Medieval Cats – Did She Call Macbeth a Pussy?

For International Cat Day, I thought I would dredge up a 2013 (where does the time go?) post on cats. Yes, there will be a new post soon, but for now let’s celebrate medieval cats!

I have a love/hate relationship with cats. When I was in my twenties I adored cats and often would own one or two. As a matter of personal trivia, one of the ways my then boyfriend (now ex-husband) got me to move in with him was a promise of letting me own a cat. I adopted a stray who wandered into work one day. CJ was a sleek black and white cat with whom I quickly bonded. Sadly, a car hit CJ about 6 months after I rescued him.

Next came Max. Max was a smart gray cat who loved to cuddle as well as wander the neighborhood. My boyfriend and I lived off a busy street in a converted barn that backed up against a large field. Max should have been content with the field but sadly he too met his demise on the busy street near hours. He lasted four months.

The next one, whose name escapes me, convinced me that I must be a terrible cat owner. It quickly became apparent my cats would rather commit suicide than live with me. The third cat only lasted a few weeks. My boyfriend and I got married and I decided to have a child, rather than pet; that is, only after we fenced in the yard!

Jump to 2009. I had to put my beloved dog down due to cancer and decided I’d had enough of pets. My son felt othe wise and begged for a cat. I told him about my experience as a cat owner or cat killer as it was, but he continued to beg and plead. I relented, secretly sure we would not have a cat around for long and by the time he went off to college, I would be child and pet free. It’s now 2013, and Cookie the tabby cat and I share this house. I am quite sure she is still here because of her neurotic nature. She is too damn scared to venture far from home. Sigh, just my luck I am stuck with a freaky cat. She is the type of cat who will come mew and rub against you, only to rush off, tail held high, at the slightest stroke to her fur. I honestly don’t know if she wants attention or suffers from a bi-polar mental disorder.

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Medieval Cats by Kathleen Walker Meikle is one of the newer books in my collection. It had been on my Amazon wish list for a couple of years before my son bought it for me as a Christmas present this last year. It is a collection of pictures of cats found in medieval manuscripts with a little medieval cat trivia thrown in. The pictures alone are worth picking up the book; it would make a nice small coffee table book. The trivia may not win a round on Jeopardy, but it’s still worth reading.

Medieval cats were used as mousers, pets and fur. According to the sumptuary law of 1363, cat, lamb, rabbit and fox were the only type of fur allowed for gentlemen under the rank of knight. It seems abandoned cats were the primary source of fur.

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The most common English name for all tomcats was Gyb, but some unimaginative people named individual cats Gyp. I know people like this, they name their cat “cat”.

Meikle tells us “Cats were often associated with the monastic order, perhaps due to their contemplative and quiet nature”(31). This could be why we see them in so many manuscripts.

We know that the reputation of Medieval cats were not always kind. They were sometimes seen as the devil’s aid. Witches were believed to commune with the dark lord through cats. Knowing this, it was surprising to learn that many high born ladies had a fondness for pet cats.

My favorite part of the book was the connection between cats and literature.

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Cats appear in proverbs, as the one attributed to John Grower. He writes in his Confesio Amantis “As a cat would eat fishes, without wetting his paw. This is what Lady Macbeth is referring to when she says; “like the poor cat i’ the adage”, meaning wanting something but not willing to do what is necessary to get it. She is calling out Macbeth as a pussy.

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We even find myths about cats in The Canterbury Tales. The Wife of Bath says that one of her former husbands described her thusly”

You said also I was like a cat; for a cat, if someone were to singe the cat’s skin, will always dwell at home; but if she were sleek and elegant in her fur, she will not remain in the house an hour, but before any day would dawn, will go forth to show her skin and go a-caterwauling. This is to say, sir rogue, if I am finely dressed, I will run out to show my clothes.

Come to think of it, I have friends like this too!

After reading this book, I am eager to find other books that Meikle has written. But I have promised myself they will stay on my wish list until I am done with the books I have.

Next up: Witches Werewolves and Fairies; Shapeshifters and astral doubles in the Middle Ages by Claude Lexouteux

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

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