If you have spent as much as half an hour on the internet, then you cannot have missed the fact that the internet is obsessed with cats. From the website that popularised the idea of the Lolcat, to the millions of Youtube videos of the furry creatures (the top result for “cat” on Youtube is a 14 minute compilation of cats that has, at the time of writing, racked up 119,914,863 views), we seem to be obsessed with our feline friends.
The Lolcat isn’t as recent as you may think – whilst the internet home of the Lolcat, I Can Has Cheezburger?, was launched back in 2007, the concept of taking humorous pictures of cats (even complete with captions) goes back more than a century. Way back in 1870, an Englishman named Harry Pointer started to take pictures of cats in humorous circumstances. He would sell these pictures as greeting cards. You can find a collection of some of his photographs on the Sussex Photo History website.
A cat sitting on a tricycle, a carte from ‘The Brighton Cats’ series by Pointer (see Sussex Photo link above).
Pointer was followed by American photographer Harry Whittier Frees in the early to mid-1900s who also took elaborately staged pictures of cats and other animals to sell as postcards, books, and adverts. Perhaps less jolly than today’s pictures, many people believe that some, if not all, of the cats in Frees’ pictures may have been the result of taxidermy.
Some of Frees’ cats, via National Review.
So, the idea of taking pictures of Cats is well over a century old. But what about cats as pets? Probably most famous are the Ancient Egyptians for their love of cats. Cats were closely connected to a number of gods and goddesses, and some believe that there is evidence that they may have been considered to be demi-gods in their own right. It is probable that cats domesticated themselves in Ancient Egypt, as the Egyptian farming was vulnerable to mice and snakes, meaning that Egyptian settlements provided easy hunting for wild cats. The protection of a settlement also helped safeguard the cats from predators, and so the domestication of cats provided mutual benefit.
All levels of Egyptian society appreciated a good cat – Prince Thutmose, whose father, Amenhotep III, ruled roughly between 1391–1353 BC, had a pet cat named Ta-miu (meaning she-cat). When Ta-miu died, Thutmose had a limestone sarcophagus produced for her. This was clearly a well-beloved pet.
Ta-miu’s Sarcophagus, by Larazoni.
It wasn’t just cats that the Ancient Egyptians kept as pets, however, and a 2,000 year old pet cemetery with the remains of dogs, cats, and even monkeys has been uncovered in Egypt. A few have been found still with their iron collars, or with decorative beads, and as some of the animals were nestled under mats or pottery jars, archaeologists believe this is sufficient evidence to say that these animals were pets, rather than simply discarded animals. The cemetery is also unique as it was usual for pets to be buried with their owners, whilst this seems to be a burial ground dedicated just to pets.
An iron collar and beads found in Egypt’s pet cemetery, via Archaeology magazine.
To fast forward to the medieval period, we still find cats being kept as pets, although medieval Europeans seem to have had a more tumultuous relationship with the felines. Many people viewed cats in a more utilitarian manner, as useful for pest control but not for bed-time cuddles. During times of plague or witch hunts, cats were often victims to the fear of humans, who would kill them in their hundreds. Cat fur was also a regular commodity, showing that cats didn’t quite maintain the sacred status they had in Ancient Egypt, where there were extremely heavy penalties for harming cats; Diodorus Siculus, an Ancient Greek historian writing in the first century BC, recounted:
“Whoever kills a cat in Egypt is condemned to death, whether he committed this crime deliberately or not. The people gather and kill him. An unfortunate Roman, who accidentally killed a cat, could not be saved, either by King Ptolemy of Egypt or by the fear which Rome inspired.”
However, this is not to say that cats were never viewed as useful, or even kept as beloved pets. It seems that members of the Church in particular held a fondness for cats. Exeter Cathedral lists in its accounts from 1305 to 1467 the sum of a penny a week to feed the Cathedral cats if they didn’t catch enough mice. If you visit the Cathedral today, you can still see the medieval cat door!
Picture from Exeter Cathedral’s Twitter
That members of the Church were keeping many pets is evident from the legislation the Church introduced to control their members. Apparently monks, and especially nuns, were keeping all sorts of animals as pets, including cats, dogs, and birds, and this was beginning to disturb church services, as they would bring the animals with them! The Church had to beg the monks and nuns to limit how many animals they were keeping and to not bring them into the church itself. The Ancrene Riwle, a guide for anchoresses, asks:
“Unless need compels you, my dear sisters, and your director advises it, you must not keep any animal except a cat…Now if someone needs to keep one, let her see to it that it does not annoy anyone or do any harm to anybody, and that her thoughts are not taken up with it.”
Anyone who has had a cat can tell the writer straight off the bat that trying to get a cat not to annoy someone is a pretty impossible task! I even highlighted in a previous blog post the problems of cats for one medieval author when one left its paw prints on a fifteenth-century manuscript.
Detail of a miniature of a nun spinning thread, as her pet cat plays with the spindle; from the Maastricht Hours, the Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 34r
Even the idea of dressing your pet is not a modern invention. In 1406, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, the wife of Charles VI of France, paid sixteen shillings for a bright grey cloth to make a ‘coverlet’ for her cat. For context, around this time, a peasant labourer would probably earn no more than 40 shillings in a whole year. That was one pampered cat!
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In medieval Europe, cats were often unfavourably used as allegories for naughty women. Chaucer writes in his Manciple’s Tale that a lustful wife is like a cat, and that even if spoiled with milk and meat and given a couch of silk, it would still leave all those luxuries behind to chase a mouse. It was also often believed that female witches could shapeshift into cats, and the idea of a cat being a witch’s companion still endures today. A thirteenth-century writer, Odo of Cheriton, seems to have had it out for both cats and women; not only did he compare cats to the devil, but he wrote the charming line, “If a cat will not stay home, shorten her tail and singe her fur. The same applies with wives.”
So, just as today, cats had a mixed audience. Just as many people worship internet cats, so the Ancient Egyptians worshiped and doted on their cats. Just as some people today can (completely wrongly, of course) absolutely hate cats, so too in the past were cats vilified and killed in large quantities. But as the early photographs of cats show, these felines will continue to hold a place in many peoples’ hearts, just as they have for thousands of years.
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More in the Popular History series: Fairy Tales or Medieval Reality? Historical Origins of Fantasy Stories