CATS IN THE ENLIGHTENMENT (Part 6 – Naturalists’ Views on the Domestic Cat)

George Louis Leclerc Buffon domestic catsNot everyone was touched by the light of the Enlightenment, and a few scientists such as George Louis Leclerc de Buffon, a dog lover, and author of the Histoire Naturelle 1749-67, did not have a very high opinion of domestic cats, and turned away from a reverence for nature, instead valuing animals solely for their purposefulness and submissiveness to man.  He wrote,

“The cat is a faithless domestic, and only kept through necessity to oppose to another domestic which incommodes us still more, and which we cannot drive away; for we pay not respect to those, who, being fond of all beasts, keep cats for amusement.  Though these animals are gentle and frolicsome when young, yet the, even then, possess and innate cunning and perverse disposition, which age increases, and which education only serves to conceal.  Domestic cats are, naturally, inclined to theft, and the best education only converts them into servile and flattering robbers; for they have the same address, subtlety, and inclination for mischief or rapine.  Like all knaves, they know how to conceal their intentions, to watch, wait, and choose opportunities for seizing their prey; to fly from punishment,Histoire Naturelle Buffon and to remain away until the danger is over, and they return to safety.  They readily conform to the habits of society, but never acquire its manners; for of attachment they have only the appearance, as may be seen by the obliquity of their motions, and duplicity of their looks.  They never look in the face those who treat them best, and of whom they seem to be the most fond; but either the nigh fear or falsehood, they approach him by windings to seek for those caresses they have no pleasure in, but only to flatter those from whom they receive them.  Very different from that faithful dog, whose sentiments are all directed to the person of his Master, the domestic cat appears only to feel for himself, only to love conditionally, only to partake of society that he may abuse it; and by this disposition he has more affinity to man than the dog, who is all sincerity.” (Buffon, 1789, p. 37..Ross, 1868)  “It cannot be said that cats, though living in our houses, are entirely domestic.  the most familiar are not under any subjection, but rather enjoy perfect freedom, as they only do just what they please, and nothing is capable of returning them in a place which they are inclined to desert.” (Buffon, 1807, Vol. VI)


In line with Buffon’s view of the domestic cat, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 3rd edition, 1787, reads, “The domesticus, or tame cat, is so well known, that it requires no description.  It is a useful, but deceitful domestic.  Although when young they are playful and gay, they possess at the same time an innate malice and perverse disposition, which increases as they grow up, and which education learns them to conceal, but never to subdue.  Constantly bent upon theft and rapine, though in a domestic state, they are full of cunning and dissimulation; they conceal all their designs; seize every opportunity of doing mischief, and then fly from punishment.  They easily take on the habits of society, but never its manners; for they have only the appearance of friendship and attachment.  This disingenity of character is betrayed by the obliquity of their movements and the ambiguity of their looks.  In a word, the cat is totally destitute of friendship; he thinks and acts for himself alone.”

cats in the enlightenment


And finally from …..


“The Domestic Cat differs from the Wild-Cat, in being somewhat less ; and, instead of being uniformly the same, is distinguished by a great variety of shades and colouring. To describe an animal so well known, might seem a superfluous talk : We shall only, therefore, select such of its peculiarities as are least obvious, and may have escaped the notice of inattentive observers.

It is generally remarked, that Cats can see in the dark ; but, though this is not absolutely the case, yet it is certain that they can see with much less light than most other animals, owing to the peculiar structure of their eyes, the pupils of which are capable of being contracted or dilated in proportion to the degree of light by which they are affected. The pupil of the Cat, during the day, is perpetually contracted ; and it is with difficulty that it can see by a strong light : But in the twilight, the pupil resumes its natural roundness, the animal enjoys perfect vision, and takes advantage of this superiority to discover and surprise its prey.


Buffon cat

The cry of the Cat is loud, piercing, and clamorous ; and whether expressive of anger or of love, is equally violent and hideous. Its call may be heard at a great distance, and is so well known to the whole fraternity, that on some occasions several hundred Cats have been brought together from different parts. Invited by the piercing cries of distress from a suffering fellow-creature, they assemble in crowds -, and, with loud squalls and yells ; express their horrid sympathies. They frequently tear the miserable object to pieces ; and, with the most blind and furious rage, fall upon each other, killing and wounding indiscriminately, till there is scarcely one left. These terrible conflicts happen only in the night ; and, though rare, instances of very furious engagements are well authenticated.

The Cat is particularly averse to water, cold, and bad smells. It is fond of certain perfumes, but is more particularly attracted by the smell of valerian, marum, and cat-mint : It rubs itself against them ; and, if not prevented from coming at them in a garden where they are planted, would infallibly destroy them.

The Cat brings forth twice, and sometimes thrice, a year. The period of her gestation is fifty-five or fifty-fix days, and she generally produces five or fix at one litter. She conceals her kittens from the male, left he should devour them, as he is sometimes inclined , and, if apprehensive of being disturbed, will take them up in her mouth, and remove them one by one to a more secure retreat: Even the female herself, contrary to the established law of Nature, which binds the parent to its offspring by an almost indissoluble tie, is sometimes known to eat her own young the moment after she has produced them.

Though extremely useful in destroying the vermin that infest our houses, the Cat seems little attached to the persons of those who afford it protection. It seems to be under no subjection, and acts only for itself. All its views are confined to the place where it has been brought up ; if carried elsewhere, it seems lost and bewildered : Neither caresses nor attention can reconcile it to its new situation, and it frequently takes the first opportunity of escaping to its former haunts. Frequent instances are in our recollection, of Cats having returned to the place from whence they had been carried, though at many miles distance, and even across rivers, when they could not possibly have any knowledge of the road or situation that would apparently lead them to it. – This extraordinary faculty is, however, possessed in a much greater degree by Dogs ; yet it is in both animals equally wonderful and unaccountable.

In the time of Hoel the Good, King of Wales, who died in the year 948, laws were made as well to preserve, as to fix the different prices of animals ; among which the domestic


Cat was included, as being at that period of great importance, on account of its scarceness and utility. The price of a kitten before it could see was fixed at one penny ; till proof could be given of its having caught a mouse, two-pence ; after which it was rated at four pence, which was a great sum in those days, when the value of specie was extremely high : It was likewise required, that it should be perfect in its senses of hearing and seeing, should be a good mouser, have its claws whole, and, if a female, be a careful nurse : If it failed in any of these good qualities, the seller was to forfeit to the buyer the third part of its value. – If any one should steal or kill the Cat that guarded the Prince’s granary, he was either to forfeit a milch ewe, her fleece and lamb, or as much wheat as, when poured on the Cat suspended by its tail (its head touching the floor), would form a heap high enough to cover the tip of the former. – From hence we may conclude, that Cats were not originally natives of these islands ; and, from the great care taken to improve and preserve the breed of this prolific creature, we may suppose, were but little known at that period. – Whatever credit we may allow to the circumstances of the well-known story of Whittington and his Cat, it is another proof of the great value set upon this animal in former times.”


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Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat, cat history, cats



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  1. Pretty! This was an incredibly wonderful post. Many thanks
    for supplying this information.

  2. I love the look of The Great Cat!

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