The Great Cat Massacre is the subject of a scholarly work by American historian Robert Darnton, describing and interpreting an unusual source detailing the murder or "massacre" of cats during the late 1730s by apprentice printers living and working on Rue Saint-Séverin in Paris.
Darnton describes how, as the apprentices suffered hard conditions, they came to resent the favours which their masters gave to their cats, and contrived to deal with the nuisance cats by slaughtering them so as to distress their masters. Darnton interprets this as an early form of workers' protest.
The cats were a favourite of the printer's wife and were fed much better than the apprentices, who were in turn served 'catfood' (rotting meat scraps). Aside from this, they were maltreated, beaten and exposed to cold and horrible weather. One of the apprentices imitated a cat by screaming like one for several nights, making the printer and his wife despair. Finally, the printer ordered the cats rounded up and despatched. The apprentices did this, rounded up all the cats they could find, beat them half to death and held a 'trial'. They found the cats guilty of witchcraft and sentenced them to death by hanging.
Method – Darnton, influenced by his colleague, anthropologist Clifford Geertz, aimed to gain greater insight into the period and social groups involved by studying what he perceived to be something which appeared alien to the modern mind – the fact that killing cats might be funny. He has been criticised for this, however, as some people throughout history have doubtless found such cruelty amusing, and even today one could find examples of animal cruelty for fun – such as cock-fighting, dog-fighting, and bull fighting.
The book containing this account, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, has become one of Darnton's most popular writings; it has been published in seventeen different languages.