Cats Modern and Medieval

Since the weather has turned so dramatically summer-like over the past week, I’ve spent a lot of time in the garden, generally accompanied by a cat or two.  My own cats, Darcy and Moneypenny, are primarily indoor cats, but our garden is pretty sheltered so I let them out in the summer and they hang out there.  They have lots of company, as cats like our garden for the following reasons:  1) I have used catnip very liberally as a border plant; 2) our garden serves as a cat “highway” to the park across the street, and; 3) we are one of the few households on the street which doesn’t have a dog.  So there is generally a cat or two back there, particularly on sunny days.  Below is my big tabby Darcy lying on the deck, Moneypenny lying on the bricks, and my neighbors’ cat (Lord of the Garden and King of the Street) surveying his domain.

When I compare these modern cats to their medieval predecessors, it occurs to me that this is an animal that has drastically improved its standard of living over the centuries.  Medieval cats were clearly not pets, and they did not just lie around in the sun; they had working lives.  Looking at the images in medieval bestiaries from the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries in the manuscript collections of the British Library, the Bodliean Library, and the Getty and Morgan libraries, it is clear that while dogs served as companions (as well as hunters), cats existed solely to kill mice and rats.

A leashed companion and working cats, all from the British Library digital catalogue of illuminated manuscripts:

From the Northumberland Bestiary (mid-12th century) at the J. Paul Getty Museum:

A trio of cats from the Aberdeen Bestiary(c. 1200) at the University of Aberdeen is below, which is accompanied by this great caption:

The cat is called musio, mouse-catcher, because it is the enemy of mice. It is commonly called catus, cat, from captura, the act of catching. Others say it gets the name from capto, because it catches mice with its sharp eyes. For it has such piercing sight that it overcomes the dark of night with the gleam of light from its eyes. As a result, the Greek word catus means sharp, or cunning.

Only occasionally (generally in the marginalia of the manuscripts) are cats given a break from catching:  here we have two musical cats (one playing, one listening) and one (inexplicably) encased in a snail shell.


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