Darnton 1984

Darnton, R. 1984. Workers revolt: The great cat massacre of Rue Saint-Séverin. In Darnton, R. The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History. New York: Basic Books, pp. 75 -104. 

As a historian, Darnton is important for emphasizing the importance of the history of ordinary people and their culture rather than the high Culture on which traditional historians had focused. In particular Darnton emphasizes the importance of folk myths and tales and works almost exclusively on seventeenth-century France.

The piece being annotated here is Darnton’s best-known and most popular work (and the book in which it appears as a chapter has been translated into nineteen languages). Nevertheless, it is open to question as to why it is included in an environmental philosophy bibliography. After all, the issues at the center of the piece are social: the oppression of the apprentices by both masters and journeymen, the use of cultural symbols, and so on. There is no obvious sense in which the issues addressed are environmental.

The reason for inclusion is that the ethics of animal liberation (or animal welfare or animal rights) has traditionally been considered as a part of environmental ethics. This aspect of environmental ethics has been routinely challenged, especially by those who see biodiversity conservation as a central issue in environmental philosophy (Sarkar 2015).

Also relevant in our context is the piece shatters the environmental myth of an idyllic pre-industrial society. Given that animal welfare should be regarded as an environmental issue, pre-industrial (or pre-Enlightenment) Europe was not environmentally benign at least with respect to the treatment of animals. It was just very different from the post-Enlightenment world in how it viewed animals as Ferry (1995) has independently and tellingly emphasized. In fact, it is only post-Enlightenment that the welfare of animals has so much become part of the collective consciousness of the North that we find the joke of massacring cats incomprehensible (which is the problem that Darnton started out to solve).

Of course, it is still the case that what is most remarkable about Darnton’s piece are not the implicit environmental (or, at least, animal welfare) issues it raises. Rather it is his attempt to use cultural symbolism to penetrate a world that remains otherwise opaque to us because of how different it is. Restricting attention to animals as cultural symbols, it is a world in which cats had a special status. Though Darnton points out that this fascination with cats existed in ancient Egypt, it is hardly likely that a continuous trajectory can be traced from that place and time to eighteenth-century France. We may well wonder how and why cats managed to occupy the cultural niches, the connection to witchcraft, the connection to sex and cuckoldry, and so on, that Darnton lists in such detail. Why cats? We may also wonder why cats continue to be popular pets today in so many different cultures. Perhaps cats as pets in the North today shares a common cultural ancestor as cats in their myriad cultural roles in eighteenth-century France. This is a history still to be written.

There have been many responses to Darnton’s piece, both on his methodology and his substantive claims. With respect to the latter (which is more pertinent in our context), what is troubling is that Darnton leaves out the sequel to the story told in this piece: the dismissal of the apprentices. (See Mah [1991], which also provides a good entry into the literature.)



Ferry, L. 1995. The New Ecological Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mah, H. 1991. Suppressing the text: The metaphysics of ethnographic history in Darnton’s Great Cat Massacre. History Workshop Journal 31: 1 -20.

Sarkar, S. 2005. Biodiversity and Environmental Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

03 September 2019


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