gives it a particular interpretation of social protest by young worker men against the rich employers, many of whom owned cats. He documents well the deterioration of the old guild system and the effect this had on the lowest level workers. Whereas I found his analysis of the killing of the cats to be somewhat of an economic statement during class-warfare, I wish Darnton had commented more on the sadistic cruelty of human beings, particularly males between 13-19.

The third chapter was one of my favorites, though far less dramatic than the first and second chapters. Darnton analyzes a description of a town procession written by an upper-middle class middle-ages male observer who put social annotations throughout the description. The desire of the middle class to emulate the upper class and find many social distinctions between themselves and the the lower classes is perfectly displayed here in this interesting case study.

The fourth chapter also analyzes the work of a single man, however this time it is the extensive files of a spy who maintained records on the intelligensia during the Enlightenment. One reason this chapter is interesting is that writters we now consider to be primary thinkers of the Enlightenment were suspects to this well organized and thoughtful policeman for the social order.

The fifth chapter is the most academic but is very interesting. We learn about the tree of knowledge that Diderot used to construct his theory of human knowledge for the Encyclopedia. We get a delightful story from Borges about categorization which sets the tone of the chapter. We see how the assumptions and work of Descartes, Locke, and Bacon greatly influenced the taxonomy of human knowledge and expereince which created the structure for the Enlightenment thought as well as the structure for this major publication.

The sixth chapter got tiresome as we read about Rousseau and one of his devoted reading fans.

Overall a good book with some unique and thoughtful observations and generalizations. I liked his method,using texts to gain insight into the consciousness of another time and place.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Other people are other 17 Jun 2006
By Mary E. Sibley - Published on Amazon.com
Little Red Riding, of the Brothers Grimm, is really French, 17th century. The Huguenots brought folk tales to Germany when fleeing the prosecution of Louis XIV. Folk tales are historical documents. They have evolved over many centuries. There was a golden age of folklore research in France between the years of 1870 and 1914. Folklore is a nineteenth century neologism. Oral traditions have enormous staying power. Continuities in form and style outweigh variation of details.

Village life, being a peasant, was a struggle in early modern France. Marriages lasted an average of fifteen years, terminated by death. The peasants lived in a world of stepmothers and orphans. The tales present a Malthusian picture. In the 1690's plague and famine decimated northern France when Perrault wrote 'Tom Thumb'. Wishing takes one form, the wishing for food. Meat is an extravagance. Fulfillment of the wish takes place in the everyday world. It is not an escape fantasy, but survival. In the tales daughters must be married off and sons may explore life on the road. There may be no land, no food, no work. There was danger on the road. English tales tend to be whimsical, French tales bawdy, realistic, comical, German tales supernatural, violent. French folk tales told the peasants how the world was put together and how to cope with it. In France, despite the distinction of social rank, there was a common stock of tales.

The apprentice printers, who staged a cat massacre, delighted in performing the affair again and again--copies. Masters loved cats and, therefore, apprentices hated them. In the second half of the seventeenth century there was an oligarchy of printing masters. It was difficult for journeymen to rise to the rank of masters. The wail of a cat could mean witchcraft, cuckoldry. Killing the mistress's cat was a metonymic insult. The cat massacre was put into writing by Nicholas Contat. In the massacre one of the apprentices imitated a cat.

A description of a French city, Montpellier, was written in 1768. The anonymous writer had an obsession with completeness. A sense of place is fundamental to our sense of orientation in life. The bourgeois was the owner of the modes of production and acquired class-consciousness. Except in Lille and a few other areas, a self-conscious industrializing class was absent prior to the Revolution. Thinkers belonged to the traditional elite. Montpellier was an administrative center. It had a commercial oligarchy. It was underdeveloped and wealthy people dominated the social and cultural life. It had a music academy and there was interest shown in science and technology. There were cabinets containing private natural history collections and private libraries. The ideal of the honest man had, in 1768, a bourgeois coloring.

The author relates that a police officer in Paris, Joseph d'Hemery, inpected the book trade and the men who wrote books. In five years, 1748-1753, he wrote five hundred reports. Clergymen constituted twelve percent of the authors. Seventy percent came from the third estate. Ten percent were doctors or lawyers. Thirty six percent were journalists, tutors, librarians, secretaries. Many careers went from the garret to the gutter. Everyone in the files was seeking or dispensing protection. The police did not question influence peddling. Police agents picked up sedition talk. Diderot was singled out for atheism.

Rousseau described reading and experienced it. He saw literature as an element of a power system. Rousseau initiated a new conception of an author--Prometheus. LA NOUVELLE HELOISE was probably the best seller of the century. Readers believed that Jean-Jacques had made them see deeper into the meaning of their lives. In thinking of how people read five centuries ago, it may be important to keep in mind the distinction between extensive reading and intensive reading. Rousseau taught readers to digest books and literature became absorbed in life.

The notes at the back of the book are interesting and varied.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great for getting into the minds of the common folk 21 Mar 2006
By Lee Webb - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
One other reviewer used the term "between academia and pop nonfiction". I suppose accurate pop non fiction was what I was looking for as I was trying to get an overview of the mind set or zeitgeist of prerevolutionary France. It was a little narrower in it's scope than I expected but in hind sight accomplished it's goal in giving me a feeling for that period which in turn helps putting the revolution in context.

For me this book complimented "Holy Madness : Romantics, Patriots, and Revolutionaries, 1776-1871"by Adam Zamoyski

I would recommend the book for those interested in folk stories and fairy tales. I enjoyed the comparisons of the same themes expressed the folk literature of Germany, England, Italy etc.
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