The Great Cat Massacre: French History Revealed by the Americans

In 1730 in Paris, two apprentice printers staged a trial for their masters’ cats, condemned them to death by hanging, and carried out the sentence. This tragic event in the history of France continues to fascinate American historians and actors today.
William Hogarth, First Stage of Cruelty, 1750.

The Great Cat Massacre on the Rue Saint-Séverin was, in the words of the perpetrators, “the funniest thing that ever happened at Jacques Vincent’s printing works.” The episode took place in the Latin Quarter of Paris in 1730. As a way to take revenge on their masters who treated even their cats better than them, two apprentices organized the “biggest felinicide in French history.” After convincing members of the bourgeoisie that the animals were possessed, the pair staged a mock trial, knocked the cats unconscious, sentenced them to death, and hanged them.

Several years later, the apprentice Jérôme – whose real name was Nicolas Contat – retold the story in his work, Anecdotes typographiques où l’on voit la description des coutumes, mœurs et usages singuliers des compagnons imprimeurs. According to him, the prank was hilarious.

Symbolic and Cultural History

“Why was this funny at the time, but no longer today?” asked Robert Darnton, a professor at Harvard. In 1980, the American historian and printing specialist came across this anecdote, and studied it in part of his work, The Great Cat Massacre.

His chapter devoted to the cat massacre on the Rue Saint-Séverin is “an anthropological attempt to understand the comical aspect of the situation, and to see how the workers manipulated symbols to attack their masters in a way that meant they could not punish them,” says the historian. Some 50 years before the French Revolution, this affair demonstrated the defiance felt by the working class towards the bourgeoisie.

Robert Darnton insists on the “vast complexity of the symbols used by the workers.” At the time in Europe, cats were associated with witches and sexuality. The massacre was therefore a trial, a magical happening, and a form of sexual assault against the master printer’s wife, who had to witness her favorite cat tortured. The whole event was accompanied by the laughter of the workers, who reenacted the scene in the printing works for months after.

On Stage in New York and Chicago

The anecdote has fascinated American artists, and a first stage adaptation was presented as a musical in Chicago. Another take on the event, created by Greg Moss and Casey O’Neil, will be showing in New York until March 4, 2018. “This massacre is suited to theatrical interpretation,” says Robert Darnton. “It was already a sort of street performance carried out by the workers through the medium of mime.”

Carried by American playwrights, the carnage becomes a “tale of social classes and sexism,” while resonating with the current political context. “Our musical shows that collective fears can turn us against one another for no reason. A ridiculous rumor – that cats are possessed – can prove to be dangerous for a whole community,” says stage director Marella Martin Koch. “There is also a longstanding love of French history on Broadway.” The adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, the recent Hamilton starring the character of Lafayette, and Voltaire’s Candide have all been a huge success.

The Great Cat Massacre
From February 17 through March 4
Kraine Theater, New York, NY