Cats in the Middle Ages

By Madeleine S. Killacky

Cats had a bad reputation in the Middle Ages. Their alleged links to paganism and witchcraft meant they were often treated with suspicion. But despite their association with the supernatural, medieval manuscripts feature surprisingly playful images of our furry friends.

From these (often very funny) depictions we can learn a great deal about medieval attitudes towards cats – notably that they were a central part of daily medieval life.

In the Middle Ages, men and women were often identified by the animals they raised. Pet monkeys, for example, were considered exotic and a sign that the owner was wealthy, as they had been imported from distant lands. Pets became part of the nobility’s personal identity. Keeping an animal that was lavished with attention, affection, and high-quality food in return for no functional purpose – other than companionship – meant high status.

It was not uncommon for high-ranking men and women in the Middle Ages to have their portraits made in the company of a pet, most often cats and dogs, to signify their high status.

A painting of Jesus and his disciples, gathered around a table on the right.  On the left, in a hallway outside the diner, a cat and a dog are depicted.
Last Supper (1320), by Pietro Lorenzetti.
Art web gallery

It is common to see images of cats in the iconography of feasts and other domestic spaces, which seems to reflect their status as pets in the medieval home.

In Pietro Lorenzetti’s The Last Supper (above), a cat sits by the fire while a small dog licks a plate of leftovers off the floor. The cat and dog play no narrative role in the scene, but rather signal to the viewer that this is a domestic space.

Similarly, in the miniature from a Dutch Book of Hours (a common type of prayer book in the Middle Ages that marked the divisions of the day with specific prayers), a man and woman are shown in a scene of a cozy household while a cat watches from the bottom left corner. Again, the cat is not the center of the image nor the center of the composition, but it is accepted in this medieval domestic space.

a man and woman figure in a cozy household scene while a well-groomed cat watches from the lower left corner.
1500 Book of Hours known as the ‘London Rothschild Hours’ or ‘Heures of Joanna I of Castile’. Illustrated by Gérard Horenbout.
British Library in London. Manuscript 35313, folio. 1 back. VS, Author provided

Just like today, medieval families gave names to their cats. A 13th-century cat from Beaulieu Abbey, for example, was called “Mite” after the green ink lettering that appears above a scribble of said cat in the margins of a medieval manuscript.

royal treatment

The cats were well cared for in the medieval house. In the early 13th century, there is mention in Cuxham (Oxfordshire) manor accounts of cheese being bought for a cat, suggesting that they were not left to fend for themselves.

A painting of a young woman wearing a yellow dress, her hair wrapped in fabric and a pearl necklace around her neck, holding a tabby kitten to her chest in a pose of affection.
Bacchiacca (circa 1525), by the Italian painter Antonio d’Ubertino Verdi.

In fact, the 14th century queen of France, Isabeau of Bavaria, spent excessive amounts of money on accessories for her pets. In 1387, she ordered a necklace embroidered with pearls and fastened with a gold buckle for her pet squirrel. In 1406 bright green cloth was purchased to make a special blanket for her cat.

Cats were also common companions for scholars, and cat eulogies were not uncommon in the 16th century. In one poem, a cat is described as a scholar’s lighthearted and dearest companion. Praise like this suggests a strong emotional attachment to pet cats and shows how cats not only cheered up their masters, but provided welcome distractions from the hard mental trade of reading and writing.

Cats in the cloisters

Cats are found in abundance as a status symbol in medieval religious spaces. There are many medieval manuscripts which feature, for example, illuminations (small images) of nuns with cats, and cats frequently appear as doodles in the margins of Books of Hours.

Municipal library of Rouen ms 3028 fol.  63r
St Matthew and his cat, Bruges, c. 1500.
[Rouen bibliotheque municipale. Manuscript 3028, Folio 63r], Author provided

But there is also much criticism of cat sitting in medieval sermon literature. The 14th-century English preacher, John Bromyard, saw them as wasteful, supercharged props of the rich who enjoyed them while the poor went hungry.

Doodle showing a nun spinning yarn, while her cat plays with the spindle.
Detail of a miniature of a nun spinning, while her cat plays with the spindle; Hours of Maastricht, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century,
Stowe manuscript 17, folio 34r

Cats are also recorded as being associated with the devil. Their stealth and cunning when hunting mice were admired – but this did not always translate into desirable qualities for company. These associations led to the killing of some cats, which had adverse effects during the Black Death and other middle-aged plagues, when more cats may have reduced populations of flea-infested rats.

Because of these associations, many believed that cats had no place in the sacred spaces of religious orders. However, there do not appear to have been any formal rules stating that members of religious communities were not allowed to keep cats – and the constant criticism of this practice perhaps suggests that pet cats were common.

The scribble in the corner of a page from a medieval manuscript shows a cat on its hind legs, dressed as a nun
A cat dressed as a nun.
State Library of Victoria, 096 R66HF, folio 99r, Author provided

Although not always considered socially acceptable in religious communities, cats were always well cared for. This is evident in the playful images we see of them in monasteries.

For the most part, the cats were quite comfortable in the medieval house. And as their playful depiction in many medieval manuscripts and artwork makes clear, our medieval ancestors’ relationship with these animals was not too different from ours.

Madeleine S. Killacky is a doctoral candidate in Medieval Literature at Bangor University.

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