The Great Cat Massacre and other Episodes in French Cultural History

In The Great Cat Massacre: and other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984), historian Robert Darton attempted to reconstruct and understand the mental world of early modern French peasants through their folktales. He began with the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” as told around firesides in peasant cottages during long winter evenings in eighteenth-century France. It’s a little different than the version you may have been told. The story went as follows:

A young girl was instructed to bring some milk and bread to her grandmother’s house. While walking down a path through the woods, a wolf stopped her and asked her where she was going. She told him, and the wolf took off down a second path. The wolf, “arrived first at the house. He killed grandmother, poured her blood into a bottle, and sliced her flesh onto a platter. Then he got into her nightclothes and waited in bed…”

When the young girl arrived, the wolf (disguised as her grandmother) offered her meat and wine from the pantry. “So the little girl ate what she was offered; and as she did, a little cat said, ‘Slut! To eat the flesh and drink the blood of your grandmother!’ Then the wolf said, ‘Undress and get into bed with me.’”

After a prolonged scene in which the young girl is instructed to undress and toss her clothes into the fire, the conclusion proceeds in the now familiar manner until, at the very end, the wolf eats the girl. No hunter comes to her rescue in the original version.

The version as we know it today, according to Darton, was taken by the Grimm brothers from Charles Perrault, a popular writer at the turn of the seventeenth century, who changed the stories to suit the tastes of the Paris elites. The ending we are familiar with, in which the hunter rescues Little Red and kills the wolf, was added by Jeannette Hassenpflug, the Grimm’s neighbor, from a popular German story “The Wolf and the Kids.”

Through an examination of folktales like “Little Red Riding Hood”, Darton hoped to unlock the mentalité of the French peasant during that time period. “Folktales are historical documents,” he argued. “They have evolved over many centuries and have taken different turns in different cultural traditions… they suggest that mentalités themselves have changed. We can appreciate the distance between our mental world and that of our ancestors if we imagine lulling a child of our own to sleep with the primitive peasant version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’”

The hardship of the physical world the peasants inhabited shaped their mental world. Story after story contained, by today’s standards, shocking brutality and sexuality. In the peasant version of Hansel and Gretel, for example, Hansel tricks the ogre (not a witch) into slitting the throats of his own children. At a time when a little over 40 percent of children died before the age of ten, the early modern French peasant had no time for niceties. “Far from veiling their message with symbols,” Darton elaborated, “the storytellers of eighteenth-century France portrayed a world of raw and naked brutality.”

What environment allowed the French peasant to find it acceptable to tell such stories to their young children? “The peasants of early modern France inhabited a world of stepmothers and orphans, of inexorable, unending toil, and of brutal emotions, both raw and repressed,” Darton explained. “The human condition has changed so much since then that we can hardly imagine the way it appeared to people whose lives really were nasty, brutish, and short.”

Mentalités, or mental worlds, are derived from and shaped by a person’s daily experiences, as well as cues he or she takes from friends, family, and neighbors. A mentalité can change over time until individuals can no longer empathize with the previous generation’s worldview. Consider how the American mentalité has changed―some cartoons once considered funny are now shunned as embarrassingly racist, and most contemporary Americans are unable to understand or share in the joke. Of course, more than one mental world can exist in any given culture at any given time.

While the unforgiving folktales of early modern French peasants stemmed from the harsh conditions of peasant life, the refined tastes of the elites prevented them from appreciating or understanding such tales. Born into relative security, they considered the original stories too harsh. So their “cleaned up” versions of folktales reflected a softer worldview.

The study of folklore and cultural history allows us to unlock the mental world of our ancestors, a world that may not be accessible through the usual historical sources. The stories people share, their meaning and morals, helps paint a more complete picture of the past. Robert Darton’s unique way of studying history remains compelling because he challenged us to examine past cultures from their own perspective, a perspective that is often foreign, strange, and incomprehensible.


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