Our story takes place on a street in Paris, France called the Rue Saint-Séverin sometime during the 1730s – nobody is sure of the exact year when these events supposedly occurred. Somewhere along this street was a print shop owned by one Jacques Vincent. One of the men who worked in this establishment was a young apprentice named Nicolas Contat, and it’s his recollection of events, written about twenty years after they occurred, which serves as the only source for what has become known as “the Great Cat Massacre” (Darnton 1985, pages 75, 78).
To be clear, this was not a major historical event, despite the application of the word “great” in its name. In fact, it remained relatively unknown until the historian Robert Darnton published an essay about it in 1984. It was he who bestowed the name “the Great Cat Massacre” upon this incident, giving it a grandiosity and gravitas that it scarcely deserves. Indeed, rampant acts of animal abuse were horrendously common in 18th Century Europe.
Front cover of the first edition of The Great Cat Massacre and other Episodes in French Cultural History, written by Robert Darnton, and published in 1984.
Pont Neuf area of Paris, France during the year 1734 from Turgot’s Plan de Paris. Illustration by Louis Bretez. https://library.princeton.edu/news/marquand/2012-07-18/tour-paris-1730s.
According to Nicolas Contat’s account, there were two apprentices who worked in Monsieur Vincent’s print shop – Jerome (who was, in reality, a somewhat fictionalized version of Contat himself) and another named Léveillé, which may or may not be a pseudonym. Their lives were hard and grueling. They had to rise before dawn, had to perform all manner of physical tasks, and had to endure all manner of verbal abuse from everyone around them, including their boss Monsieur Vincent who had a notoriously foul temper. For all of their hard work and the insults they suffered, they were given mere scraps to eat – in some instances they were relegated to eating cat food – and were forced to sleep in a filthy freezing room (Darnton 1985, pages 75-76, 102). Understandably, these men had good reason to hate their jobs.
Of particular hatred for these men were the owner’s pet cats. Cats were to the French bourgeois what tulips were to the Dutch middle class of the 17th Century. They were more than just pets – they were luxury items and status symbols. Wealthy landowners and business owners had their cats immortalized in portrait paintings and they dined on expensive dishes. To the apprentices who worked in Monsieur Vincent’s printing shop, it was galling that the family’s pet cats were treated far better than they were (Darnton 1985, pages 76, 103).
In addition to the pampered felines owned by society’s elite, there were hordes of feral street cats which skulked through Paris’ alleyways and gutters. All night long, they loudly yowled outside the window of the apprentices’ freezing garret, keeping them awake. Soon, they would have to get up and get ready for work, and there were many, many, sleepless nights. They often had to work in a state of extreme exhaustion, barely able to stand up or keep their eyes open from fatigue (Darnton 1985, page 76). Anybody who has ever watched the 1941 Looney Tunes cartoon “Notes to You” or its 1948 re-make “Back Alley Op-Roar” can sympathize with their plight.
The two print shop apprentices put up with this state for God-knows how long until one day, pushed to the limits of their endurance, they decided that they were going to “get their own back”. They decided that they were going to put their boss and his wife through the same torment that they had been put through night after night. The apprentice Léveillé, who apparently had a talent for impersonations, did his very best alley cat impressions directly outside Monsieur Vincent’s bedroom window. For several nights he did this until Monsieur Vincent gave the two apprentices a new task – get rid of the cats (Darnton 1985, pages 76, 102-103).
That was all they needed to hear.
To be fair, both Monsieur Vincent and his wife were referring to the feral cats that lived outside and had (in their minds) kept them awake all night. However, the two apprentices took a much broader interpretation of the order which was given to them. If the master and mistress had intended the two men merely to do their best to shoo the street cats away, then they were greatly mistaken as to what was about to happen.
With demoniacal joy, the two apprentices swiftly readied themselves for their work. Aided by the journeymen who worked in the print shop alongside them, they quickly gathered up whatever was ready to hand – broomsticks, metal press bars, and anything else that was lying around – and burst forth out of the shop intent on smashing out the brains of any cat that was unlucky enough to come within their sight. The first target that the two apprentices specifically sought out was Madame Vincent’s favorite pet cat La Grise, which was beaten to death with an iron bar. Meanwhile the journeymen swept through the street beating and bludgeoning any cat that they came across. Other members of the gang herded the cats (yes, it can be done if you really put your mind to it) by funneling them into traps and seizing them in sacks. Sack-loads of cats were heaped up in the center of the nearby courtyard, where the print shop staff staged a mock trial for the cats’ “crimes”. The sentence was read out – GUILTY! – and all of the captured cats were hanged on an improvised gallows rack, to peals of raucous and sinister laughter (Darnton 1985, pages 76-77, 103).
Roused by the loud noise outside, Madame Vincent came out to see what was happening, and soon afterwards shrieked in horror when she saw the bloody corpse of a cat limply dangling from a noose. She thought that it might be her own beloved cat La Grise. The men assured her that it definitely wasn’t, and told her that they had far too much respect for her to ever harm any of her own pet cats, they said through poisonous sneers. Soon afterwards, Monsieur Jacques Vincent came out of the house filled with fury – not at what was occurring, but because the entire staff was undertaking this feline purge and nobody was left in the shop doing any work. Meanwhile, his wife had alarm and concern spreading across her face again, for she called out for her cat La Grise to come to her, and even performed a quick search, but it could not be found anywhere, and she strongly suspected that the men killed it. “These wicked men can’t kill the masters, so they have killed my cat”, she lamented, and both of her and her husband withdrew back inside. At this, the workers roared with laughter. They knew that they had gotten away with it. In the subsequent days, the story of this event was re-told and re-enacted over and over again amongst the print shop staff as a way to reminisce about some fun they once had (Darnton 1985, pages 77, 103-104).
To modern ears, tales of the so-called “Great Cat Massacre” fill us with revulsion, but to the people of 18th Century Paris, it was a laugh-riot, the most hilarious thing that had ever occurred in their whole lives. Moreover, as horrid as this incident was, it wasn’t isolated. In 18th Century Europe, cats were regularly tortured for amusement and entertainment, and Parisians were fond of setting living cats on fire. Cats were believed to have heightened supernatural powers, and on the feast day of Saint John the Baptist on June 24, it was a common practice to hurl objects into ceremonial bonfires in order to either obtain good luck or stave off bad luck. Cats were especially targeted, and sack-fulls of them were thrown into fires, alive and shrieking with agony and terror, or else they were tied up and burned at the stake like witches (Darnton 1985, pages 77, 83-85, 90-91).
Many people today have a certain popular image of what life was like in Europe during the 1700s. Yet, for all of its ruffled lace, powdered wigs, Baroque chamber music, and obsession with proper manners, the sensibilities of 18th Century people are evidently not so genteel as many modern people like to believe. Keep this in mind the next time somebody Romanticizes the past, because it’s certain that they’re looking at the past through a very thick pair of rose-colored glasses.
Darnton, Robert. The Great Cat Massacre and other Episodes in French Cultural History. New York: Vintage Books, 1985.
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