three cartoon cats with a backdrop of a medieval manuscript

A Tolerated Lodger: The duality of Medieval Cats

We’ve all been there before. Chilling out with a Youtube video only to find yourself four hours later, essay still unwritten, probably at 3am, watching cat videos. Admit it: it’s happened to the best of us. There’s just something about those big eyes, soft tummies and a never-ceasing ability to do stupid things despite pretending to be far cooler than the rest of us that makes cats so endearing. Indeed, as well as their massive online presence, cats are also the most popular pet for UK homeowners. A recent PDSA study estimates a population of 10.7-8 million cats compared to 9.6 million dogs.[1]

Cat popularity isn’t just a modern phenomenon either. In Ancient Egypt, cats acted as vigilante guardians against rat, mouse and snake plagues, thus becoming associated with various protective gods and goddesses. Similarly, in Norse mythology, cats held divine status as the attendants of the goddess Freyja. In medieval Europe we also find traces of cats quite literally leaving their mark on humanity. A manuscript from Deventer, written c.1420 is the victim of a late-night cat piss. It would seem the scribe came to work one morning to find the manuscript stained with urine and half the page’s writing now illegible. The scribe drew a mugshot of the perpetrator as well as a hand pointing to the evidence, and provided the following witness statement:

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 [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.[2]

“Cat pee on manuscript”, Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r

Another fifteenth century manuscript also bears witness to a cat’s input: many of the pages are covered by inky pawprints. [3] Any cat-owner who has had their feline friend strut across their work will surely sympathise – though it’s nice to know that cats haven’t changed. With mythologies and stories like these, it is dangerously easy to imagine that cats have always been adored in England. As Katherine Rogers warns, ‘[b]ecause modern cat lovers take for granted that cats have unique and special qualities, they sometimes overenthusiastically project this attitude back through history’ (2001:5). However, to take the opposite approach is also dangerous. Just as we mustn’t allow contemporary views to blind us to historical reality, we mustn’t buy into the popular tradition that cats were blacklisted by medieval Europeans as devilish creatures and the friends of witches. The real story of course is far more nuanced, in which cats occupy a liminal space, at once domestic and yet also frustratingly independent.

To begin our study of cats in medieval Europe, it’s worth mapping A Brief History of the Domestication of Cats. Today’s housecats derive from the African Wildcat (Felis Silverstris Lybica) which began associating with people around 10’000 years ago. The earliest cats were large creatures with coarse camouflaged coats, but their increasing domestication led to evolutionary change so that by the turn of the millennium (if not earlier) they had physically become the cat we know today. There is some debate as to exactly how cats immigrated to Northern Europe. Some scholars say they arrived with the Romans, whilst others believe they arrived in the Iron Age but in either case there is clear evidence of an established cat presence in England by the time of the Roman Occupation. Unlike dogs, who were domesticated by humans (some 14’000 years ago) as hunting partners as well as guards for cows, sheep, goats etc. which were domesticated for food; cats have a unique adoption story. They began as ‘an uninvited dinner guest’ tempted by Mus Musculus Domesticus, eventually becoming ‘a tolerated lodger, and then a member of the family’ (Kitchener and O’Connor 2010). The cat long ago worked out that where human went, grain went; and where grain went, mouse went. In other words, we didn’t domesticate the cat, it domesticated itself.

Black Cats: Bodleian Library, Ms Bodley 533 f. 13r

In Europe, the development of the cat as a ‘tolerated lodger’ occurs during the Early Medieval Period. Authorities of the time note them as houseguests and (sometimes begrudgingly) recognise their utility in catching pests. Isidore of Seville, for example, names the cat Musio (mouser) ‘because it is inimical to mice (muribus), but acknowledges that it bears the common name ‘catus’ ‘from prey (captura); some say because it seeks (captat), that is, it observes. For it sees so keenly, that it overcomes the darkness of night with the brightness of day.’ (Clark, 2006:161) Clearly, the cat’s skill in hunting at night was a notable and valued characteristic. Indeed, Rogers observes that it is ‘[b]ecause the cat was identified with the essential but humdrum function of rodent-catching it was not thought of as a luxury animal’ (2006:45). It is presumably for this reason that cats became associated with Christian monasteries. Exeter Cathedral had ‘official cats’ who were there as professional mousers. In the accounts for the years 1305-1467 there are entries employing the custodibus et cato (the custodians of the cats) as well as pro cato (for the cat) who itself was paid a penny a week for its duties, the money of which presumably went to supplement its mouse diet. Cats, alongside birds, were also the only animals permitted to be kept by members of the Franciscan order, as outlined by the 1260 General Charter of Narbonne. In a similar vein, the author of the Ancrene Riwle, a guide for Anchoresses, commands that the sisters ‘schulen habbe na beast bute cat ane’ (Should have no beast but [a maximum of] one cat). Clearly cats were allowed as pets because they fulfilled a useful charity and fitted well with the impoverished life of monasticism.

Outside of the church setting we also find evidence of affectionate cat-human relationships. The most famous example is an eight/ninth century Irish poem which extols the virtues of the author’s pet:

‘I and Pangur Bán, my cat

‘Tis a like task we are at;

Hunting mice is his delight

Hunting words I sit all night

 […]

So in peace our tasks we ply;

Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;

In our arts we find our bliss,

I have mine and he has his’

Pangur Bán poem.

This charming poem shows something of the content co-habitancy of cat and human artforms – mousing and composing poetry. The poet explains that both occupations require time, skill, and practise thus making cat and scholar faithful companions throughout the long quiet nights. Isabella d’Este, the Marchioness of Mantua, canonised her cats not in poetry but personal letters. A long correspondence between her and her agents in Venice regarding the purchase of Syrian cats can be found in the Gozaga archives. Cats also feature in bestiaries of the time. Thomas de Cantimpé wrote rather sweetly in his thirteenth century encyclopaedia that cats ‘delight in being stroked by the hand of a person and they express their joy with their own form of singing’. Elsewhere in the thirteenth century, Albertus Magnus in his De animalibus explains that a cat ‘[t]akes delight in cleanliness and for this reason imitates the washing of a face by licking its front paws and then, by licking it, smoothes all of its fur … This animal loves to be lightly stroked by human hands and is playful, especially when it is young […] it especially likes warm places’ (Kitchell and Resnick, 1999:1523). Such descriptions ring as true today as they did 800 years ago, and the modern cat lover will be pleased to know that there are even canonical testimonies to the feline skill in nabbing the prime spots in the house.[4]

However, not every depiction of a cat engenders such positive tones. Indeed, Albertus Magnus’s comment that a cat ‘is both wild and domesticated’ neatly touches upon many of the anti-cat rhetoric of the time. In 1233 Pope Gregory IX wrote a papal letter ‘Vox in Rama’ which placed cats in connection to religious heresy, whilst the Ancrene Riwle warns against ‘þe Cat of helle’, a denizen of Satan always looking to ensnare the sinner. Elsewhere Hildegard of Bingen accuses cats of infidelity, claiming that they stay with anyone who feeds them and will easily move households. Over the early fourteenth century and beyond we see two accusations increasingly levelled at cats. Firstly, that as night-creatures they were inherently wrongdoers. The ‘night-time’ was viewed with hefty suspicion in the high to late medieval ages when there were curfews and heavy rules in place. Even simply wandering at night could be enough evidence to convict you as either a criminal if you were a man, or a prostitute if you were a woman. The bible, furthermore, often invokes metaphors of the dark as a place of evil, in contrast to the light of Christ. Cats, who belonged to the night, were socially deviant. The feline tendency to midnight explorations probably influenced the second accusation: that they were unfaithful and promiscuous.

Serpell points out that ‘the cat is one of the few domestic species that does not need to be caged, fenced in, or tethered in order to maintain its association with people’ and thus although they don’t need to be restrained to stay with humans, they can’t be restrained to leave either. The independence of the cat was thus highly worrying for a European society that demanded social conformity and, most especially, believed absolutely in the male dominion over the earth. Anyone (or cat) who ignored this governance was socially aberrant and upset the patriarchal provenance. It is at this time that a strong link between feline and female began to emerge. Any women who eschewed gender standards was figured in cat-related language. For instance, in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, we read that one of her former husbands used to say she was ‘lyk a cat’: loud, misbehaving, and promiscuous. Through the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, the independence of cats and the independence of women grew as a societal concern to the extent where a woman living alone with just a cat for company (as opposed to, say a husband) was enough evidence to accuse her of being a witch. Unlike dogs, which faithfully obeyed a master’s every word, the cat remained largely independent and refused to submit to human control.

Although the cat-lover might be at a loss to understand why anyone couldn’t like these furry, purring friends, cats are still polarising creatures today. In August this year, Good Morning Britain hosted a debate asking whether cats require consent to touch them. Cat-blogger Marc-Andre Runcie-Unger was quick to insist that they do, and that petting them has to be under ‘her terms’ when she is in the mood.[5] In other words, cats like to be in control of human contact. However, Unger was ridiculed both on air and online for his ‘woke’ suggestion. A quick flick through any social media, forum discussion, or even everyday conversation reveals similarly antagonistic comments. Reddit particularly is a haven for the cat-hater. The most common complaint? That cats don’t do what they’re told. However, perhaps we can take some solace in knowing these opinions are nothing new. As we have seen, cats have never been fully domesticated. Although they have been loved – or at the very least appreciated – their independence and refusal to submit to human command has, and will always, infuriate those looking to control them. 


[1] 2021 PDSA Animal Wellbeing Report. [accessed on 15/11/2021 at https://www.pdsa.org.uk/what-we-do/pdsa-animal-wellbeing-report/uk-pet-populations-of-dogs-cats-and-rabbits]

[2] Translation provided by Porck, Thijs (22 February 2013) ‘Paws, Pee and Mice: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts’ Medieval Fragments. Blog. [last accessed 15/11/2021 at https://medievalfragments.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/paws-pee-and-mice-cats-among-medieval-manuscripts/]

[3] Andries, Kate. (27 March 2013) ‘Curious Cat Walks over Medieval Manuscript’ National Geographic. [last accessed 15/11/2021 at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/130326-animals-medieval-manuscript-books-cats-history]

[4] Geoffrey Chaucer’s the Canterbury Tale: the Summoner’s Tale; and also Newman (1992) ‘The Cattes Tale: A Chaucer Apocryphon’, The Chaucer Review. 26:4

[5] Williams, Lauren (Friday 6th August) ‘This is a joke, right?’ GMB viewers in uproar over cat consent debate ‘Slow news day’ Express News. [Accessed online on 15/11/2021 at https://www.express.co.uk/showbiz/tv-radio/1473124/GMB-backlash-uproar-cat-consent-Ann-Widdecombe-Ranvir-Singh-ITV-Video]


Selected bibliography

Porck, Thijs (22 February 2013) ‘Paws, Pee and Mice: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts’ Medieval Fragments. Blog. [last accessed 15/11/2021 at https://medievalfragments.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/paws-pee-and-mice-cats-among-medieval-manuscripts/]


Newman (1992) ‘The Cattes Tale: A Chaucer Apocryphon.’ The Chaucer Review. 26:4


Walker-Meikle, Kathleen (2012) ‘Medieval Pets’. Woodbridge, Boydell and Brewer