In the Paris of the 1730s a group of printing apprentices tortured and ritually killed all the cats they could find – including the pet of their master’s wife. Why did this violent ritual cause them so much amusement? And what light does the story throw on the culture and society of eighteenth-century France?

The funniest thing that ever happened in the printing shop of Jacques Vincent, according to a worker who witnessed it, was a riotous massacre of cats. The worker, Nicolas Contat, told the story in an account of his apprenticeship in the shop, rue Saint-Severin, Paris, during the late 1730s. Life as an apprentice was hard, he explained. There were two of them: Jerome, the somewhat fictionalised version of Contat himself, and Leveille, They slept in a filthy freezing room, rose before dawn, ran errands all day while dodging insults from the journeymen and abuse from the master, and received nothing but slops to eat. They found the food especially galling. Instead of dining at the master's table, they had to eat scraps from his plate in the kitchen. Worse still, the cook secretly sold the leftovers and gave the boys cat food – old, rotten bits of meat that they could not stomach and so passed on to the cats, who refused it.

This last injustice brought Contat to the theme of cats. They occupied a special place in his narrative and in the household of the rue Saint-Severin. The master's wife adored them, especially la grise (the grey), her favourite. A passion for cats seemed to have swept through the printing trade, at least at the level of the masters, or bourgeois as the workers called them. One bourgeois kept twenty-five cats. He had their portraits painted and fed them on roast fowl. Meanwhile, the apprentices were trying to cope with a profusion of alley cats who also thrived in the printing district and made the boys' lives miserable. The cats howled all night on the roof over the apprentices' dingy bedroom, making it impossible to get a full night's sleep. As Jerome and Leveille had to stagger out of bed at four or five in the morning to open the gate for the earliest arrivals among the journeymen, they began the day in a state of exhaustion while the bourgeois slept late. The master did not even work with the men, just as he did not eat with them. He let the foreman run the shop and rarely appeared in it, except to vent his violent temper, usually at the expense of the apprentices.

One night the boys resolved to right this inequitable state of affairs. Leveille, who had an extraordinary talent for mimickry, 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. But instead of calling the cure – the master was exceptionally devout and the mistress exceptionally attached to her confessor – they commanded the apprentices to get rid of the cats. The mistress gave the order, enjoining the boys above all to avoid frightening her grise.

Gleefully Jerome and Leveille set to work, aided by the journeymen. Armed with broomhandles, bars of the press, and other tools of their trade, they went after every cat they could find, beginning with la grise. Leveille smashed its spine with an iron bar and Jerome finished it off. Then they stashed it in a gutter while the journeymen drove the other cats across the rooftops, bludgeoning every one within reach and trapping those who tried to escape in strategically placed sacks. They dumped sack-loads of half-dead cats in the courtyard. Then the entire workshop gathered round and staged a mock trial, complete with guards, confessor, and a public executioner. After pronouncing the animals guilty and administering last rites, they strung them up on an improvised gallows. Roused by gales of laughter, the mistress arrived. She let out a shriek as soon as she saw a bloody cat dangling from a noose. Then she realised it might be la grise. Certainly not, the men assured her: they had too much respect for the house to do such a thing. At this point the master appeared. He flew into a rage at the general stoppage of work, though his wife tried to explain that they were threatened by a more serious kind of insubordination. Then master and mistress withdrew, leaving the men delirious with 'joy', 'disorder', and 'laughter'.

The laughter did not end there. Leveille re-enacted the entire scene in mime at least twenty times during subsequent days when the printers wanted to knock off for some hilarity. Burlesque re-enactments of incidents in the life of the shop, known as copies in printers' slang, provided a major form of entertainment for the men. The idea was to humiliate someone in the shop by satirising his peculiarities. A successful copie would make the butt of the joke fume with rage – prendre la chevre (take the goat) in the shop slang – while his mates razzed him with 'rough music'. They would run their composing sticks across the tops of the type cases, beat their mallets against the chases, pound on cupboards, and bleat like goats. The bleating (bais in the slang) stood for the humiliation heaped on the victims, as in English when someone gets your goat. Contat emphasised that Leveille produced the funniest copies anyone had ever known and elicited the great choruses of rough music. The whole episode, cat massacre compounded by copies, stood out as the most hilarious experience in Jerome's entire career.

Yet it strikes the modern reader as unfunny, if not down right repulsive. Where is the humour in a group of grown men bleating like goats and banging with their tools while an adolescent re-enacts the ritual slaughter of a defenceless animal? Our own inability to get the joke is an indication of the distance that separates us from the workers of pre-industrial Europe. The perception of that distance may serve as the starting point of an investigation, for anthropologists have found that the best points of entry in an attempt to penetrate an alien culture can be those where it seems to be most opaque. When you realise that you are not getting something – a joke, a proverb, a ceremony that is particularly meaningful to the natives, you can see where to grasp a foreign system of meaning in order to unravel it. By getting the joke of the great cat massacre, it may be possible to 'get' a basic ingredient of artisanal culture under the Old Regime.

The first explanation that probably would occur to most readers of Contat's story is that the cat massacre served as an oblique attack on the master and his wife. Contat set the event in the context of remarks about the disparity between the lot of workers and the bourgeois – a matter of the basic elements in life: work, food, and sleep. The injustice seemed especially flagrant in the case of the apprentices, who were treated like animals while the animals were promoted over their heads to the position the boys should have occupied, the place at the master's table. Although the apprentices seem most abused, the text makes it clear that the killing of the cats expressed a hatred for the bourgeois that had spread among all the workers: 'The masters love cats; consequently [the workers] hate them.' After master-minding the massacre, Leveille became the hero of the shop, because 'all workers are in league against the masters. It is enough to speak badly of them [the masters] to be esteemed by the whole assembly of typographers'.

Historians have tended to treat the era of artisanal manufacturing as an idyllic period before the onset of industrialisation. Some even portray the workshop as a kind of extended family in which master and journeymen laboured at the same tasks, ate at the same table, and sometimes slept under the same roof. Had anything happened to poison the atmosphere of the printing shops in Paris by 1740?

During the second half of the seventeenth century, the large printing houses, backed by the government, eliminated most of the smaller shops, and an oligarchy of masters seized control of the industry. At the same time, the situation of the journeymen deteriorated. Although estimates vary and statistics cannot be trusted, it seems that their number remained stable: approximately 335 in 1666, 339 in 1701, and 340 in 1721. Meanwhile the number of masters declined by more than half, from eighty-three to thirty-six, the limit fixed by an edict of 1686. That meant fewer shops with larger work forces, as one can see from statistics on the density of presses: in 1644 Paris had seventy-five printing shops with a total of 180 presses; in 1701 it had fifty-one shops with 195 presses. This trend made it virtually impossible for journeymen to rise into the ranks of the masters. About the only way for a worker to get ahead in the craft was to marry a master's widow, for masterships had become hereditary privileges, passed on from husband to wife and from father to son.

The journeymen also felt threatened from below because the masters tended increasingly to hire alloues, or underqualified printers, who had not undergone the apprenticeship that made a journeyman eligible, in principle, to advance to a mastership. The alloues were merely a source of cheap labour, excluded from the upper ranks of the trade and fixed, in their inferior status, by an edict of 1723. Their degradation stood out in their name: they were a louer (for hire), not compagnons (journeymen) of the master. They personified the tendency of labour to become a commodity instead of a partnership. Thus Contat served his apprenticeship and wrote his memoirs when times were hard for journeymen printers, when the men in the shop in the rue Saint-Severin stood in danger of being cut off from the top of the trade and swamped from the bottom.

Contat himself believed that at one time journeymen and masters lived together as members of a happy family. He began his description of Jerome's apprenticeship by invoking a golden age when printing was first invented and printers lived as free and equal members of a 'republic', governed by its own laws and traditions in a spirit of fraternal 'union and friendship'. He claimed that the republic still survived in the form of the chapelle or workers' association in each shop. But the government had broken up general associations; the ranks had been thinned by alloues; the journeymen had been excluded from masterships; and the masters had withdrawn into a separate world of haute cuisine and grasses matinees. The master in the rue Saint-Severin ate different food, kept different hours, and talked a different language. His wife and daughters dallied with worldly abbes. They kept pets. Clearly, the bourgeois belonged to a different subculture – one which meant above all that he did not work. In introducing his account of the cat massacre, Contat made explicit the contrast between the worlds of worker and master that ran throughout the narrative: 'Workers, apprentice, everyone works. Only the master and mistresses enjoy the sweetness of sleep. That makes Jerome and Liveille resentful. They resolve not to be the only wretched ones. They want their master and mistress as associates (associes)'. That is, the boys wanted to restore a mythical past when masters and men worked in friendly association. They also may have had in mind the more recent extinction of the smaller printing shops. So they killed the cats.

But why cats'? And why was the killing so funny? Those questions take us beyond the consideration of early modern labour relations and into the obscure subject of popular ceremonies and symbolism.

Folklorists have made historians familiar with the ceremonial cycles that marked off the calendar year for early modern man. The most important of these was the cycle of carnival and Lent, a period of revelry followed by a period of abstinence. During carnival the common people suspended the normal rules of behaviour and ceremoniously reversed the social order or turned it upside down in riotous procession. Carnival was a time for cutting up by youth groups, particularly apprentices, who organised themselves in 'abbeys' ruled by a mock abbot or king and who staged charivaris or burlesque processions with rough music in order to humiliate cuckolds, husbands who had been beaten by their wives, brides who had married below their age group, or someone else who personified the infringement of traditional norms. Carnival was high season for hilarity, sexuality, and youth run riot – a time when young people tested social boundaries by limited outbursts of deviance, before being reassimilated in the world of order, submission, and Lentine seriousness. It came to an end on Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, when a straw mannequin, King Carnival or Caramantran, was given a ritual trial and execution. Cats played an important part in some charivaris. In Burgundy, the crowd incorporated cat torture into its rough music. While mocking a cuckold or some other victim, the youths passed around a cat, tearing its fur to make it howl. Faire le chat, they called it. The Germans called charivaris Katzenmusik, a term that may have been derived from the howls of tortured cats.

Cats also figured in the cycle of Saint John the Baptist, which took place on June 24th, at the time of the summer solstice. Crowds made bonfires, jumped over them, danced around them, and threw into them objects with magical power, hoping to avoid disaster and obtain good fortune during the rest of the year. A favourite object was cats – cats tied up in bags, cats suspended from ropes, or cats burned at the stake. Parisians like to incinerate cats by the sackful, while the Courimauds (cour a miaud or cat chasers) of Saint Chamond preferred to chase a flaming cat through the streets. In parts of Burgundy and Lorraine they danced around a kind of burning maypole with a cat tied to it. In the Metz region they burned a dozen cats at a time in a basket on top of a bonfire. The ceremony took place with a great pomp in Metz itself, until it was abolished in 1765. The town dignitaries arrived in procession at the Place du Grand-Saulcy, lit the pyre, and a ring of riflemen from the garrison fired off volleys while the cats disappeared screaming in the flames. Although the practice varied from place to place, the ingredients were everywhere the same: a feu de joie (bonfire), cats, and an aura of hilarious witch-hunting.

But why was it that cats figured so prominently in these ceremonies? It should be said at the outset that there is an indefinable je ne sais quoi about cats, a mysterious something that has fascinated mankind since the time of the ancient Egyptians. One can sense a quasi-human intelligence behind a cat's eyes. One can mistake a cat's howl at night for a human scream, torn from some deep, visceral part of man's animal nature. Cats appealed to poets like Baudelaire and painters like Manet, who wanted to express the humanity in animals along with the animality of men – and especially of women.

This ambiguous ontological position, a straddling of conceptual categories, gives certain animals – pigs, dogs and cassowaries as well as cats – in certain cultures an occult power associated with the taboo. That is why Jews do not eat pigs, according to Mary Douglas, and why Englishmen can insult one another by saying 'son-of-a-bitch', rather than 'son-of-a-cow', according to Edmund Leach. Certain animals are good for swearing, just as they are 'good for thinking' in Levi-Strauss's famous formula. I would add that others – cats in particular – are good for staging ceremonies. They have ritual value. You cannot made a charivari with a cow. You do it with cats: you decide to faire le chat, to make Katzenmusik.

The torture of animals, especially cats, was a popular amusement throughout early modern Europe. You have only to look at Hogarth's Stages of Cruelty to see its importance, and once you start looking you see people torturing animals everywhere. Cat killings provided a common theme in literature, from Don Quixote in early seventeenth-century Spain to Germinal in late nineteenth-century France. Far from being a sadistic fantasy on the part of a few half-crazed authors, the literary versions of cruelty to animals expressed a deep current of popular culture, as Mikhail Bakhtin has shown in his study of Rabelais. All sorts of ethnographic reports confirm that view. On the dimanche des brandons in Semur, for example, children used to attach cats to poles and roast them over bonfires. In the jeu du chat at the Fete-Dieu in Aix-en-Provence, they threw cats high in the air and smashed them on the ground. They used expressions like 'patient as a cat whose claws are being pulled out or 'patient as a cat whose paws are being grilled'. The English were just as cruel. During the Reformation in London, a Protestant crowd shaved a cat to look like a priest, dressed it in a mock vestments, and hanged it on the gallows at Cheapside. It would be possible to string out many other examples, but the point should be clear: there was nothing unusual about the ritual killing of cats. On the contrary, when Jerome and his fellow workers tried and hanged all the cats they could find in the rue Saint-Severin, they drew on a common element in their culture. But what significance did that culture attribute to cats?

First and foremost, cats suggested witchcraft. To cross one at night in virtually any corner of France was to risk running into the devil or one of his agents or a witch abroad on an evil errand. White cats could be as satanic as the black, in the daytime as well as at night. In a typical encounter, a peasant woman of Bigorre met a pretty white house cat which had strayed in the fields. She carried it back to the village in her apron, and just as they came to the house of a woman suspected of witchcraft, the cat jumped out, saying 'Merci, Jeanne'. Witches transformed themselves into cats in order to cast spells on their victims. Sometimes, especially on Mardi Gras, they gathered for hideous sabbaths at night. They howled, fought, and copulated horribly under the direction of the devil, himself in the form of a huge tomcat. To protect yourself from sorcery by cats there was one, classic remedy: maim it. Cut its tail, clip its ears, smash one of its legs, tear or burn its fur, and you would break its malevolent power. A maimed cat could not attend a sabbath or wander abroad to cast spells. Peasants frequently cudgelled cats who crossed their paths at night and discovered the next day that bruises had appeared on women believed to be witches – or so it was said in the lore of their village. Villagers also told stories of farmers who found strange cats in barns and broke their limbs to save the cattle. Invariably a broken limb would appear on a suspicious woman the following morning.

Cats possessed occult power independently of their association with witchcraft and devilry. They could prevent the bread from rising if they entered bakeries in Anjou. They could spoil the catch if they crossed the path of fishermen in Brittany. If buried alive in Bearn, they could clear a field of weeds. They figured as staple ingredients in all kinds of folk medicine aside from witches' brews. To recover from a bad fall, you. sucked the blood out of a freshly amputated tail of a tomcat. To cure yourself from pneumonia, you drank blood from a cat's ear in red wine. To get over colic, you mixed your wine with cat excrement. You could even make yourself invisible, at least in Brittany, by eating the brain of a newly killed cat, provided it was still hot.

There was a specific field for the exercise of cat power: the household and particularly the person of the master or mistress of the house. Folktales like 'Puss in Boots' emphasised the identification of master and cat, and so did superstitions such as the practice of tying a black ribbon around the neck of a cat whose mistress had died. To kill a cat was to bring misfortune upon its owner or its house. If a cat left a house or stopped jumping on the sickbed of its master or mistress, the person was likely to die. But a cat lying on the bed of a dying man might be the devil, waiting to carry his soul off to hell. According to a sixteenth-century tale, a girl from Quintin sold her soul to the devil in exchange for some pretty clothes. When she died, the pallbearers could not lift her coffin; they opened the lid, and a black cat jumped out. Cats could harm a house. They often smothered babies. They understood gossip and would repeat it out of doors. But their power could be contained or turned to your advantage if you followed the right procedures, such as greasing their paws with butter or maiming them when they first arrived. To protect a new house, Frenchmen enclosed live cats within its walls – a very old rite, judging from cat skeletons that have been exhumed from the walls of medieval buildings.

Finally, the power of cats was concentrated on the most intimate aspect of domestic life: sex. Le chat, la chatte, le minet mean the same thing in French slang as 'pussy' does in English, and they have served as obscenities for centuries. French folklore attaches special importance to the cat as a sexual metaphor or metonym. As far back as the fifteenth century, the petting of cats was recommended for success in courting women. Proverbial wisdom identified women with cats: 'He who takes good care of cats will have a pretty wife.' If a man loved cats, he would love women; and vice versa: 'As he loves his cat, he loves his wife', went another proverb. If he did not care for his wife, you could say of him, 'He has other cats to whip'. A woman who wanted to get a man should avoid treading on a cat's tail. She might postpone marriage for a year – or for seven years in Quimper and for as many years as the cat meowed in parts of the Loire Valley. Cats connoted fertility and female sexuality everywhere. Girls were commonly said to be 'in love by a cat'; and if they became pregnant, they had 'let the cat go to the cheese'. Eating cats could bring on pregnancy in itself. Girls who consumed them in stews gave birth to kittens in several folktales. Cats could even make diseased apple trees bear fruit, if buried in the correct manner in upper Brittany.

It was an easy jump from the sexuality of women to the cuckolding of men. Caterwauling could come from a satanic orgy, but it might just as well be toms howling defiance at each other when their mates were in heat. They did not call as cats, however. They issued challenges in their masters' names, along with sexual taunts about their mistresses: 'Reno! Francois!' 'Ou allez-vous?' – 'Voir la femme a vous.' – 'Voir la femme a moi! Rouah!' (Where are you going? – To see your wife. – To see my wife! Ha!) Then the toms would fly at each other like the cats of Kilkenny, and their sabbath would end in a massacre. The dialogue differed according to the imaginations of the listeners and the onomatopoetic power of their dialect, but it usually emphasised predatory sexuality. 'At night all cats are grey', went the proverb, and the gloss in an eighteenth-century proverb collection made the sexual hint explicit: 'That is to say that all women are beautiful enough at night'. Enough for what? Seduction, rape, and murder echoed in the air when the cats howled at night in early modern France. Cat calls summoned up Katzenmusik, for charivaris often took the form of howling under a cuckold's window on the eve of Mardi Gras, the favourite time for cat sabbaths.

Witchcraft, orgy, cuckoldry, charivari, and massacre, the men of the Old Regime could hear a great deal in the wail of a cat. What the men in the rue Saint-Severin actually heard is impossible to say. One can only assert that cats bore enormous symbolic weight in the folklore of France and that the lore was rich, ancient, and widespread enough to have penetrated the printing shop. In order to determine whether the printers actually drew on the ceremonial and symbolic themes available to them, it is necessary to take another look at Contat's text.

The text made the theme of sorcery explicit from the beginning. Jerome and Leveille could not sleep because 'some bedevilled cats make a sabbath all night long'. After Leveille added his cat calls to the general caterwauling, 'the whole neighbourhood is alarmed. It is decided that the cats must be agents of someone casting a spell'. The master and mistress considered summoning the cure to exorcise the place. In deciding instead to commission the cat hunt, they fell back on the classic remedy for witch- craft: maiming. The bourgeois – a superstitious, priest-ridden fool – took the whole business seriously. To the apprentices it was a joke. Leveille in particular functioned as a joker, a mock 'sorcerer' staging a fake 'sabbath', according to the terms chosen by Contat. Not only did the apprentices exploit their master's superstition in order to run riot at his expense, but they also turned their rioting against their mistress. By bludgeoning her familiar, la grise, they in effect accused her of being the witch. The double joke would not be lost on anyone who could read the traditional language of gesture.

The theme of charivari provided an additional dimension to the fun. Although it never says so explicitly, the text indicates that the mistress was having an affair with her priest, a 'lascivious youth', who had memorised obscene passages from the classics of pornography – Aretino and L'Academie des dames – and quoted them to her, while her husband droned on about his favourite subjects, money and religion. During a lavish dinner with the family, the priest defended the thesis 'that it is a feat of wit to cuckold one's husband and that cuckolding is not a vice'. Later, he and the wife spent the night together in a country house. They fit perfectly into the typical triangle of printing shops: a doddering old master, a middle-aged mistress, and her youthful lover. The intrigue cast the master in the role of a stock comic figure: the cuckold. So the revelry of the workers took the form of a charivari. The apprentices managed it, operating within the liminal area where novitiates traditionally mocked their superiors, and the journeymen responded to their antics in the traditional way, with rough music. A riotous, festival atmosphere runs through the whole episode, which Contat described as a fete: Leveilli and his comrade Jerome preside over the fete, he wrote, as if they were kings of a carnival and the cat bashing corresponded to the torturing of cats on Mardi Gras or the fete of Saint John the Baptist.

As in many Mardi Gras, the carnival ended in a mock trial and execution. The burlesque legalism came naturally to the printers because they staged their own mock trials every year at the fete of Saint Martin, when the chapel squared accounts with its boss and succeeded spectacularly in getting his goat. The chapel could not condemn him explicitly without moving into open insubordination and risking dismissal. So the workers tried the bourgeois in absentia, using a symbol that would let their meaning show through without being explicit enough to justify retaliation. They tried and hanged the cats. It would be going too far to hang la grise under the master's nose after being ordered to spare it; but they made the favourite pet of the house their first victim, and in doing so they knew they were attacking the house itself, in accordance with the traditions of cat lore. When the mistress accused them of killing la grise, they replied with mock deference that 'nobody would be capable of such an outrage and that they have too much respect for that house'. By executing the cats with such elaborate ceremony, they condemned the house and declared the bourgeois guilty – guilty of overworking and underfeeding his apprentices, guilty of living in luxury while his journeymen did all the work, guilty of withdrawing from the shop and swamping it with alloues instead of labouring and eating with the men, as masters were said to have done a generation or two earlier, or in the primitive 'republic' that existed at the beginning of the printing industry. The guilt extended from the boss to the house to the whole system. Perhaps in trying, confessing, and hanging a collection of half-dead cats, the workers meant to ridicule the entire legal and social order.

They certainly felt debased and had accumulated enough resentment to explode in an orgy of killing. A half-century later, the artisans of Paris would run riot in a similar manner, combining indiscriminate slaughter with improvised popular tribunals. It would be absurd to view the cat massacre as a dress rehearsal for the September massacres of the French Revolution, but the earlier outburst of violence did suggest a popular rebellion, though it remained restricted to the level of symbolism.

The only version of the cat massacre available to us was put into writing, long after the fact, by Nicolas Contat. He selected details, ordered events, and framed the story in such a way as to bring out what was meaningful for him. But he derived his notions of meaning from his culture just as naturally as he drew in air from the atmosphere around him. And he wrote down what he had helped to enact with his mates. The subjective character of the writing does not vitiate its collective frame of reference, even though the written account must be thin compared with the action it describes. The workers' mode of expression was a kind of popular theatre. It involved pantomime, rough music, and a dramatic 'theatre of violence' improvised in the work place, in the street, and on the roof-tops. It included a play within a play, because Leveille re-enacted the whole farce several times as copies in the shop. In fact, the original massacre involved the burlesquing of other ceremonies, such as trials and charivaris. So Contat wrote about a burlesque of a burlesque, and in reading it one should make allowances for the refraction of cultural forms across genres and over time.

Those allowances made, it seems clear that the workers found the massacres fun because it gave them a way to turn the tables on the bourgeois. By goading him with cat calls, they provoked him to authorise the massacre of cats, then they used the massacre to put him symbolically on trial for unjust management of the shop. They also used it as a witch-hunt, which provided an excuse to kill his wife's familiar and to insinuate that she herself was the witch. Finally, they transformed it into a charivari, which served as a means to insult her sexually while mocking him as a cuckold. The bourgeois made an excellent butt of the joke. Not only did he become the victim of a procedure he himself had set in motion, he did not understand how badly he had been had. The men had subjected his wife to symbolic aggression of the most intimate kind, but he did not get it. He was too thick-headed, a classic cuckold. The printers ridiculed him in splendid Boccaccian style and got off scot-free.

The joke worked so well because the workers played so skilfully with a repertory of ceremonies and symbols. Cats suited their purposes perfectly. By smashing the spine of la grise they called the master's wife a witch and a slut, while at the same time making the master into a cuckold and a fool. It was a metonymic insult, delivered by actions, not words, and it struck home because cats occupied a soft spot in the bourgeois way of life. Keeping pets was as alien to the workers as torturing animals was to the bourgeois. Trapped between incompatible sensitivities, the cats had the worst of both worlds.

The workers also punned with ceremonies. They made a roundup of cats into a witch hunt, a festival, a charivari, a mock trial, and a dirty joke. Then they redid the whole thing in pantomime. Whenever they got tired of working, they transformed the shop into a theatre and produced copies – their kind of copy, not the authors'. Shop theatre and ritual punning suited the traditions of their craft. Although printers made books, they did not use written words to convey their meaning. They used gestures, drawing on the culture of their craft to inscribe statements in the air.

Insubstantial as it may seem today, this joking was a risky business in the eighteenth century. The risk was part of the joke, as in many forms of humour, which toy with violence and tease repressed passions. The workers pushed their symbolic horseplay to the brink of reification, the point at which the killing of cats would turn into an open rebellion. They played on ambiguities, using symbols that would hide their full meaning while letting enough of it show through to make a fool of the bourgeois without giving him a pretext to fire them. They tweaked his nose and prevented him from protesting against it. To pull off such a feat required great dexterity. It showed that workers could manipulate symbols in their idiom as effectively as poets did in print.

The boundaries within which this jesting had to be contained suggest the limits to working-class militancy under the Old Regime. The printers identified with their craft rather than their class. Although they organised in chapels, staged strikes, and some- times forced up wages, they remained subordinate to the bourgeois. The master hired and fired men as casually as he ordered paper, and he turned them out into the road when he sniffed insubordination. So until the onset of proletarianisation in the late nineteenth century, they generally kept their protests on a symbolic level. A copie, like a carnival, helped to let off steam; but it also produced laughter, a vital ingredient in the early artisanal culture and one that has been lost in labour history. By seeing the way a joke worked in the horseplay of a printing shop two centuries ago, we may be able to recapture that missing element – laughter, sheer laughter, the thigh-slapping, rib-cracking Rabelaisian kind, rather than the Voltarian smirk with which we are familiar.

About the Author

Robert Darnton is Professor of history at Princeton University. This article is an extract from The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History by Robert Darnton (Allen Lane).