HISTORY OF THE CAT IN THE MIDDLE AGES (PART 1)

OVERVIEW HISTORY OF THE CAT

Social and religious strife plagued The Middle Ages.  The world  suffered through 9 crusades from 1096 to 1272.  Muslims, Jews and non-believers alike would be the victims of the wrath of the Christian church in its goal to secure its pervasive control over all. “The powerful Christian authority structures of Medieval Europe were only interested in one kind of relationship with other forms of religion:  the total destruction of these religions and the Christianization of all peoples; by force if necessary.”(Waddell, 2003 p.63) No matter what the segment of society, non-Christians were persecuted and burned especially in Italy and France for refusing to take the sacrament. During this time the church controlled both civil and criminal courts, book production and education (Bishop, 2001). Amidst this power struggle, the curse of the Black Death killed millions of people between the years 1347 and 1352, while the unrelenting church proclaimed any divergence from the main Catholic faith as heretical.  Accusations of witchcraft slowly rose, and these years saw the steady demise of the cat, culminating in its increased victimization as the familiar of witches and its embodiment of the Devil. 

HENRY I AND READING ABBEY

Henry I of England, history of the cat

Henry I of England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


However, in the early Middle Ages the cat was not treated as harshly as it would later be, as the benefits of keeping this helpful unassuming creature were still widely appreciated. Henry I of England (1068-1135) referred to as ‘Beauclerc,’ was not unlike Howel Dda in that he instituted laws that protected the cat.  Realizing its importance in protecting grain stores, he declared that anyone caught killing a cat would be subject to a fine of 60 bushels of corn (Choron, Moore, 2007). Not just fond of writing laws, Henry I founded a Benedictine Abbey at Reading as a testament to his faith.  Beak-head ornaments as well as cats’ heads decorate the abbey. 


Cats in the Middle Ages Beakshead ornaments, history of the cat

Beak-head Ornaments
Reading Abbey
1121 AD

          

WEARING CAT FUR

Unfortunately for the cat and other small animals, during the Middle Ages it was not uncommon for those from the lower social strata to use cat, rabbit, and even badger furs as trim and linings for blankets, gloves and mittens.  Some even wore complete cat coats made of up to 24 skins (Newman, 2001, p.126)  (Simpson, 1903). Furthermore, in 1127, shortly after Henry I’s death, the Canons of Archbishop Corbeuil mention that nuns were forbidden to wear any fur more expensive than a cat’s (Clutton-Brock, 1994). According to Sumptuary Laws only royalty could wear ermine, whereas the under-classes could only wear fox, cat or rabbit (Sider, 2005).

Bartholomew Anglicus, not to be confused with Bartholomew de Glanville, was a member of the order of St. Francis and is famous for writing a popular encyclopedia of science in 1240, De proprietatibus rerum.  Making sure to include a reference to the use of cats’ fur, he has described the cat as “…a beast of uncertain hair and color.  For some cat is white, some red, and some black, some calico and speckled in the feet and in the ears…And hath a great mouth and saw teeth and sharp and long tongue and pliant, thin, and subtle.  And lappet therewith when he drinketh…And he is full lecherous in youth, swift, pliant and merry, and leapeth and rusheth on everything that is before him and is led by a straw, and playeth therewith; and is a right heavy beast in age and full sleepy, and lieth slyly in wait for mice and is aware where they be more by smell than by sight, and hunteth and rusheth on them in privy places.  And when he taketh a mouse, he playeth therewith, and eateth him after the play.  In time of love is hard fighting for wives and one scratcheth and rendeth the other grieviously with biting and with claws.  And he maketh a ruthful noise and ghastful, when one proffereth to fight with one another, and unneth is hurt when he is thrown from a high place.  And when he hath a fair skin, he is as it were proud thereof, and goeth fast about.  And when his skin is burnt, then he bideth at home. And is oft for his fair skin taken of the skinner, and slain and flayed.”(Hartely, 1979, p.124) 

 

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Comments

  1. Sounds like Bartholomew was a cat-person……