Whilst Zack is busy catching up on his fan mail – oh yes, he now receives fan mail – it got me thinking what life would be like for my pampered puss seven hundred years ago. As he tucks into his M&S free range corn fed chicken, has a summer ‘cat house’ in the garden for when he choses to sleep out in the evening avoiding the wind and rain, or spends an inordinate amount of time working his way around the house stopping off at various ‘sleeping’ points, I quickly realise he, and me, do not know how good he’s got it. Cats generally in the medieval period were not curled up by the hearth and in amongst the furs of the truckle bed.
Much like today, cats were though useful for catching mice and rats. At all three of the National Trust properties I manage, we ‘employ’ cats as a natural method for controlling mice populations, which if left unchecked, can cause devastation to historic collections of furniture, floorboards, tapestries and textiles. Its good to see the role profile has not changed too much then! Given the need to store the harvest in the fourteenth century in order to survive the winter, cats offered the service of controlling the vermin population; if left unmanaged, they could easily eat their way through the grain stores. In return, the cat got a warm and dry place in the barn to hunker down. Their ability to control pests in this period is particularly evident when the Black Death swept across Europe in the mid 1340’s, when cats were killed off in their thousands as people laboured under the false belief that they were symbolic of the devil. The misery, pestilence and death the plague brought with it was, in the medieval mind, the devil’s work and therefore by default may have been brought about by cats and other such heretical beings. Of course, we now know that the fleas carried on the back of black rats were in fact the incubators of the deadly Yersinia pestis bacteria, which brought on bubonic plague. Without cats to control the rat population – and thereby the flea population by default – the subsequent chances of being touched by King Death was exacerbated with devastating consequences of an epidemic proportion. Between a third and a half of the population of England was wiped out within three years between 1348-50. Cats it appeared, earned their keep after all.
So why the devil? It is the independent nature of the cat that seemed to breed anxiety. Animals were made by God, so the medieval mind assumed therefore, they were to be controlled by man who was made in God’s image. A dog was and is still seen as man’s best friend; a sheep, a cow, a horse can all be tamed. But the cat. As any cat owners know to their peril, training a cat is an art that you will never truly master. The phrase ‘herding cats’ immediately springs to mind. A cat’s free spirit and independence bred fear that their free will and ability to outwit man could only be the work of the devil. The devil and the cat therefore could, and not just when you had too much mead, be seen as one of the same thing.
This week marks the seven hundred and second anniversary in which the Grand Master of the Templars, Jacques de Molay, and two other senior Templar knights were given over to the flames on the orders of Philip IV of France, whose greed for Templar wealth was his primary motivator in brining about the collapse of this ancient order, which was disbanded by papal decree in 1307. One of the many accusations flung at their Temple door included praying to cats and allowing them in during parts of their religious services. This bizarre accusation has meaning. The medieval mind was full of superstition, and to people of the fourteenth century, the devil himself could transfigure into the image of a cat, allowing him the opportunity to stalk his victims and steal souls. The Templars were therefore by default praying to the devil. Convenient and clever! Witches to were thought to shape shift into cats and this association of unmarried women living alone with black cats was then, and I still remember being told as a child by my grandmother only thirty odd years ago, a sure sign of a witch. Even today, the black cat can still put fear into the minds of many. I also blame Roald Dahl who said that witches always wore gloves because they had finger nails like cat claws. Be warned. Especially as All’Hallows is around the corner!
As I told Zack only a moment ago, the humble cat, far beyond the mouse catcher, was also game for the dinner table. He did not look perturbed. During times of famine or war, especially a siege, the cat, the dog and any other morsel was fair game.(1) Along with leather belts, prisoners and the occasional messenger when things got especially desperate.(2) Cats were also an industry. Their fur was useful for clothes. If you were lucky enough to be a yeoman you were, in the highly regulated medieval world, allowed to trim your clothes with cat fur, as well as fox and rabbit fur or lamb’s wool.(3)
However, whilst researching for this post I did come across many beautiful images of medieval cats. I am surprised by just how many I could find. The ancient and medieval period saw the production of many a bestiary; a compendium of illuminated and descriptive works dedicated to animals. Cats are well featured. One dating to the reign of Edward II is found at the British Library in the Harley collection. It shows a cat earning their keep in a castle besieged by mice sometime around 1320-1330. It made me smile as I thought of mine curled up on a cushion not looking at all hard at work. I hope it does you.
Unlike today therefore, the medieval cat it seemed, lived a precarious life. Mouse catcher when it suited, dinner when armies came to besiege the front door, or worse still, useful to keep the necks of people warm in winter if you were the right type of up and coming medieval man and wife on the make. Times it seems were tougher for our four legged friends. So perhaps they deserve a rest after all.
(1) Mortimer, Ian: The Time Travellers’s Guide to Medieval England (Vintage, 2008), 167
(2) On a recent trip to Carrickfergus Castle, north of Belfast, I was informed on the official interpretation panels that the siege of 1315-17 resulted in alleged cannibalism where the garrison ate the royal messengers sent into the castle to offer terms.
(3) Mortimer, I. As above. 92; 104
Irina Metzler. ‘Heretical Cats: Animal Symbolism in Religious Discourse’ in Medium Aevum Quotidianum Vol. 59 (2009)
Kathleen Walker-Meikle. Medieval Cats
Fan Mail – Author’s Collection
‘Catching Mice’. BL Harley MS 3053, f. 56v
‘Besieged Cat’. BL Harley MS 6563, f. 72r