Cats in Psalters and Bestiaries:
Cats were present in psalters and bestiaries, which were second in popularity only to the bible. These books as well as books of hours and even books of poetry, were widely read by the nobility and those well to do enough to purchase them. They contained many illustrations of cats, some with double meanings. In one illustration in The Psalter of Louis Le Hutin (1314) a grotesque with a lion’s hindquarters brandishes a huge sword in order to stab a large cat.
Often swords symbolize penises and their sheaths vaginas. Cats of course have always been equated with women from the earliest times, beginning with the cat goddess Bastet, hence the sexual overtones of this illustration.
In contrast, The Luttrell Psalter (1320-1340) contains marvelous depictions of every day medieval life in addition to its psalms and calendar. On one page a stripped grey cat with exceedingly long whiskers holds a mouse between his front paws.
In Queen Mary’s Psalter (1553) a wildcat is jumping at a dragon, and in another illustration a cat is beating a tabor. There is also “…a picture of the fall of men, in which there is a modification of the idea which gained wide currency during the Middle Ages that it was the serpent woman Lilith who had tempted Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. In this picture, while the beautiful grace and ample hair of Lilith are shown, instead of the usual female breast she has the body of a cat.” (Conway, 1879/2003 Vol. II, p.301)
While psalters contained psalms, bestiaries were illuminated manuscripts that used animals and mythical beasts to teach theological principles and moral lessons. In one of the earliest bestiaries from England, The Workshop Bestiary (1185), three very colorful cats sit side by side; the one in front holds a very large mouse or rat, while the fourth cat slinks towards another smaller mouse.
The Bodley Bestiary (1225-50) contains a vivid illustration of three cats highlighted by a deep blue background pierced by yellow stars and crescent moons. One cat is trying to catch a bird in a cage suspended over another sleeping cat, while a third cat stands prominently in the foreground clutching a large black rat.
Bestiaries were popular all through Europe, and perhaps one of the most illustrious of the Bestiaries, The Aberdeen Bestiary found in Westminster Palace Library in 1542, contains several images of cats. At the beginning of the book, there is an illustration of Adam naming the animals. The order of the animals in the illustration is symbolic. Wild animals, classified as uncontrollable by man, are the great cats and deer; on the other hand, animals considered beasts of burden are the horse and ox, while goats and sheep are simply food. A hare accompanies two cats in the left hand bottom corner margin and are classified simply, as “beasts.”
Another illustration shows three cats sitting together with this accompanying text, most probably borrowed and reworded from Isidore of Seville†, “Of the cat….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.”
†Isidore of Seville wrote an encyclopedia of the Dark Ages wherein he describes the cat, “Musio is so called because it is a foe of mice (muribus)..common people call it (catus)because it catches mice. Others say, because it sees (catat). For it has such sharp sight that it overcomes the darkness of the night by the brightness of its eyes.” (Brehaut, 1912, p.148)