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The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History Paperback – February 12, 1985

ISBN-13: 978-0394729275 ISBN-10: 0394729277 Edition: 1st Vintage Books ed

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 298 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1st Vintage Books ed edition (February 12, 1985)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0394729277
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394729275
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,242,452 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"Striking, original and often very clever."-- Time

"Brilliant." -- The Washington Post Book World

"An exercise in culture shock." -- Chronicle of Higher Education

"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

From the Inside Flap

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."

Customer Reviews

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See all 22 customer reviews
Great social history.
Overall, however, I found the book to be quite enjoyable, and it was certainly more interesting than most academic texts that I am forced to read.
The notes at the back of the book are interesting and varied.
Mary E. Sibley

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

84 of 92 people found the following review helpful By Jay Stevens on August 29, 2000
Format: Paperback
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.
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48 of 51 people found the following review helpful By C. Collins on May 5, 2006
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.
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53 of 57 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 29, 2000
Format: Paperback
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.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Mary E. Sibley VINE VOICE on June 17, 2006
Format: Paperback
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.
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