The Great Cat Massacre
By Robert Darnton
Review by Tom (History)
I chose this book, because not only is it quite cheap second hand (and it’s below £10 new if you want it unused) but it is also a really interesting book that was recommended in one of my lectures and also came up later on one of my reading lists. It’s basically about looking into folktales and stories from the past and breaking them down to understand the culture that produced them. It looks at trying to understand the world views of a society, but also trying to understand how people in the past attempted to understand the world around them. The writer firstly explains what they are doing and their inspiration for looking into stories, then looks into a story from France about a “cat massacre” where some men hold a trial for some cats (and then have them hanged) – and tries to understand why something which seems so weird (and barbaric) to us, was so funny to people back then. By looking at a point that is so peculiar to us, we can try and understand more about the culture as a whole. It’s really good for making you appreciate how different the mind of the person from the past can be, but also how many different things historians can take from quite simple sources.
The real value of reading around, and reading a book like this is it not only helps you think more about your subject, but also see how wide a subject history is. This book is great in showing how important other academic fields such as anthropology (in the case of this book) have become/are becoming in helping to expand and improve our understanding of the past. The best thing reading around does is it makes you think more about the history and how subtle and complex understanding the past actually is. This is why I chose this particular book, because it’s quite reflective on the challenges/limitations to looking at folktales in the way it does. And it’s really worth thinking to yourself about if you think what the author has done is effective/what the limitations to this approach is. Don’t worry if you don’t completely follow the book – it’s about challenging yourself and making yourself think, that’s the most important thing!
The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History by Robert Darnton