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1 ‘The great cat massacre and other episodes in French cultural history’ – Robert Darnton.

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1 1 ‘The great cat massacre and other episodes in French cultural history’ – Robert Darnton

2 2 Chapter 2 - ‘Workers revolt: The great massacre of the Rue Saint-Séverin Analysis of an account given by the apprentice printer Nicholas Contat, working in a print shop on the Rue Saint-Séverin in Paris during the 1730s. Stating that the funniest event that was ever witnessed during his time there was the mass killing and torturing of several cats. The purpose of Darnton’s commentary is to explain why and how this occurred. Why was it funny? Why Cats?

3 3 Background Pre-Industrial Europe. French print shop. Social Hierarchy and order within the print shop starting with the apprentice at the bottom training to become a ‘journeyman’, which were next up; followed by a foreman and then the master or bourgeois at the top. The master lived in luxury and the apprentices lived in squalor. The master and apprentice were constantly divided. Apprentices were fed ‘scraps’ in the kitchen. (Actually fed cat food.) Almost impossible to advance in the craft. Only way was to marry a master’s widow. The status of master passed on. Masters often hired cheap unqualified labour known as ‘alloues’ (à louer – for hire) which caused more tension among workers. Shift from labour as a partnership to labour as a commodity.

4 4 Background Cont. Due to the hardships of living and working in the print shop, laughter was very important to the workers. The workers would re-enact different amusing scenarios that had taken place, in a carnival-like fashion in order to humiliate another person’s peculiarities. The subject of the joke would be taunted by what was known as ‘rough music’. Meaning they would beat on various objects they could find and bleat like goats; hence the phrase ‘gets your goat’. These re-enactments were known as ‘copies’.

5 5 The Folklore Surrounding Cats Cruelty to cats has appeared throughout history. For example... During carnival periods social norms are reversed. In Burgundy cats were passed around the youth and their fur torn out to make it howl. At the cycle of Saint John the Baptist, cats were thrown into bonfires, suspended from ropes or burnt at the stake. In England, a protestant crowd shaved a cat to look like a priest and hung it up on the gallows. Cruelty to cats throughout history was not unusual.

6 6 A cat suggested witchcraft. After coming in contact with a cat it was thought that the only way to protect yourself from any kind of sorcery was to maim it, cut its tail, clip its ears, smash one of its legs, tear or burn its fur, which would disable it from attending a Sabbath or cast spells. Cats thought of as cures for ailments. For example: Cure for pneumonia = drinking blood from a cat’s ear in red wine. To make yourself invisible = eat the brain of a freshly killed cat...providing it was still hot!

7 7 By killing a cat it was thought to bring misfortune on the cats owner and their house. Sexual symbolism surrounding cats A cat symbolised fertility. By petting a cat, it could lead to success in courting woman. A cat’s howl at night carried connotations of witchcraft, rape, seduction and murder. Darnton explains that this folklore would not have failed to impose itself upon the men working in the print shop.

8 8 ‘The Great Cat Massacre’ Due to the tension between master and worker and the unfair conditions the workers had to live in compared to the master. The workers decided to restore the balance. They climbed onto the roof above the master’s bedroom and mimicked the howling of a cat, for several nights depriving the master and his wife of sleep. The upper class thought of as religious, superstitious people. Also kept cats as pets, with one known to own up to 25 cats. The master’s wife owned a cat called ‘La grise’, meaning ‘the gray’, which she was extremely fond of.

9 9 Due to the master’s religiosity it was decided that after several sleepless night that the cats must be guilty of witchcraft. However due to superstition and the fondness of the wife’s favourite pet, they decided against exorcism. So they ordered the men to kill every cat, providing they do not touch ‘la grise’. They killed as many cats as possible, starting with the wife’s favourite cat, and staged mock trials, with guards and executioner etc. The men denied knowledge of the wife’s cat. “They had too much respect for the house to do such a thing.” The men were left unpunished, much to their delight.

10 10 Why was the cat massacre so funny? The humour came from the symbolism and the folklore that was described before. From this the workers were able to humiliate the master without the master even knowing that he was the butt of the joke, or that there was even a joke to begin with. For example: The men manipulated the master’s superstition to get him to give the order to kill the cats. Without him knowing it was them imitating the cats howl after all. Mock-trials = condemnation of the house, accusing the master of being guilty of neglecting the workplace Possibly mocking the social and legal order.

11 11 Sexual symbolism of cats manipulated, in order to humiliate the master’s wife. Killing ‘La grise’ = the men had ravished her symbolically The master’s wife was his most treasured possession and the cat was her most treasured possession. The men had violated the most treasured objects of the household physically and then in turn in accordance with folklore, attacked them symbolically. All without being found out or punished. These events were then re-enacted in the form of ‘copies’, explained previously, which invoked laughter for days following.

12 12 Summary The ‘joke’ worked well because the men were able to attach meaning to the themes and folklores of the culture. The incident played on class, folklore, religion, superstition, history and symbolism. The folklore surrounding cats was manipulated by men who set it up for a different class of people, who they knew would fall for it. The symbolism provided a way of hiding the joke, with it only being funny to the people who were in on it. This in turn enabled them to get away with it without being punished. Laughter was a necessary ingredient for surviving in the harsh working and living conditions. Darnton’s commentary is a necessary one given the double meanings behind the humour and the historical detail needed to understand the joke and therefore attribute meaning to the culture that existed at that time.

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