by Robert Darnton

Author: Robert Darnton
Publisher: PENGUIN BOOKS LTD; New Ed edition (June 28, 2001)
Language: English
Pages: 320
ePub: 1801 kb
Fb2: 1801 kb
Rating: 4.1
Other formats: doc txt mobi azw
Category: History
Subcategory: Europe

THE GREAT CAT MASSACRE is a study of the French mentality some two and a half centuries ag. I preferred the chapters on fairy tales, writers and the cat massacre, with the chapter on Rousseau coming in fourth.

THE GREAT CAT MASSACRE is a study of the French mentality some two and a half centuries ago. The ‘method’ is to take documents/events that make little sense to us (why would individuals massacre cats?) and then burrow into the subject, contextualize the events and, in the process, acquire a greater understanding of how the French mind worked (then). The bourgeois’ city was of less interest and the tree of knowledge chapter is hard to keep straight in your head, despite the lucidity of Darnton’s prose.

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.

The Great Cat Massacre book. The Great Cat Massacre was in truth a rebellion of printshop workers who were essentially denied promotion because of the restrictive practices before unionisation. There was a craze at that time for print shops to have lots of cats around, so in retaliation to the print shop owners and their wives, they killed them all.

The landmark history of France and French culture in the eighteenth-century, a winner of the Los Angeles Times Book .

These are some of the provocative questions the distinguished Harvard historian Robert Darnton answers The Great Cat Massacre, a kaleidoscopic view of European culture during in what we like to call "The Age of Enlightenment.

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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.

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Robert Darnton has the inquisitiveness of an investigative reporter, the thoroughness of a rigorous scholar and the sensitivity of a novelist. - Stanley Hoffman, The New Republic. About the Author: Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the Harvard University Library.

Comments: (7)
The author appears to set out to focus on moving toward a greater understanding of French cultural history through several essays. He does so by first examining folklore and fairy tales, and then moves toward what seems like a very odd event, a ritual cat massacre, which began with oppressed workers. As for the latter, the subject of cat massacre, the very odd title of the book, does seem abhorrent, cruel, and inscrutable to us today, but the author instructs us that when we, as students of history come across a cultural behavior that stands out in its ability to be incomprehensible, and strange to us, we have probably stumbled on something that shows us something significant about the culture.

He cautions us to pay attention if this happens because it can be rewarding if we will take the time to inspect and consider it, as a challenge to our understanding. Through further essays, he then discusses the rise of the bourgeois, and also discusses some writing in the Enlightenment, and finally discusses how readers responded to an unusual romance in love letters, written by Rousseau, and how the people of that time period related to reading, and how they approached and related to their books. They apparently did so a lot differently than we do today, and I found this information to be inspiring and fascinating.

This book really was engaging, all through. I enjoyed the way the author put it all together, and posed questions and challenges to the reader. I enjoyed this book a lot, and felt it added to my understanding of history, and also French culture. In the introduction, the author invites us to "enjoy the journey," and I must say that to my surprise, I really did enjoy it, all the way through. I recommend this book to lovers of history, and of French culture, and of learning, in general.
I very much enjoyed The Great Cat Massacre, as I not only learned much about the quotidian day-to-day of a fascinating bygone culture ... but I also learned (via the author's crackling, accessible and compelling prose) how even the most minute aspects of the societal components investigated in the book hold significant importance today in the Western World.

The book reads almost like a novel and there are many "a-HA!" or "wow, who woulda thunkit?" moments throughout.

A true history book that reads like a farce or even, at times, a suspense thriller, answering the greatest detective novel question of all: "HOW?"

I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in cultural history, revolutionary politics or simply (truly) a great "beach novel" that has more substance than your average Dan Brown.
The idea behind the book is that we think very differently today when compared to how people thought before the French Revolution. The name of the book comes from a "Great Cat Massacre" which was used as a form of sexual slander, and which is completely incomprehensible to the modern way of thought. Diderot's encyclopedia is another great moment from the book. Very worth reading.
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.
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.