Cats in the middle ages: What we may learn about our predecessors’ animals from medieval manuscripts

St Matthew and his cat

Cats in the middle ages were thought to be unclean. They were frequently viewed with distrust due to their alleged associations with paganism and witchcraft. But despite their link to the paranormal, medieval manuscripts contain surprisingly amusing depictions of our animal pals.

We can learn a lot about attitudes toward cats in the Middle Ages from these (sometimes hilarious) portrayals, not the least of which is that cats played an important role in everyday life.

Men and women were frequently distinguished throughout the middle ages based on the pets they kept. For instance, having a pet monkey was regarded as unusual and a symbol of status because they were brought in from other countries. The nobility adopted pets as a part of their individual identities. High status was associated with keeping an animal that was lavished with care, love, and high-quality food in exchange for nothing more than companionship.

High-status men and women sometimes had their portraits painted alongside pets, most frequently cats and dogs, to symbolize their enhanced position during the medieval ages.

Cats frequently feature in iconography of celebrations and other domestic settings, which may indicate their status as a pet in medieval households.

A tiny dog licks a plate of leftovers on the ground while a cat waits by the fire in Pietro Lorenzetti’s painting, Last Supper. The cat and dog serve as a visual cue to the spectator that this is a domestic setting rather than having any narrative significance in the scenario.

Cats in the middle ages
Last Supper (1320), by Pietro Lorenzetti

Similar to this, a man and woman are depicted in a cozy household scene in the miniature of a Dutch Book of Hours, which was a popular type of prayer book in the middle ages that marked the divisions of the day with specific prayers. A well-cared-for cat is also visible in the bottom left-hand corner. Again, the cat is not the focal point of the composition or the image’s center, but it is allowed in this medieval home.

Families throughout the Middle Ages named their cats, much like we do today. For instance, the green ink text that appears above a doodle of a cat in a medieval manuscript’s margins refers to a 13th-century cat in Beaulieu Abbey as “Mite.”

Royal treatment

In the medieval home, cats received excellent care. The accounts for the manor at Cuxham (Oxfordshire) in the early 13th century describe cheese being purchased for a cat, indicating that they were not left to fend for themselves.

In reality, Isabeau of Bavaria, the queen of France in the fourteenth century, blew a lot of money on pet accessories. She ordered a collar with pearl embroidery and a gold buckle in 1387 for her pet squirrel. In 1406, she purchased vivid green fabric to create a special cover for her cat.

1500 book of hours
The “London Rothschild Hours” or the “Hours of Joanna I of Castile” are titles of a 1500 Book of Hours.

Scholars frequently kept cats as pets, and in the 16th century, eulogies to cats were prevalent. A cat is said to as a scholar’s light and dearest companion in one poem. Such eulogies imply a strong emotional attachment to pet cats and demonstrate how cats not only lifted their owners’ spirits but also served as pleasant diversion from the taxing cerebral labor of reading and writing.

Cats in the cloisters

Cats are a common status symbol in medieval ecclesiastical architecture. Numerous medieval manuscripts contain, for instance, miniature illustrations of nuns holding cats, and Books of Hours typically have cat drawings in the margins.

However, the practice of keeping cats was widely criticized in the sermon literature of the Middle Ages. They were viewed as superfluous and overfed accessories of the wealthy who gained while the poor went without food by the English preacher John Bromyard in the 14th century.

Cats have also been linked to the devil in the past. Although admirable qualities for hunting mice, their stealth and cunning did not always translate into traits that made for good partners. These connections caused some cats to be killed, which had negative consequences during the Black Death and other middle-age epidemics, when having more cats may have reduced flea-infested rat populations.

St Matthew and his cat
St Matthew and his cat, Bruges, c. 1500.

Many people believed that cats had no place in the sacred areas of religious groups as a result of these connotations. However, there do not appear to have been any formal regulations prohibiting members of religious organizations from owning cats, and the persistent condemnation of the practice may indicate that pet cats were widely owned.

Cats were obviously well cared for, even though they weren’t always regarded as being socially acceptable in religious societies. The amusing pictures of them that we find in monasteries demonstrate this.

Cats were typically fairly at home in a medieval household. Our medieval ancestors’ connections with these creatures were not all that dissimilar from our own, as seen by the humorous ways in which they are depicted in several medieval manuscripts and artwork.

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