Cat massacres and witch trials: reading between the lines

After reading Darton’s “Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Severin”and Kilvelson’s “Through the Prism of Witchcraft: Gender and Social Change in Seventeenth-Century Muscovy,” I was struck by the common thread between the two: that the phenomena they examine are not taken at face value, but are rather viewed as expressions of social angst.

For the journeymen of the Parisian print shop discussed by Darnton, this angst was directed at their master and his wife. The deterioration of the apprenticeship model mean that their job security and chance at upward mobility were being undermined, both by the shrinking number of higher positions and the influx of cheap laborers, or alloues. Cats, it seems, were merely the easy and culturally appropriate targets of their anger.Thus ritual and revolt were fused in the cat massacre. It’s an event infused with symbolism as well as one that, Darnton hints, might have foreshadowed the French Revolution in some ways.

Similarly,  the witchcraft trials in Russia that occurred about a century before also reveal a sort of social unrest. Kivelson shows how both the allegations and the forced confessions of the accusers and the accused reveal their respective motivations. Of the relatively few women accused of witchcraft, it seems that more than one attempted sorcery in order to influence masters or in-laws. The accusers’ reasons are even more indicative: men cried witchcraft when they found their masculinity and authority threatened, whereas women did so to (temporarily) gain more attention and power.

Both pieces clearly show that we shouldn’t regard odd and seemingly irrational events of the past as just weird things that past cultures did. Indeed, through careful investigation and thoughtfulness, historians are able to decipher the symbolism of these events and therefore uncover the logic of past peoples.

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