The Great Cat Massacre

Robert Darnton

History

The Great Cat Massacre

Review by:

Elena Montazemi Safari

4 May 2021

The Great Cat Massacre written by Robert Darnton explores different facets of social and cultural life within eighteenth century France; his goal was “to show not merely what people thought but how they thought” is accomplished through a range of tools borrowed from the discipline of anthropology. Darnton seeks to examine the “l’histoire des mentalités” of different social groups in eighteenth-century France through sources in order to understand the thought process of multiple sub-groups in their own historical context. However, Darnton’s book has been criticised because a book using anthropology that does not include its most central tool, participant observation, raises questions of the validity of its method.

Further to this, the analysis of oral societies through the accounts left by the literate members of such societies is problematic in that we are continually looking through the lens of an intermediary. Darnton explores the fact that “most Europeans were illiterate before the nineteenth century” which poses an issue to a historian wishing to explore such a society. How can one reconstruct and examine the world without the literacy of any written documentation? A whole sub-section of society is, as a result, eradicated from our historical understanding. Darnton uses fables and folk stories to surpass this issue. The main focus of these folklores is to focus on the way a raconteur adapts the main inherited theme to the audience so that the specificity of time and place shows through the universality of the theme. Despite the fact that these stories are merely fictional, they are ultimately rooted in reality and the social context of their time, whether that be a universal relevance for European peasant societies or if different versions are rooted in specific cultural contexts. The difficulty with this is that folk stories are not static – making oral history a challenging historical source.

Nonetheless, there is still value in understanding how people saw the world in eighteenth century France. Darnton’s anthropological method in The Great Cat Massacre draws close attention to the fact that “we constantly need to be shaken out of. A false sense of familiarity with the past, to be administered with doses of culture shock,” doing this, there is a distinctive merging of the disciplines of anthropology and history; the interaction of an individual’s culture with an ‘alien’ one allows for drawing similarities whilst also coming to a hypothesis about these foreign cultures.The Great Cat Massacre was a book I read as part of my Disciplines of History course on anthropological methods of historical study. I found it particularly interesting to consider the intersectionality of anthropological and historical methods within my studies.