When you hear about the Great Cat Massacre, you think of dead cats. In “Workers Revolt” by Robert Darnton you get a more complex understanding of how it really all went down. Not just a simple motive of killing cats because they hated them , but more of a revolt between classes. Now any person in today’s society would think it’s cruel, monstrous, and illegal to harm any animal. Darnton’s shows us the difference between the mindset of the workers in Paris around the late 1730s to today.
There are many levels of significance for cats in Darnton’s works like the bourgeois, the peasants, certain celebrations, and superstitions. For the middle class bourgeois, a cat was a luxury that was treated like royalty. Darnton said that “A passion for cats seemed to have swept through the printing trade, at least at the level of the masters (Darnton, 76).” The bourgeois fed them fowl and had their portraits painted. While the cats were being adored by the bourgeois, the peasants despised them . They “Howled all night on the roof over the apprentices’ dingy bedroom, making it impossible to get a full night’s sleep (76).” Not only were cats hated, but they were also abused in celebrations. During carnival, cats were tortured in charivaris to mock cuckolds. Darnton claims that “while mocking a cuckold…the youths passed around a cat, tearing its fur to make it howl (83).” Furthermore, during another celebration around the summer solstice, bonfires were made and cats were “Burned at the stake (83)” in order to “obtain good fortune during the rest of the year (83).” Many more celebrations and ceremonies included the torturing and slaughtering of cats in the 18th century. Lastly, cats were associated with superstition, magic, and witchcraft, a “je ne sais quoi” (89), or a mysterious something. Cats are “associated with the taboo (89)” in some cultures, and in France, to cross a cat at night was to “risk running into the devil (92).” Furthermore, witches had an important role in the superstition of cats as they “transformed themselves into cats in order to cast spells on their victims (92).” Peasants beat cats at night and found that the next day “Bruises had appeared on women believed to be witches (94),” suggesting a strong bond between cat and witch. Superstitions with cats included their power to “Prevent bread from rising, (94)” “Spoil the catch…of fisherman, (94)” “Cure of pneumonia, (94)” or even to “Clear a field of weeds (94)” if buried alive. Cats’ superstitions went as far as sex. For example, “The petting of cats was recommended for success in courting women, (95)” and certain proverbs state, “He who takes good care of cats will have a pretty wife” and “As he loves his cat, he loves his wife.” In conclusion, cats were treated like queens by the bourgeois, were tortured in celebrations, and had certain links with witches, superstitions, and sex.
In this essay, class conflict is present between the journeymen and the masters. First is the conflict between the journeymen and the cats. The cats were luxuries for the masters, and were treated far better than the journeymen. In retaliation, the workers started a massacre of cats. As Robert Darnton states, the workers “Dumped sackloads of half-dead cats in the courtyard, (76)” “Strung them up on improvised gallows, (77)” and killed them. Darnton claims that “the killing of the cats expressed a hatred for the bourgeois that had spread among all the workers, (78)” showing the class conflict between the two. Second is the problem with under-qualified printers. Called alloués, these workers had not had the apprenticeship that makes a journeyman. For the masters, the alloués were a “Source of cheap labor (80)” so the masters “tended increasingly to hire (80)” them. Next, workers only stayed hired for a few months because they “quarreled with the master (80)” and left. Furthermore, the company Société typographique de Neuchâtel ordered workers in “assortments, just as it ordered paper and type. (81)”The conflict here between the journeymen and the masters is that the masters “personified the tendency of labor to become a commodity instead of a partnership, (80)” meaning that unlike centuries before, the workers were treated like property, not people. Lastly are the differences between the bourgeois and workers that spur class conflict. The bourgeois “Ate different food, kept different hours, talked a different language… And kept pets. (82)” The workers did not sleep much but worked and the masters didn’t work at all but enjoyed sleep. These huge lifestyle differences between the two classes—the laid back life of the bourgeois and the hard working life of the printers—inevitably causes conflict. In conclusion, the class conflict between the masters and the printers is shown by the massacre of cats, and caused by the treatment of workers as property and the huge lifestyle differences.