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What Medieval Scrolls Tell Us About Our Ancestors' Pets

Cats in the Middle Ages: what medieval manuscripts tell us about the pets of our ancestors

Cat king, Germany, around 1450. Credit: Scheibler’sches Wappenbuch – BSB Cod.icon. 312c

The cats had a poor reputation in the middle Ages. Their alleged links to paganism and witchcraft meant that they were often treated with suspicion. But despite their association with the supernatural, medieval manuscripts feature surprisingly playful images of our furry friends.

From these (often very funny) depictions we can learn a lot about medieval attitudes towards cats, including how central they were to daily medieval life.

In the Middle Ages, men and women were often identified by the animals they kept. pet monkeys, for example, they were considered exotic and a sign that the owner was wealthy, as they had been imported from distant lands. Pets became part of the nobility’s personal identity. Keeping an animal that was lavished with attention, affection, and high-quality food in return for no functional purpose – other than companionship – meant high status.

It was not uncommon for high-ranking men and women in the Middle Ages to have their portraits completed in the company of a petmost often cats and dogs, to signify their high status.

It is common to see pictures of cats in holiday iconography and other domestic spaces, which seem to reflect their status as pets in the medieval house.

In Pietro Lorenzetti’s The Last Supper, a cat sits by the fire while a small dog licks a plate of leftovers on the floor. The cat and dog play no narrative role in the scene, but rather indicate to the viewer that this is a domestic space.

Cats in the Middle Ages: what medieval manuscripts tell us about the pets of our ancestors

Last Supper (1320), by Pietro Lorenzetti. Credit: Web Gallery of Art

Similar, in the thumbnail of a dutch book of hours (a common type of prayer book in the which marked the divisions of the day with specific prayers), a man and woman figure in a cozy household scene while a well-groomed cat watches from the lower left corner. Again, the cat is not the center of the image nor the center of the composition, but it is accepted in this medieval domestic space.

Just as today, medieval families gave their cat names. A 13th century cat at Beaulieu Abbey, for example, was called “Mite” From the green ink lettering that appears above a scribble of said cat in the margins of a medieval manuscript.

royal treatment

The cats were well-groomed in the medieval house. At the beginning of the 13th century, there is mention in the accounts for the Cuxham (Oxfordshire) mansion of cheese bought for a cat, suggesting they weren’t left to fend for themselves.

In fact, the 14th century queen of France, Isabella of Bavaria, she spent excessive amounts of money on accessories for her pets. In 1387, she ordered a necklace embroidered with pearls and fastened with a gold buckle for her pet squirrel. In 1406 bright green cloth was purchased to make a special blanket for her cat.

Cats in the Middle Ages: what medieval manuscripts tell us about the pets of our ancestors

1500 Book of Hours known as the ‘London Rothschild Hours’ or ‘Heures of Joanna I of Castile’. Illustrated by Gérard Horenbout. British Library in London. Manuscript 35313, folio. 1 back. C, Author provided

The cats were also common companions to scholars, and eulogies to cats were not uncommon in the sixteenth century. In one poem, a cat is described as a scholar’s lighthearted and dearest companion. Praise like this suggests a strong emotional attachment to pet cats and shows how cats not only cheered up their masters, but provided welcome distractions from the hard mental trade of reading and writing.

Cats in the cloisters

Cats are found in abundance as a status symbol in medieval religious spaces. There are many medieval manuscripts which feature, for example, illuminations (small images) of nuns with cats, and cats frequently appear as doodles in the margins of Books of Hours.

But there is also much criticism of cat sitting in medieval sermon literature. The 14th century English preacher John Bromyard saw them as useless, overfed props of the rich who enjoyed them while the poor went hungry.

The cats are also registered as being associated with the devil. Their stealth and cunning when hunting mice were admired, but this did not always translate into desirable qualities for the company. These associations led to the killing of some cats, which had adverse effects during the period black death and other middle-aged plagues, when more cats may have reduced populations of flea-invested rats.

Cats in the Middle Ages: what medieval manuscripts tell us about the pets of our ancestors

St Matthew and his cat, Bruges, c. 1500. [Rouen bibliotheque municipale. Manuscript 3028, Folio 63r]Author provided

Because of these associations, many thoughts that cats had No space in the sacred spaces of religious orders. However, there do not appear to have been any formal rules stating that members of religious communities were not allowed to keep cats – and the constant criticism of this practice perhaps suggests that pet cats were common.

Although not always considered socially acceptable in religious communities, cats were still clearly well-groomed. This is evident in the playful images we see of them in monasteries.

for the majority, were completely at home in the medieval house. And as their playful depiction in many medieval manuscripts and artwork makes clear, our medieval ancestors’ relationship with these animals was not too different from ours.

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Quote: Cats in the Middle Ages: What Medieval Manuscripts Teach Us About Our Ancestors’ Pets (2022, December 23) Retrieved December 23, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-12-cats- middle-ages-medieval-manuscripts.html

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