DOMESTIC CAT HISTORY IN THE EARLY MODERN PERIOD

BACKGROUND

The Early Modern Period (1500-1700), was an era marked by global exploration, the rebirth of classical thought and religious reformation. Christopher Columbus’ ships were the first to sail across the world in 1492, probably carrying cats to kill mice and rats, much as the ancient Phoenician vessels did centuries before on their first voyages around the Mediterranean.  And just as the cat spread its domain through Phoenician trade, cats aboard Columbus’ ships most likely stayed on land to become the first to colonize the Americas. If not, records indicate our seafaring feline certainly accompanied the Jamestown settlers in 1607, but undoubtedly, met a grim fate during the period of starvation when the settlers ate whatever they could.  Pocahontas, who saved the life of John Smith, was given a domesticated cat, and cats accompanied the Pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620.  Upon landing in the New World, at least one adventurous feline must have scurried over Plymouth Rock.

 

Plymouth Rock, located in Plymouth, Massachuse...

Plymouth Rock, located in Plymouth, Massachusetts, is traditionally said to be the landing site of the Pilgrims. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

As the Renaissance brought forth new ideas based on the merging of classical philosophy, mythology and Christianity, the Early Modern Period also became a time for enlightened thinkers to excel at art and literature.  Moving away from the vacuousness of the Dark and Middle Ages, meant a beginning of a rebirth for the cat as well. However, as with all movements forward, there were sporadic lapses which hung heavy upon progress.  As people’s fears and superstitions continued, the cat was still to carry its unjustified burden of being a representative of the Devil far into this era, evidenced by unrelenting witch trials that lasted into the 1700’s.  The Reformation, too, produced many instances of cruelty to cats as did other episodes of religious and social unrest. Even so, the cat, an enduring emblem of the ability to overcome torture and suffering, continued to survive, and one by one progressive thinkers of this era came to respect our domestic feline for its untamed and inscrutable nature.

 

Study of a Cat Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678, Flemish), cat history

Study of a Cat
Jacob Jordaens
(1593-1678, Flemish)

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