Cats In The Middle Ages: What Medieval Manuscripts Teach Us About Our Ancestors' Pets

Cats In The Middle Ages:- What Medieval Manuscripts Teach Us About Our Ancestors’ Pets

Cats In The Middle Ages

Cats In The Middle Ages –Cats had a bad reputation in the Middle Ages. His alleged links with paganism and witchcraft meant that he was often treated with suspicion. But despite their association with the supernatural, medieval manuscripts display surprisingly playful images of our furry friends.

From these (often very funny) depictions, we can learn a lot about medieval attitudes towards cats – not least that they were a central fixture of daily medieval life.


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

In the Middle Ages, men and women were often identified by the animals they kept. For example, pet monkeys were considered exotic and a sign that the owner was wealthy, as they were imported from distant lands. Pets became part of the personal identity of the nobility. Treating an animal with attention, affection, and high-quality food in return for no functional purpose—besides companionship—demonstrates high status.

In the Middle Ages it was not uncommon for men and women of high status to have their portraits completed in the company of a pet, usually cats and dogs, to indicate their advanced status.

It is common to see images of cats in iconography for feasts and other domestic places, reflecting their status as a pet in the medieval household.

In Pietro Lorenzetti’s The Last Supper, a cat sits by a fire while a small dog licks a plate of food left on the ground. The cat and dog play no descriptive role in the scene but instead signal to the viewer that this is a domestic space.

Similarly, in a miniature from a Dutch Book of Hours (a common type of prayer book in the Middle Ages that marked the division of the day with specific prayers), a man and woman appear in a cozy domestic scene while a good Well took care of. The cat watches from the lower left-hand corner. Again, the cat is not the center of the image nor the focus of the composition, but it is acknowledged in this medieval domestic space.

Medieval families named their cats just like today. For example, a 13th-century cat at Beaulieu Abbey was called “Mite”, according to the green ink lettering seen above a doodle of a said cat in the margin of a medieval manuscript.

Royal treatment

Cats were well taken care of in the medieval household. As early as the 13th century, there is mention in accounts of the manor at Cuxham (Oxfordshire) of cheese being bought for a cat, which suggests that they were not left to fend for themselves.

In fact, the 14th-century Queen of France Isabeau of Bavaria spent a lot of money on accessories for her pets. In 1387, she introduced a collar embroidered with pearls and a gold buckle for her pet squirrel. In 1406, the bright green cloth was purchased to make a special cover for his cat.

The 1500 Book of Hours is known as the ‘London Rothschild Hours’ or the ‘Hours of Joanna I of Castile’. Illustration by Gerard Horenbout. London British Library. Manuscript 35313, folio. 1 verso. c, the author provided

Cats were also common companions for scholars, and admiration for cats was not uncommon in the 16th century. In one poem the cat is described as the light of the learned and the dearest companion. Such appreciation suggests a strong emotional attachment to pet cats and shows how cats not only amused their masters but also provided a welcome distraction from the arduous mental craft of reading and writing.

cats in the monastery

Cats abounded in medieval religious places as a status symbol. There are many medieval manuscripts containing, for example, liturgies (small images) of nuns with cats, and cats often appear as doodles in the margins of the Books of Hours.

But there is also much criticism of the keeping of cats in medieval hermetic literature. The 14th-century English preacher John Bromyard considered them useless and benefited from the over-feeding of the rich while the poor went hungry.

Cats have also been recorded as being associated with the Devil. Their cleverness and finesse were admired when hunting rats—but this did not always translate into desirable qualities for companionship. These associations led to the killing of some cats, which had detrimental effects during the Black Death and other Middle Ages plagues, when more cats may have reduced the flea-infested rat population.

Because of these associations, many thought that cats had no place in the holy places of religious orders. There do not appear to have been any formal rules, however, stating that members of religious communities were not allowed to keep cats – and continued criticism of the practice probably suggests that pet cats were common.

Even though they were not always considered socially acceptable in religious communities, cats were still well cared for. This is evident in the playful images that we see in monasteries.

For the most part, cats were quite at home in the medieval household. And as their playful depictions in many medieval manuscripts and artwork make clear, our medieval ancestors’ relationships with these animals weren’t much different from our own.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. read Original article.

How were cats viewed in the Middle Ages?

No evidence of wide-spread massacre of cats, they were killed.

Why were cats seen as evil in the Middle Ages?

the Church's policy of demonizing anything valued by earlier, pagan belief systems.

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