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Cats in history: As complicated a story as they themselves are (with pictures! of cats! and babies!)

Ok you guys, I’m going to try to Win the Internets today with this post, chock full of history! cats! and babies!  How can I connect all three?  Oh ye of little faith.  Walk with me a minute, and see…

So according to the Museum of the Moving Image in a new exhibition that opened this summer, cats have taken over the internet.  I dare you to try to remember a day where you didn’t see a furry cuddly kitten doing something cute on youtube, or a cat meme making fun of Donald Trump.   Hang on, that’s too good for me to not add one in right here:

trump cat
Cats are loved online in part because of their many paradoxes; curiosity mixed with indifference, being both loving and aloof, playful and above-it-all.  I love cats.  I also love dogs.  I love lots of animals.  I’m not particularly crazy about snakes, though.

Times weren’t always so good for cats.  If cats are riding high now, they are only getting what’s rightfully due them after a few centuries of outright persecution, which reached a zenith in 1484 when Pope Innocent empowered the Spanish Inquisition to burn all cats and cat lovers.  Joke’s on them, though – because of the drop in cats, the rats carrying fleas infected with the bubonic plague had free reign, and thus, wave after wave of the Black Death spread through Europe.  Ha ha.  I can just imagine all the cats in kitty heaven, buried in catnip, having a right good laugh at the idiocy of humans with that one.  Once the institutional persecution of cats ended in the late 17th century, the plague started falling, in part thanks to the natural hunters being given a place in society again.

one of our cats, and my pregnant belly in 2013

one of our cats, and my pregnant belly in 2013

It was thought that cats were related to demons, which is why it was so tough for any woman who owned and loved one to rid herself of rumors of witchcraft.  When she was crowned, Elizabeth I actually burned a cat in a wicker basket which symbolized the demons being released (so much for the Elizabethan court being a high point of intellectual thought).

Ironically, it was often their very capable hunting prowess that caused suspicion.  Many people associated the cats with the vermin themselves, and William Caxton (famous for bringing the printing press to England) wrote that “the devyl playeth ofte with the synnar, lyke as the catte doth with the mous.”

People preferred dogs as pets for many of the same reasons cited today – dogs are fiercely loyal, you can train them to obey you, and you never have to worry about a dog switching sides in an argument.  Even today cats are seen as independent, stealthy, and you’re never quite sure whether your cat is daydreaming about eating your fingers.  You can’t read cats, and it was this independent streak, this refusal to abide by the rules that society has set up, that made them so suspicious.

So there we have it.  Cats were suspect, and possibly of the Devil because you couldn’t tame them.  Fortunately, there are still a few examples of people loving and enjoying the company of cats:

  1. Nuns.  There are plenty of cats living in convents.  One 13th century bishop wrote to the nuns that they were only allowed cats, not dogs, as pets.  Here is an image of a nun spinning, with the cat helping in the same way many who still practice the fiber arts, and have cats, will laugh at with familiarity:

    A cat helping

    A cat “helping” a nun spin

  2. Exeter Cathedral kept a cat on payroll, presumably to help with the rodent problem, but still.  Records from the 15th century list its salary as a penny a week.
  3. the law:  the medieval Welsh King Hywel Dda codified many customs and laws, and in 936, arguing for the rights of cats as hunters and pest-controllers, he listed the value of cats:  As soon as a cat was born until it opened its eyes, it was worth a penny.  From the time it opens its eyes until it kills a mouse, it’s wroth 2 pennies.  After it kills mice, it’s worth 4 pennies.  Finally, if a cat failed to catch mice, or the female cat didn’t have kittens, the owner was due a 1/3 refund of the money paid for the cat.

  4. Then there is Pangur Bán, a lucky 9th century cat who inspired a very long poem that includes praise, and downright companionship:
    I am Pangur Bán, my cat
    ‘Tis a like task we are at
    Hunting mice is his delight
    Hunting words I sit all night

So while the Internet has made times pretty good for cats in general, and the Inquisition wasn’t very good for them at all, we can take heart in the idea that for much of history, if they weren’t absolutely ruling the world, they were still playing their sweet part, and finding companionship and love around them.

Synchronized baby-cat lounging

Synchronized baby-cat lounging

(Just a side note – at my old house in the mountains in Southern California we had tons of feral cats around since we lived next to a forest.  We contacted the local humane society who introduced us to the Trap Neuter Release plan, and helped pay for it.  So we got a cage at Harbor Freight for $25, and then would catch them and take them to the vet to be neutered, and the Humane Society paid for that part.  Then we’d nurse them for a day until they were ready to be released, and put them back out into the world.  If you love cats, and strays are a problem where you live, I’d highly recommend that you look into TNR programs through your humane society.)