Cats in Early Modern Period Literature – Beware the Cat 1570

Perhaps not so surprising, the first novel written in English is entitled Beware the Cat by William Baldwin (1515-1563), and includes cats as the main characters. What dog could live up to this claim to fame? First published in 1570, during the Reformation, and set in Ireland, it is a satire on Catholicism; an attack on what Protestants considered superstitious religious rites. The character Streamer narrates the three part story, which is based on the premise that animals are capable of speech and reasoning, and that man can learn to understand them, albeit through some complicated magical spell.

The plot revolves around the trial of the main female cat character, Mouse-slayer, who is charged with not abiding by the laws of the cat world, and shunning the advances of her admirer. Throughout the story, for the first time in any literature, the cats act like cats that possess great evil powers, unlike the character Tibert, in Reynard the Fox, who acts like a person. The story begins with an Irish soldier killing Grimalkin†, the chief cat. After stealing a cow and a sheep, the soldier and his servant take refuge in a church yard and kill and cook the sheep. When the meat is done, a cat comes begging. The soldier and servant give the cat some of their food until it is all gone. The cat, being insatiable, eats the cow as well, and the men, fearing for their own lives, run away. The cat chases them, and the soldier resorts to throwing a spear that kills Grimalkin. After the cat dies, a clowder of cats appears; in revenge, they attack and kill and then, even eat the servant boy. The soldier, after escaping this horrifying experience, finally arrives home, and recounts the whole story to his wife, but little does he realize that his own cat is listening. His cat asks him, “Hast thou killed Grimalkin?!” (Hadfield, 2007, p.142) Once hearing that he has in fact killed Grimalkin, his own infuriated cat jumps on the ill-fated soldier and strangles him. Here, the invincibility of the cats is a metaphor for the undying power of the Catholic Church, which ultimately cannot be destroyed.

 

† Shakespeare took the name of Grimalkin from Baldwin (Ringler, 1979).

 

REFERENCES

Hadfield, Andrew. (2007). Literature, travel and colonial writing in English renaissance 1545-1625. Oxford University Press.

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