I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The so-called cat massacre in Paris is an early example of a workers’ protest over the condition of their labour. Some historians see it as a precursor to the French Revolution.
Appalling Work Conditions
In 1927, Henri Sée of the University of Rennes authored a treatise entitled Economic and Social Conditions in France During the Eighteenth Century. He wrote that “In most of the trades at Paris the day was sixteen hours long, and the binders and printers, who worked only fourteen, were considered privileged.”
At the top of the working hierarchy was the master who was part of the bourgeoisie. Next came the journeyman who might find his accommodation by his master but it would be far from comfortable, and the pay was pitiful.
At the bottom of the pecking order were apprentices; these were boys who had to carry out menial tasks. It was their lot to suffer abuse from the master and journeymen, while being made to exist on food scraps from the master’s table.
Dangled in front of the apprentices was the hope that after diligent service to their masters they might rise to the coveted position of journeyman.
This was how the majority of people in Paris lived at the time, while the aristocracy rode about in fine carriages, dressed in the best silk, ate at lavish banquets, and lived in opulent palaces. The imbalance was bound to lead to trouble sooner or later.
The Jacques Vincent Print Shop
Two boys, Contat and Leveille, toiled in the printing shop of Jacques Vincent in Paris. They were at the bottom of the food chain―literally.
Historian Robert Danton is the go-to person on this story. He worked from the account, written 20 years later by Contat, (who called himself Jerome in his story)―Anecdotes typographiques où l’on voit la description des coutumes, mœurs et usages singuliers des compagnons imprimeurs (Typographical anecdotes where we see the description of the customs, manners and singular uses of the journeyman printers).
Danton tells how the workers sought revenge against Vincent and his wife by attacking their cats.
Apparently, it was the habit of many printers to keep cats around; no doubt to stop mice getting at their paper supplies. The cats, of which Madame Vincent was particularly fond, would sit on the roof above the garret where the boys tried to sleep and yowl all night.
Robert Danton tells us that “Leveille, who had an extraordinary talent for mimicry, crawled along the roof until he reached a section near the master’s bedroom, and then he took to howling and meowing so horribly that the bourgeois and his wife did not sleep a wink. After several nights of this treatment, they decided they were being bewitched.”
The Culling of the Cats
The only thing to do was to get rid of the cats and the apprentices were given that job. This is where the story turns ghoulish.
Accompanied with hoots of laughter, the apprentices and journeymen set about whacking the cats senseless with broom handles and whatever else they could find to do the job. Then, they gathered up the felines, some dead, some half-dead, and held a mock trial of the animals.
Danton tells us that “After pronouncing the animals guilty and administering last rites, they strung them up on an improvised gallows.” The whole grisly scene was greeted by mirth on the part of the executioners. It was, in the words of one of the perpetrators, “the funniest thing that ever happened at Jacques Vincent’s printing works.”
More Than Animal Abuse
Three hundred years later, we view the torture and killing of the cats as a case of animal cruelty. To historians the event is seen as the stirring of something far more profound.
The labouring class in Paris faced precarious work situations with being hired and fired according to the state of the master’s order book. Even when they had a job, the pay was so low that most of them were close to malnourishment. Babies were frequently abandonned because their families could not afford to feed them.
The cat massacre was a way of indirectly striking back at the bourgeois. For months afterwards, the workers re-enacted the massacre in mime to howls of laughter. It was derision aimed obliquely at the master and his wife.
Here’s how historian Sara C. Maza puts it, “The explosive laughter this elicited underscored their understanding of an act of violence whose meaning was obvious without being explicit, in a situation where overt resistance was unthinkable.”
But, the unthinkable became thinkable as the aristocrats continued to party hearty seemingly oblivious to the seething cauldron of discontent that was brewing among the working class.
In 1789, some nobles and the bourgeoisie demanded King Louis XVI address their grievances that had a lot to do with financial losses caused by the monarch’s extravagances. The French underclass joined the revolution that, eventually, caused much bloodshed and changed the world forever.
Were the first whisperings of revolt heard with the killing of cats in a Paris print shop?
- The ritual abuse of cats was not unusual in early modern Europe. Cats were associated with witchcraft and the occult. To mark St. Jean Baptiste Day (June 24), it was customary to light bonfires and then throw objects believed to have magical powers into the flames. Among these objects were cats in a bag.
- During the Middle Ages, animals were often placed on trial, in real courts of law, for supposed crimes. You can read more about that here.
- “Economic and Social Conditions in France During the Eighteenth Century.” Henri Sée, 1927.
- “The Great Cat Massacre: French History Revealed by the Americans.” Juliette Démas, France-Amérique, February 22, 2018.
- “Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Severin.” University of Virginia, undated.
- “Thinking About History.” Sara C. Maza, Academy for Lifelong Learning, 2017.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor