Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Great Cat Massacre

I read the book many years ago. The cruelty to animals that was tolerated in times past is difficult to read about.
Our own inability to get the joke is an indication of the distance that separates us from the workers of pre-industrial Europe. The perception of that distance may serve as the starting point of an investigation, for anthropologists have found that the best points of entry in an attempt to penetrate an alien culture can be those where it seems to be most opaque. When you realise that you are not getting something – a joke, a proverb, a ceremony that is particularly meaningful to the natives, you can see where to grasp a foreign system of meaning in order to unravel it. By getting the joke of the great cat massacre, it may be possible to 'get' a basic ingredient of artisanal culture under the Old Regime.

The first explanation that probably would occur to most readers of Contat's story is that the cat massacre served as an oblique attack on the master and his wife. Contat set the event in the context of remarks about the disparity between the lot of workers and the bourgeois – a matter of the basic elements in life: work, food, and sleep. The injustice seemed especially flagrant in the case of the apprentices, who were treated like animals while the animals were promoted over their heads to the position the boys should have occupied, the place at the master's table. Although the apprentices seem most abused, the text makes it clear that the killing of the cats expressed a hatred for the bourgeois that had spread among all the workers: 'The masters love cats; consequently [the workers] hate them.' After master-minding the massacre, Leveille became the hero of the shop, because 'all workers are in league against the masters. It is enough to speak badly of them [the masters] to be esteemed by the whole assembly of typographers'.

Historians have tended to treat the era of artisanal manufacturing as an idyllic period before the onset of industrialisation. Some even portray the workshop as a kind of extended family in which master and journeymen laboured at the same tasks, ate at the same table, and sometimes slept under the same roof. Had anything happened to poison the atmosphere of the printing shops in Paris by 1740? (Read entire post.)


Enbrethiliel said...


That was a long but absolutely fascinating article, Elena, which I never would have read if you hadn't linked to it. Thank you! =)

I'm not sure what is more absorbing: the historical context, which sheds light on a true injustice, or the folk context, which the author correctly says is difficult for moderns to fully understand. Strangely enough, however, the latter is making some things come into sharper focus for me . . .

I've long wondered why certain men like to say that women who reject them or "feminist" women in general (whatever the term means these days) will end up old maids with a bunch of cats. I even have a good male friend who says that if a woman has more than one cat as a pet, he considers it a red flag. (!!!) The cat's place in folk traditions and stories is taking a long, long time to uproot from the subconscious, aye?

The problem is when you have the charivari and the spirit of carnival without repentance and the spirit of Lent--a description that applies to many aspects of the modern world, not just the relations between the sexes.

elena maria vidal said...

What excellent points! Thank you, E.!