Why the cat massacre of the rue Saint-Séverin was so funny?

Robert DarntonPCV.— In the first post of this series about The Great Cat Massacre, we emphasized the attempt of the author: the american historian Robert Darnton begins a journey through the ways of thinking in eighteenth century France. The second chapter of his book is about a workers revolt at a small printing shop located in the rue Saint-Séverin, in Paris, around 1730s. Generally speaking, the story goes like this: Jerome and Léveillé, two apprentices, had a rough time working at the shop: «Instead of dining at the master’s table, they had to eat scraps from his plate in the kitchen»[1]. The master’s wife loved cats, and this animals —especially la grise, the favorite one— lived better than the apprentices: «The cats howled all night on the roof over the apprentices’ dingy bedroom, making it impossible to get a full night’s sleep»[2].

Jerome and Léveillé decided to fix this situation: the second one crawled through the roof towards the master’s bedroom and started to howl so loud in order to prevent him to sleep. He repeated this for several days, until the master realized the need to get rid of the cats. His wife gave the order, but she advertised them not to harm la grise. They disobeyed the mistress and began the hunting looking for the favorite cat. A macabre ritual followed the operation, «pronouncing the animals guilty» and «roused by gales of laughter»[3]. When the master’s wife saw an animal dangling from a noose, she thought it might be her loved la grise. She was right.

According to the account left by Nicolas Contat, one the apprentices, the laughter did not end there. By reenactments of the incident, the workers had lots of entertainment, even more when the copies humiliate someone «satirizing his peculiarities», like the master and his wife. In this point Darnton asks himself  —and address the questions to his readers— why the reenactment of a repulsive episode was funny. If we do not get the idea of a joke, well, we have to unravel the system of meaning.

Darnton explains, first, the rough existence of printing apprentices —and demystifies the theory of an idyllic relationship between master and worker— during the eighteenth century: «They [the apprentices] personified the tendency of labor to become a commodity instead of a partnership»[4]. Then, he makes clear the cultural meaning of carnivals during this period: «A time when young people tested social boundaries by limited outbursts of deviance, before being reassimilated in the world of order, submission, and Lentine seriousness»[5].

Yet, what was the deal with cats? The author gives a reason for its taboo power: the torture of animals during this century was proper for popular amuse, but more importantly, the cat had ritual and symbolic value. Darnton gives four arguments: in first place, the cat was associated with witchcraft and the only way to destroy its black and malevolent gift was to maim it. In second place, «cats possessed occult power independently of their association with witchcraft and deviltry»[6]; in this sense, eating them could make you invisible, or maybe cured you from terrible illnesses. In third place, the cat power was exercised in the identification of the master and his mistress with their animal: «To kill a cat was to bring misfortune upon its owner or its house»[7]. In fourth place, and Darnton says it in clear terms, the cat was associated with sex. In brief, this feline had huge symbolic significance in French folklore.

Returning to the cat massacre, the maiming of la grise, then, was the response of the workers of the printing shop to the injustice of the master and his wife. She, explains Contat in his account, was having an affair with a young priest.  The master was a cuckold and the mistress was unfaithful; actually, she was more like a witch. Killing la grise, but then denying the fact, was the symbolic protest of the workers against the guilty bourgeois; it was the opportunity to ravish the mistress. «Perhaps in trying, confessing, and hanging a collection of half-dead cats —arguments Darnton—, the workers meant to ridicule the entire legal and social order»[8].

And why it was funny for the workers to reenact the episode? Appealing to the idea of Rabelaisian laughter, developed by Mikhail Bakthin, Robert Darnton says that the workers made a popular theater every time they recalled the cat massacre, a lucky chance to «turn the tables on the bourgeois»[9] using symbolic aggression and ambiguity. It was very risky —they kept it hidden in their symbolic language— and, therefore, made the situation and his reenactment hilarious. It was, in short, the Ancien Régime and preindustrial manner for workers to protest, covered with «Rabelaisian laughter» and full of «Boccaccian style».


[1] Darnton, Robert; The Great Cat Massacre (EE.UU.: Vintage Books), p. 75
[2] Darnton, Robert; op. cit., p. 76
[3] Darnton, Robert; op. cit., p. 77
[4] Darnton, Robert; op. cit., p. 80
[5] Darnton, Robert; op. cit., p. 83
[6] Darnton, Robert; op. cit., p. 94
[7] Darnton, Robert; op. cit., p. 94
[8] Darnton, Robert; op. cit., p. 98
[9] Darnton, Robert; op. cit., p. 100

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