“…in accordance with the traditions of cat lore:” An Untrained Historian’s View of Cultural Anthropology

I have long nursed a soft spot for ethnographies, which has led me to the false belief that I enjoy anthropology. As an undergrad, I took an introductory anthropology course. From what I recall, there was a lot of talk about early man and Lucy and cranium measurements, and that’s about it. I also remember learning a lot about how to flirt with the guy sitting next to you in class, and that somehow George Bush was responsible for all of the ills caused to mankind since homo sapiens sapiens started walking upright. Actually, I’m not even sure that homo sapiens sapiens were the first ones to start walking upright. That’s what I mean—anthropology sounded great in my head, but in practice was just an excuse to share coffee with cute dudes. What saved that class for me was that loved the ethnographies we read. Elizabeth Warnock Fernea’s Guests of the Sheik and Savages by Joe Kane read like novels and were the only books I didn’t gleefully sell-back from that class. Yet somehow I have maintained my delusion that I enjoy anthropology. I suppose it’s the same delusion that makes me believe I enjoy astronomy, when in reality I think the world would exist just fine without physics.

Knowing this, I happily set about our readings for this week. “Cultural anthropology,” I thought, “what fun! I love this stuff! The interdisciplinarity of history is what makes it so wonderful!” While I still believe that interdisciplinarity is one of the main aspects of the discipline that makes its study enjoyable, I don’t think cultural anthropology is for me. As I read through the first chapter of Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures, I found myself entirely caught up with how similar the study of cultural anthropology is to the study of history. Both have a similar fundamental foundation, as seen when Geertz explains Clyde Kluckhohn’s twelve-parted definition of culture, as well as an interpretive view of its own disciplinary past. The two disciplines seemed complimentary, and I assumed that aspects of each could be easily used in either field. It was with this belief in mind that I set about reading Robert Darnton’s article about his book, The Great Cat Massacre.

I would be lying if I claimed that Darnton’s accounts of animal violence didn’t disturb me. They did. However, I appreciated the fact that many things can seem foreign in a culture that is not your own, and I anticipated his explanation and analysis of the “funniest thing that ever happened in the printing shop of Jacques Vincent.”[1] Unfortunately, I was disappointed. Perhaps it was because this article was just a brief summary of his larger work, but I felt that it was incomplete and failed to explain important points. In fact, I would have found his piece more satisfying had he not approached it from an anthropological standpoint. His explanation of the events surrounding the 1730s killing was clear, and he provided a strong context for the events that transpired. It was when he began making broad claims about the significance of these events to their participants, and the meaning of their actions, though, that I began to scrawl unhappy notes in the margin. He labors to explain that violence towards cats was common throughout Europe during this period, yet later uses the same acts of violence as a vehicle to explain how and why the journeymen printers behaved as they did. Wouldn’t this, then, make the meaning of their behavior common to all the rest of Europe as well? In establishing the historical credibility of their actions, doesn’t he rob himself of the ability to establish this as a culturally significant and singular act?

Darnton continued on to explain that “the text made the theme of sorcery explicit from the beginning,” and explored the implications that this theme had on the story.[2] He claims that the master printer viewed the situation seriously, while the journeymen saw it all as one big joke; the journeymen purposely and symbolically exerted their power over their master through their acts.[3] Yet, again I found myself asking how much meaning Darnton, as an analyst, had imposed on these actions, how much agency he gave to the journeymen and how much naivete he had imposed on the master. The only account of this story was composed years after the massacre. Darnton himself says that “He [Nicholas Contat, the author] selected details, ordered events, and framed the story in such a way as to bring out what was meaningful for him. But he derived his notions of meaning from his culture just as naturally as he drew in air from the atmosphere around him.”[4] From a historical standpoint, Contat’s narrative is an unreliable source. While any written account does necessarily include the author’s bias, Contat had liberal time to absorb the events, reflect upon them, gauge the society in which he was living and writing, and compose the events into a series that created whatever meaning he thought best. What if all of Darnton’s symbols and meaning were constructed years later by Contat?

Roger Chartier’s criticism of the piece much more thoroughly and eloquently explored the potential weaknesses of Darnton’s piece than I have been able to do. Although I do balk at claiming that Darnton’s restrictions are, in fact, weaknesses. Darnton clearly approaches a topic in history from the position of cultural anthropology, and does so very well. I suppose my concerns come from the fact that I support a more solidly historical approach to analysis. As Chartier says, “…it is indisputable that the most pressing question inherent in cultural history today…is that of the different ways in which groups or individuals make use of, interpret, and appropriate the intellectual motifs or cultural forms they share with others.”[5] Darnton boldly stepped outside the realm of traditional historical analysis to attempt to impose culturally-based meaning on the journeymen’s actions. However, I believe it would have been more appropriate to take Contat’s narrative and explore the meaning of his choices. By dissecting Contat’s story, we can learn much more about his mores and world view than we can of pseudo-fictional journeymen printers from the 1730s. If Darnton had endeavored to “…take the text as a text and to try to determine its intentions, its strategies, and the effects produced by his discourse,” I believe he would have produced a more meaningful piece.[6] It seems tenuous to claim symbolic meaning of a third-party act, yet that is what Darnton does.

In the end, though, the world does not work without physics—and I recognize that. I try to wrap my mind around the formulas and laws, and it sometimes works. Such is also my relationship with anthropology. I understand its utility, and I support its use by historians. Yet there is a part of it that I don’t quite completely understand. That’s the part of me that would have preferred Darnton to analyze Contat’s narrative as a text in and of itself, rather than using it as a vehicle to analyze the subjects represented therein. That’s the part of me that still believes that something of Darnton’s work itself employed “cat lore,” which, in the language of symbolism that I have created to surround my evening, is defined as a fickle, tenuous symbolism subject to intense interpretation. It makes me wonder how my readers, if anyone has gotten this far, will interpret my interpretation of these readings and ideas.


[1] Robert Darnton, “The Great Cat Massacre,” History Today, (August 1994): 7.

[2] Ibid., 14.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Roger Chartier, “Text, Symbols, and Frenchness,” The Journal of Modern History, 57, no.4 (De., 1985): 688.

[6] Ibid., 194.


Filed under Historical Methods Assignment

4 Responses to “…in accordance with the traditions of cat lore:” An Untrained Historian’s View of Cultural Anthropology

  1. Laura


    I appreciate your honesty and bluntness when it comes to anthropology. As someone who loves anthropology (and almost majored in it rather than minoring in it), I have to say that I cannot quite commiserate with your feelings on the subject. And yet, when you introduced the same argument concerning physics, I thought, “wow, I completely agree. I could do without physics, too.” Thus, I know exactly where you are coming from though I may not completely agree.

    For me, although I can see the similarities between anthropology and history, I have always thought of them as two distinctly different subjects. I have also always felt that I have to approach them with two different mindsets. And now that I have become a much more practiced historian than anthropologist, I sometimes find myself having a difficult time getting into that anthropological frame of mind. And yet, I can still see anthropology for its merits and its usefulness to historians (as you mentioned you can, too). But I do have to agree with you, it can be difficult at times to understand anthropology and precisely what it can do for historians because its utility is perhaps not always so evident.

    Thus, after all this rambling, I think I can sum up what I am trying to say: historians and anthropologists can benefit from one another but we can certainly leave anthropology to the anthropologists and history to the historians. Co-mingling is certainly useful and acceptable but only to a certain extent.

  2. I agree with you that Darnton, just like you say, makes a boarder claim but provides little information to support this claim, so that we cannot know if there is historical/cultural significance of the cat massacre case. I think it might be better to put the cat massacre article into the context of this book. In his book, he tells the stories about fairy tales, city, the tree of knowledge and Rousseau to show different social groups like peasants, bourgeois, intellectuals, conservative government officials. I take the cat massacre as the a way to demonstrate the class struggle at that time which Darnton takes it as the characteristic of that period, rather than to take it as an universal statement. In other chapters of this book, he has describes there were other stories. Although I cannot find out how significant does he think about this class struggle, I think he might be not willing to claim this kind of class struggle applied to every social groups in French and the rest of European people.

  3. Carmen Bolt


    Your posts always either inspire me because we seem to be on the same wavelength, or challenge me to consider other takeaways than just the one(s) i choose to blog about. For that, I thank you.

    I, too, eagerly anticipated reading about cultural history, only to find out that I had been lumping cultural history with social history up to this point and really was unaware of what I was getting into. This being said, I was able to recognize distinct benefits of including anthropological work in history. It sounds pleasant and logical that better understanding the cultural context and mindsets of individuals and events of the past could offer great gains to the field of history. But in practice, it is not so simple. It is difficult to understand what amount of anthropological findings can be applied and added to the historical narrative, especially when sources appear to be invalid or lacking. It makes me want to know the methods that cultural historians employ to apply anthropology, if there are methods, or if we are still attempting to figure out the best ways to form a mutually beneficial relationship with anthropology.

  4. Tiny

    I believe that you are right in arguing that we should try to dissect Nicholas Contat’s story first, before we read what other historians, anthropologists, or whoever, wants us to take away from the original piece. I find that in studying history, we are constantly being bombarded with what other people want us to believe, often without credible source materials, or very often, using only one source. We need to make sure as researchers, exploring the past, for future generations, that we get all of the details before we start muddying up the historiography. It happens with some regularity, that historians use broad strokes of the pen, generalized assumptions, and other forms of information being used out of context, which in turn causes us as budding historians to stay on our toes and research, research, research, before we fall into the same stylistic form of writing.
    I also wish to say that I applaud your bravery, stating that “the world would exist just fine without physics.” To this I say “Bravo.” But I would warn you not to let Dr. Sheldon Cooper hear you say this, as he will put you on his enemies list quickly for this….just kidding. Great post as usual.

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