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CATS + in Medieval Manuscripts KATHLEEN WALKER-MEIKLE

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'I am as melancholy as a gib cat or a lugged bear' Falstaff in Shakespeare's HenryIVPart I (Act I, Scene 2) In the Middle Ages the most common English name for a tomcat was Gyb (a shortened form of the male name Gilbert). This was a generic name, given to the entire species of domestic cat, just as sparrows were called Philip and pies called Mag. But it could also be given to an individual animal: a late fourteenth-century seal of one Gilbert Stone depicts a cat with a mouse and the legend 'GRET: WEL: GIBBE: OURE: CAT'. There is a 'Gybbe, owre grey catt' in the late fifteenth-century poem 'Leve Lystynes'.


The late fifteenth-century Scottish poet Robert Henryson, in his version of the fable of the town mouse and the country mouse

(The Taill ofthe Upo nlandis Maus and the Burges Maus), describes how: When two mice are on a table-top, Barely have they drunk once or twice, When in comes Gib Hunter, our cat. In the same work Henryson uses the Scots name Baudrons as another generic name for a cat.~

A gr ey st rip ed cat holds a b r own mo u se in its p aws. The Luttrell Psalter, England, c. 1325- 3 5.

(B L , ADD. 42 , 1 3 0, F. t 9 0 R )



In the English version of the French poem Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose), the proper name of the cat, Tibers, is translated as 'Gibbe our cat'. It is a fitting translation as Tibers/Tibert was the equivalent generic name for a domestic cat in French. Thus Tibert the Cat is one of the companions of Reynard the Fox in the Reynard animal fables. This explains why in Romeo and Juliet Mercutio declares to Juliet's cousin Tybalt: 'Good King of Cats, I want to take one of your nine lives' (Act 3, Scene r ) . ~

ABOVE A lithe pale orange cat chases two large mice.

Bestiary and lapidary, England, mid - r3th century. (BL, ROYAL 12 F XIII , F . 43R)

OPPOSITE In this illumination four mjce turn the world

upside down and hang a cat , their habitual enemy, on the gallows. The Rutland Psalter, England, c. 1250-60. (BL, ADD. 62,925, F. 60R)


The economic value of cats during the medieval period is hard to determine as they had a mixed status as mousers and occasional pets. Judging by the low cost of cat skins we can presume that it was not much. As an exception to this, cats are rated quite highly in an early medieval Irish law text called

Catslechtae (Cat-sections), which values a cat as worth three cows if it could purr and hunt mice. A cat that could only purr was valued at one and a half cows, and a kitten was worth a ninth of its mother's value until it was weaned. The tenth - century Welsh


laws of Hywel Dda, king of Deheubarth, valued cats according to their age: one penny for a kitten from the night it was born until it opened its eyes; two pence for a kitten from the time it opened its eyes until it killed mice; and thereafter four pence for the same cat once it started killing mice. ~


Illumi natio n of two cats: the white one sits h o lding a m o u se in its paws ,

while the dark g r ey o n e ch ases a black m o u se th a t is 'escap i n g' fro m th e borde r . B es tiar y, Engl a nd , ea rl y r3th ce ntury. O PPO S IT E


12 c. x1x,

F . 36R)

Round el with three ca ts - tw o grey and o n e o r a n ge h o lding a mouse -

n e xt to the wo rd 'm usio' (cat) which o pens the secti o n on cats in thi s b estiary. Engla nd , m id -13 th ce n t u ry.



F. 3 0 V )


There is some evidence for the sale of cats. Eleanor de Montfort, Countess of Leicester, for example, purchased a cat (and some milk for her pet dogs) in February 1265 when at Odiham for two pence. But the value of a cat could sometimes be in the eye of the beholder, as seen in a 1294 court case in Chalgrave , England, which states 'William Yngeleys complains against John Saly and Christina his sister because they detain a certain cat to William's damage, which damage he would not willingly have borne for 6d' . ~

ABOVE Initial T (for 'The cat') decorated with a spotted wild cat.

The Master of the Game by Edward, Duke of York, England, mid - 15th century.

(BODL., DOUCE 335 , F. 26V)

OPPOSITE A seated cat and a running mouse with the Latin tags

'muriligo' (cat) and 'mus' (mouse) are illustrated in the left margin of this herbal. Italy, c. 1440.

(BL, SLOANE 4016, F. 62)


There are few records of food being purchased specifically for cats; they presumably feasted on the mice and rats that they caught, and possibly the occasional leftover if their owner was feeling generous. An entry in the accounts of a manor at Cuxham, Oxfordshire , in 1293- 4 provides us with a rare example of special food - cheese - being bought for a cat. Royalty could, of course, be more extravagant. The French queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, wife of Charles VI, spent a lot on her pets, such as a collar commissioned for her pet squirrel that was embroidered with pearls and fastened by a gold buckle. In her accounts there is an entry in 1406: 'For one ell of measurement of bright green cloth to make a coverlet for the cat of the Queen, sixteen shillings'.~

ABOVE In thi s illus tratio n fo r J anu ary, a yo u ng man stand s by a bra zi er,

accompanie d by a cat. J a n us is seate d o n the left . Cale n d a r , Engla nd , mi d - 12 th century.

(BOD L. , BODLE Y 614 , F . 3R)

OPPOS I TE A whi te cat si ts w it h a black m o u se in i ts mou th ,

acco m panied b y a sq u irrel. B reviary of R enaud d e Bar, France, 13 02- 3. (BL , YATES THOMPSON 8 , F. 17 8 R)


Cats, whether practising their mousing duties or just in residence indoors, were in close contact with their owners. By the fifteenth century many courtesy manuals claimed that it was not genteel for animals to roam around the dining hall or sit on the table, being fed by hand or patted by their owners. According to The Bake ofCurta~e (The Book of Courie~): Whenever thou sits to eat at the table board, Avoid the cat on the bare wood, For if thou strokes a cat or a dog, Thou art like an ape tied with a lump of wood.

ABOVE A grey cat sits in a domestic scene, in which a woman

sets the table and a man warms his arms by the fire . Calendar page for the month of J anuary, F lemish artists, late 15th century. (BL, ADD . 35,3 13, F. IV)


A cat and two dogs sit in the foreground of a depiction

of the Last Supper. Hours of E leonora lppolita Gonzaga, I tal y, 1530-38 .

(BODL., DOUCE 29, F. 56R)


As well as infiltrating their owners' living areas, cats even invaded bedrooms, a practice which the Bake ofNature deplored. It asked owners to 'dryve out dogge and catte, or els geve them a clout'. A late medieval tale tells of a knight who is rejected by a lady that he loves. He returns disguised at night and lets her cat scratch him when he enters the bedroom. On viewing his discretion after this incident, she becomes his mistress. But the knight then refuses to marry her, claiming as his excuse that he is afraid of her cat! In Thomas de Saluces's late fourteenth-century Le Conte des Trois

Perroquets (The Tale of Three Parrots), a lady meets with her lover in her house. The next day she questions her pet parrots. The first two speak of the affair so she kills them, blaming their deaths on her pet cat (the third parrot, deciding that discretion is the better part of valour, keeps quiet!).~


A cat walks along a roof in the background of a scene of the Virgin

and Child. Book of Hours, F landers, c. 1480 . OPPOSITE



F. 116v)

A cat sits on a cradle in a scene of the birth of St John the Baptist.

Hours of Eleonora lppolita Gonzaga, Italy, 1530-38.




29, F. 23V)



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Cruelty to cats could come from many quarters. Jacques de Vitry in the early thirteenth century explains a prank played by University of Paris students. They would put a die on a cat's paw and 'let it throw' .

If it threw a higher number than their number, it would be fed; if it threw lower, the unfortunate cat would be skinned and the skin sold. ~

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A cat with fur raised and back arched confronts a dog.

Book of Hours , France , c. 1400 .

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(BODL, DOUCE 62, F. 139R)

A cat chases a mouse in between two men fighting .

Psalter, E n gl and , c. 1340.

(BODL, DOUCE 13 1 , F. 20R)


In England, according to the Sumptuary Law of 1363, cat , lamb, rabbit and fox were the only types of fur allowed for esquires and gentlemen under the rank of knight with land worth up to £100 a year, craftsmen and artisans with goods up to £500 a year, and all yeomen, grooms and servants. Cat fur was seen as low quality and was usually sold by pedlars. Thus in Langland's Piers Plowman (c. 1377), Covetousness says: I have as much pity of poor men as a pedlar hath of cattes Who would kill them [the cats] , if he could catch them , for he covets their skins.


A large stripe d cat is illu strate d wi th a m ouse in

its m o u th . Bestiary, England, mid - to late 13th century. (BL , SLOAN E 3544, F . 2 0V)


A cat can be seen (bottom r ight) in this

opening page o f the Go spel o f M ark . L indisfarn e Gosp els , No r thumbria , late 7th or early 8 th cen tu ry. (BL , COTTON NERO D IV, F. 1 39R)


Cats were commonly kept as pets by nuns, although this practice did not always meet with approval. A set of rules in the nunnery of Langendorf, Saxony, in the early fifteenth century insisted that 'cats, dogs and other animals are not to be kept by nuns as they distract from seriousness'. In the Ancrene Riwle, an early thirteenth-century guide for anchoresses, a ruling allowed cats while prohibiting other types of pets: 'Unless need compels you, my dear sisters, and your director advises it, you must not keep any animal except a cat. ... Now if someone needs to keep one, let her see to it that it does not annoy anyone or do any harm to anybody, and that her thoughts are not taken up with it. An anchoress ought not to have anything which draws her heart outward.' The twelfth-century nun Hildegard of Bingen, in her Liber simplicis medicinae (Book ofSimple

Medicines), mentions the disloyalty of cats, who only bother to stay with whoever feeds them.~

ABOVE A cat and a dog coming out of the foliate decoration s narl at each other.

Gospel lectionary of Gregory XIII , Italy, 1578.

(BL, ADD. 35,254, F. K)

OPPOSITE A nun with a distaff plays with a white cat who is leaping about with the spool.

Hours of the Virgin, Netherlands, 13th- 14th centuries.


(BL, STOWE 1 7, F. 34R)

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Whilst the cat became a very familiar pet among those in religious orders, keeping monastic pets did not always go smoothly. On rare occasions cats may have posed a danger, as for example when a prioress at Newington was apparently smothered by her cat in her bed while she slept. InJohn Skelton' s early sixteenth-century elegy, 'The Book of Philip Sparrow', there is great mourning for Philip Sparrow, a pet of Jane Scrope at the convent of Carrow (near Norwich): I wept and I wayled, The tearys downe hayled; But nothinge it avayled To call Phylyp agayne, Whom Gyb our cat hath slayne.

OPPOSITE AND DETAIL A B OVE There are no references to cats in the

B ible , however in this miniat ure showing the evangelist Mark wri ting th e go spel, h e is accompanied not only by his symboli c lion, but also a grey cat. F lemish artists, late 15th centu ry.

(B L , ADD. MS 35 , 313 , F. I 6R)




For Salimbene de Adam, the thirteenth-century Franciscan chronicler, there was a difference between St Francis's love of wild animals and the keeping of pets, including cats , which he saw as a frivolous pursuit that caused the petowner to lose the respect of his fellow friars : 'I have seen in my own order, which is the order of the blessed Francis and the Friars Minor, some lectors who despite being highly learned and of great sanctity, nevertheless had a blemish on account of which they are judged by others to be frivolous men. For they like to play with cats, little dogs and little birds , but not as the blessed Francis played with a pheasant and a cicada while delighting in the Lord. '~

OPPOSITE AND DETAIL ABOVE At the Creation all animals are in

harmony apart from the cat , who with claws unsheathed is looking at the mouse in front, contemplating its next meal. Book of Hours, France, mid-r6th century.

(BODL., DOUCE 135, 11v)




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There are copious collections of cat lore in works

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on natural history and encylopaedias. The thirteenth- century


encyclopaedist Thomas de Cantimpre in his work De natura rerum

(On the Nature of Things) describes why cats purr : 'They delight in being stroked by the hand of a person and they express their joy with their own form of singing.' In bestiaries, compendia of animal lore compiled from sources as diverse as Ambrose , the Physiologus , Solinus and I sidore of Seville , the cat is famed for its ability as a mouser, and for its keen and piercing eyesight , which could overcome the darkness of night. ~

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De natura rerum : a large grey-white cat (opposite) eats a mouse while standing on a clump of green grass next to the label 'cat'; two cat s attack snakes that look like dragons (above). Flanders, 13th century.

(BL, ADD. 11 ,,90, F. 2 1 )

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Albertus Magnus wrote on the supposed medicinal qualities of cats. He claimed that the flesh of a wild cat could be placed on limbs suffering from gout; that the bile of a wild cat, if ingested, was good for facial pains or ties; and that half an ounce of the bile of a black cat ( when mixed with Arabian jasmine) produced a sneezing powder. Other popular cat remedies included the rubbing in one's eye of a tom cat's tail to cure a stye. ~

ABOVE A cat holding a mouse in its mouth accompanies a text

on the medical and magical properties of cats. Medicinal Secrets of

Galen, Italy, mid-r4th century.



328, F. 12,v)

OPPPOSITE A bestiary text on cats is illustrated with a reddish-

brown cat cleaning itself, a grey cat holding a mouse and a white cat chasing another mouse. Mice and weasels are described below. England, early 13th century.

(BODL., ASHMOLE 1511, F. 35V)

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. Cats appear in numerous fables. One of the most famous, retold in many works such as the late thirteenth-century

Gesta Romanorum (Deeds ofthe Romans) tells of how the fox brags to the cat about how he has a whole bag of tricks, while the cat confesses that he knows only one, which is to run up a tree when chased by dogs. As the fox and the cat are walking along together, hunters and hounds approach. The fox tells the cat not to be afraid but the cat decides to use his trick and scampers up the tree. As the dogs pounce on the fox, the cat in the tree cries out to him: 'Open your bag of tricks and help yourself, as none of your tricks are helping you!' Another fable from the same work tells of a mouse that fell into a barrel of ale and cried out for help. A cat arrived and made the mouse swear that if he rescued him, the mouse m ·u st respond whenever the cat called. The mouse agreed so the cat helped him out and let him go. Later on, the cat was hungry so went to the mouse's hole and called for him, but the mouse refused to come out, claiming that he was afraid of the cat. The cat demanded that the mouse hold his oath. The mouse replied 'Brother, I was drunk when I swore, and therefore I do not have to keep my oath'. ~ ABOVE A sma ll reddish - brown cat star es at a mouse running away. Psalter and

Hours, Fr ance, c. 1300.

(BL, YATES T HOMPS ON 1 s, F. 188V)

OPPOSITE A grey cat eats a mouse surround ed by more mice, a dog and a mole.

Bestiary, England , c. 1300.

(BODL., DOUCE 88, F. 95 R)


'Cuirm lemm, lemlacht la cat' ['Beer with me, fresh milk with a cat'] Medieval Irish proverb

Cats sometimes appear in proverbs. John Gower, for example, uses a popular proverb in his fourteenth-century ConfessioAmantis

(The Lover's Confession), involving a cat who wants fish but does not want to get its paws wet : 'as a cat would eat fishes without wetting its paws'. This is the proverb to which Lady Macbeth is referring when she says 'Like the poor cat i' the adage' (Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 7), wanting something but not willing to do what is necessary to get it. A proverb attributed to John Wyclif in 1383 speaks of how 'Many man of law ... bi here suteltes [by their subtleties] turned the cat in the panne [made things appear the opposite to what they are]'. In a description of a giant herdsman in the early fourteenth-century romance Ywain and Gawain, his flat nose is described as 'cutted als a cat'. ~

ABOVE Border decoration sh owing a cat seated at a table laid with fish in

blu e dishes, attended by large mice servants. Missal, England , mid-15th century.

(BODL., LAUD MISC. 302, F. 210R)

OPPOSITE A white cat eats a mouse below an initial R. Hours of the Virgin,

Netherlands, r3th-r4th centuries.

(BL, STOWE 11 , F. 75V)


In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath explains what one of her former husbands used to say to her: Thou said this, that I was like a cat, For whoever would singe a cat's skin That would make the cat always stay inside, And if the cat's skin were sleek and gay She would not dwell in the house for half a day, But out she will go, before the dawn of day To show her skin, and go a-caterwaulling. The reference to singeing a cat's fur comes from a belief that it would make the animal keep to the house. The thirteenthcentury Odo of Cheriton explained that 'if a cat will not stay home, shorten her tail and singe her fur. The same applies with wives' (a reference to the shaming of vain women wearing gowns with long trains in public). Jacques de Vi try has a similar example, in which a beautiful cat likes wandering about until its master burns its tail and pulls out its hairs, making the cat too ashamed to leave the house. While the Wife of Bath is accused by her husband of being a cat, she in turn compares him to a mouse, 'as dronken as a mouse', emphasizing her predatory nature. To add to the symbolism, the female cat was, according to Aristotle, believed to be a very lustful beast. ~

A cat with a mouse in its mouth (top) runs among various characters, including a knight with sword and s hi e ld fighting a devil-grotesque, and a woman in a green robe. Psalter, Flanders, c. 1320-30.




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Chaucer in his Manciple's Tale compares a luftful wife that cannot be tamed by being locked up to a domestic cat: even if spoiled with milk and meat , and given a couch of silk, it will still leave all these luxuries behind to chase a mouse : Let's take a cat , and feed him well with milk And tender flesh, and make his couch of silk, And let him see a mouse go by the wall , Then he waives milk and flesh and all, And every dainty that is in that house, Such an appetite he has to eat a mouse. Lo , here desire dominates And appetite drives out discretion.

OPPOSITE AND DETAIL ABOVE A reddish - brown cat eats a black

mo u se above a decorated initial D (the Annunciation to the shepherds) . Psalter and Hours, France , c. 1300.

(BL, Y ATES THOMPSON 1s , F. 314V)


. 6,101c,