Cats Through the Ages

I tell people I'm a cat guy. I grew up with cats. I live with a rambunctious fella named Mojo.

I also love the history of books and book culture. This resources documents the intersection of these two interests. Below are all of the primary source examples I've found of cats from before modernity, arranged in chronological order.

Cats in Antiquity

Cat tiles - 1860 years BPD (before present day)

Not far out present day Glasow, Scotland is the site of an old mining village. It was called Bothwellhaugh, and was actively mined accupied some 1,860 years ago.

Just before World War II, G.S. Maxwell and a team of acheologists did a number of archeological digs at Bothwellhaugh. Among their findings were several fragments of Roman bricks. Imprinted in this tiles were—lo and behold—footsteps belonging to a critter. A critter most likely to be of the species Felis domesticus. The domestic cat.

So if you've ever wondered how long cats have been walking people's roofs, the answer is "at least 2000 years." May it forever be so.

Photo taken from Maxwell, G. S. “Excavation at the Roman Fort of Bothwellhaugh, Lanarkshire, 1967-8.” Britannia 6 (1975): 20.

Cats enter the middle-ages - 900 to 700 BPD

Cats in the 9th Century

Now we're in Ireland. It's some 800 years since we met our cats leaving their prints in tiles. Europe is soon to enter what we now call the Dark Ages. Scribal monk culture is thriving. The only written documents are painstakingly hand-written on dried & streched animal skin (parchment).

One manuscript (caled the Reichenau Primer, or by it's reference title MS Stift St. Paul Cod. 86b/1) contains one monk's notes on his study of Greek. This monk must've grown bored of his studies, for in the manuscript is a long poem, written in Gaelic, comparing his studies to a cat chasing a mouse.

Here's the poem where it lives in the manuscript:

The poem is the small script on the lower right, enlarged in the image below.

And here's the poem transcribed and translated by Robin Flowers. Note that Bán means "white " and Pangur—not an Irish word—must be the cat's name.

According to Wikipedia, Pangur Bán has inspired a great many other creative constructions:

A critical edition of the poem was published in 1903 by Whitley Stokes and John Strachan in the second volume of the Thesaurus Palaeohibernicus.[4] Among modern writers to have translated the poem are Robin Flower, W. H. Auden, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Eavan Boland. In Auden's translation, the poem was set by Samuel Barber as the eighth of his ten Hermit Songs (1952–53).

Fay Sampson wrote a series of books based on the poem. They follow the adventures of Pangur Bán, his friend, Niall the monk, and Finnglas, a Welsh princess.

In the 2009 animated movie The Secret of Kells, which is heavily inspired by Irish mythology, one of the supporting characters is a white cat named Pangur Bán who arrives in the company of a monk. A paraphrase of the poem in modern Irish is read out during the credit roll by actor and Irish speaker, Mick Lally.[5]

Irish-language singer Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin recorded the poem in her 2011 studio album Songs of the Scribe, featuring both the original text and a translation by Nobel laureate Séamus Heaney.

In 2016, Jo Ellen Bogart and Sydney Smith published a picture book called The White Cat and the Monk based on the poem.[6]

Dutch band Twigs & Twine used parts of the poem in their song Messe ocus Pangur Bán.[7]

Cats in the 15th Century

Another 600 years pass, and cats and monks continue to share living space. By now, though, cats have gotten bored of the whole "sit-in-a-dark-hole-and-write-things" vibe. By the mid-15th century the cats have figured out how to bother their monkly overlords.

Cats on the keyboard

Any modern student, work-from-home professional, or even casual computer user who lives with cats knows just how much they love to leap across a keyboard. The 15th equivalent, if there is one, must've been to run across the parchment you were writing on.

Here we can see a cat who's done just that.

I originally found this image in a University class called The Art of the Book, taught by Dr. Jamie Kemp. However, when I couldn't find this image in my four year old course notes I turned to an internet search and discovered an old Twitter post by Emir O Filipovíc

I'm guessing that monk probably thought to himself, "Could there be anything worse? This cat has just ruined my manuscript."

To which the cats replied, "Oh yes. It can be worse."

Cats making a mess

From about the same time there's another manuscript where we see that a cat has peed on the scribe's work, mid-page.

In the right column the stain from the urine is visible. You can also see two hands pointing to where the parchment is ruined, and a crude drawing of a cat showing who's responsible for the damage. Written sideways next to the stain the scribe has written:

“Hic non defectus est, sed cattus minxit desuper nocte quadam. Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum in nocte Daventrie, et consimiliter omnes alii propter illum. Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem ubi cattie venire possunt.”
[Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.]

Cats in the rennaisance

Christopher Smart was an English poet of the mid 18th Century with a reputation for losing money. Between that and a heavy negative stigma he gained after being confined in an asylum by his father, he wasn't too fond among his contemporaries.

He was, however, a lover of cats. We know this because of the long passage he dedicated to his cat Joffrey in the middle of his master piece Jubiliate Agno, a long list of religious virtues outlined during his confinement.

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post. For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider'd God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger. For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he's a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature. For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord's poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually—Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God's light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.

Additional unorganized cat resources

Why keep them around - evil mice

Prague, Capitular Library, codex A 21/1, fol. 153r

12th century scribe Hildebert depicts himself throwing stones at a mouse on his table. Alongside it is the following:

"Pessime mus, sepius me provocas ad iram; ut te deus perdat”
[Most wretched mouse, often you provoke me to anger. May God destroy you!]

How not to approach a cat

From Twitter

Join The Sunday Experiment
Form submitted successfully. 👏🏻
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. 🤷🏻