History of the Cat in Medieval Literature

Tibert the Cat in the fable Reynard the Fox

By the 12th century the cat had transitioned from solely a model for illustrations to a full blown character in medieval literature.  The cat’s first starring role was as Tibert in the story Reynard the Fox.  Written by Pierre de St. Cloud in 1175, it is an allegory of the struggle amongst peasants, aristocracy and clergy.  Reynard is a treacherous villain who in one scene tricks Tibert the cat into going into a priest’s barn where Reynard promises there will be plenty of mice on which he can feast.  However, Reynard knows full well that there will be a trap set since he had entered the barn the night before and had killed a hen.  Poor unsuspecting Tibert enters the barn only to be caught in a trap, and then beaten so badly that he loses an eye.  In some medieval depictions of this scene Tibert escapes and wrecks revenge upon the priest who owns the barn by attempting to castrate him.


Cat in Medieval Literature Cat castrates Priest Illustration, Reynard the Fox Wilhelm Von Kaulbauch 1846

Cat Castrates Priest, Illustration, Reynard the Fox Wilhelm Von Kaulbauch

Chaucer and the Abuse of Cats and Women

            The story of Reynard the Fox became so famous that Geoffrey Chaucer borrowed parts of it and used them in his Canterbury Tales.  Later even Shakespeare would borrow the name Tybalt (for the King of Cats), who appears in Romeo and Juliet.  Although Chaucer only briefly mentions the cat in The Summoner’s Tale when a friar removes a cat from a bench on which he wants to sit, there are other references to the cat in both The Manciple’s Tale and The Wife of Bath’s Prologue. In The Manciple’s Tale, Chaucer writes,

 “Lat take a cat, and fostre hym wel with milk

And tender flesh, and make his couche of silk,

And lat hym seen a mous go by the wal,

Anon he weyveth milk and flesh, and al,

And every deyntee that is in that hous,

Swich appétit he hath to ete a mous.” (Pollard, 1894, pp. 325-326)


In The Wife of Bath’s Prologue cats are mentioned again.


“Thou seydest this, that I was lyk a cat;

For whoso wolde senge a catte’s skyn,

Thanne wolde the cat wel dwellen in his in;

And if the catte’s skyn be slyk and gay,

She wol not dwelle in house half a day;

But forth she wole, er any day be dawed,

To shewe hir skyn, and go on a caterwawed;”(Pollard, 1894, p.15)

The act of singeing a cat’s fur or cutting its tail off represented doing almost the same thing to a wife in order to keep her at home and under control.  Chaucer highlighted the belief of the time that it was woman’s nature to stray just like the cat.  Earlier in 1320, a Franciscan friar by the name of Nicolas Bozon stated that, “a cat must stay home by shortening her tail, cutting her ears and singeing her fur, women can be kept at home by shortening their dresses, disarranging their headdresses and staining their clothes.”(Rogers, 2006, p. 35)  In addition, women were often forced to put their hair up into a bun and have it scorched, and likewise cats had their fur burned (Karras, 2005, p. 90).  Another gruesome way to keep a cat home was to cut its ears off. Thank goodness women didn’t have to endure this cruelty!  “Those which will keepe their cattes within doors, and from hunting Birds abroad, must cut off their eares, for they cannot endure to have drops of raine distil into them, and therefore keep themselves in harbor….They cannot abide the savour of ointments, but fall madde thereby; they are sometimes infected with the falling evill, but are cured with Gobium.” (Ashton, 1890, p.156) 

Cutting the ears off a cat was also a punishment for unwanted behavior.  The story of Duncan, a Scottish cat, who had a taste for cheese and had his ears cut off after being caught stealing the precious commodity, is ultimately a sad one.  His owner found him lying almost dead after having been hanged for the theft.  Bereft with grief, he took poor little Duncan in his arms and said,

            “Did I not tell you little Duncan,

            You had needs of being wary;

            When you went where the cheeses were,

            The gallows would teach you how to dance.

            Evil is it, earless cat,

            They have killed, because of cheese;

            Your neck has paid for that refreshment,

            At this time, after your death.


After some time the cat began to come to life again, and his loving owner went on to say,


            A hundred welcomes wait you, cat,

            Since in my lap you’ve chanced to be;

            And, though I do not much liberty allow,

            Many have you greatly loved.

            Are you the uniformed cat that Fionn had,

            That hunted wild from glen to glen?

            Had Oscar you at the Battle of Bal-sguinn,

            And left your heroes wounded there?

            You drank the milk Catherine had,

            For entertaining minstrel and meeting;

            And why should I praise you?

            You migh to be, like my kitten,

            On the bill side seeking mice,

            ‘Neath grayish grassy stems and bramble bushes.’”   (Campbell,    2003, pp.40-41)




Ashton, John. (1890). Curious creatures in zoology.  London:  John C. Nimmo.

Campbell, John G.(2003).Witchcraft and second sight in the highlands and islands of Scotland. Kessinger Publishing.

Pollard, Alfred W. (1894). (ed.) Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. London, New York: Macmillan and Co.

Rogers, Katharine. (2006). Cat.  Reaktion Books.


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



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