Cat Massacre and Witchcraft

Both the “The Great Cat Massacre” and “Through the Prism of Witchcraft” deal with the issue of witchcraft during the seventeenth and eighteenth century and the underlying causes, problems, and social issues within the societies where accusations were common. These articles both work to disprove the commonly held beliefs that witchcraft accusations were primarily made against women and that the massacre of cats in France was solely due to a revolt against the social hierarchy.

The article “Through the Prism of Witchcraft” by Valerie Kivelson describes the variety of reasons behind the rise in witchcraft accusations, as well as working to prove approaches towards witchcraft were not uniform throughout all the affected countries. Kivelson frames the variety of experiences in witchcraft through 17th century Muscovy, which at the time had been experiencing a gradual enserfment of it’s population due to the Ulozehnie of 1649 and a rise in the power of both the State and Church. Kivelson acknowledges while socially marginalized people were accused and executed for witchcraft, social marginalization alone can not be considered to be the sole reason. At this time the Orthodox Church was increasing it’s power and was also striving to eliminate paganism as its competition, while the state introduced laws banning any sort of witchcraft with a punishment of a fine, corporal punishment, or execution. Both of these organizations were looking to consolidate and increase their power over the population, and would attempt to legitimize their judicial systems through the prosecution of witchcraft. Finally accusations made against possible “witches” were not solely motivated by social marginalization, but also by local conflicts and personal grudges.

On a similar theme of witchcraft “The Great Cat Massacre” by Robert Darnton works to place cat-killing in it’s cultural and historical context through examining the 18th century autobiography of a printer journeyman named Nicolas Contat. In his autobiography Contat describes the killing of cats as a revolt against his master and mistress but also as a larger form of revolt against the bourgeoisie class. The journeymen kill the mistress’ cat, “la grise”, symbolically assaulting her and implicating her as a witch. Darnton details the connection of cats with their owner’s power, and the subsequent loss in power or health if the cat was maimed or killed. Cats were also believed to be a manifestation of the devil, and through maiming or killing the cat, both the Devil and the witch who took care of the cat were hurt. The massacre of the cats was also intended to challenge the authority of the master and the bourgeoisie class as a whole. At this time in France the journeyman’s occupation was undermined by both cheaper labor and the consolidation of small shops into larger organizations. Therefore Darnton concludes that while this revolt may have been partially in response to personal issues with the master and mistress, as well as the social hierarchy, it was also due to increasing economic pressures and the declining specialization of their trade.  Finally Darnton places cat massacres within a larger context in that they were not French events, and had occurred throughout the European continent in places such as Germany where cat massacres were known as Katzenmusik.

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