Gode Cookery Presents
Tales of the Middle Ages
True stories, fables and anecdotes from the Middle Ages


In the 9th century, an Irish monk living in Reichenau on Lake Constance revealed his humor, learning, and love for his little white cat in a poem he wrote there. As we read, both he and Pangur Ban seem to be in the room with us, not in their monkish cell viewed down the long vista of eleven centuries:

I and Pangur Ban my cat, 'Tis a like task we are at,
Hunting mice is his delight, Hunting words I sit all night
'Tis a merry thing to see, At our tasks how glad are we
When at home we sit and find, Entertainment to our mind.
'Gainst the wall he sets his eye, Full and fierce and sharp and sly,
'Gainst the wall of knowledge I, All my little wisdom try.
So in peace our task we ply: Pangur Ban my cat and I
In our arts and in our bliss, I have mine and he has his.

Many native monks were forced to flee Ireland at this time to escape the devastation of pillaging Norsemen. Pangur Ban must have provided great companionship to this Irish monk living in foreign Reichenau, missing his homeland.

Excerpts from: Life in Medieval Times by Marjorie Rowling. New York: The Berkely Publishing Group, 1979.

A Medieval cat

Another Woodcut of a Cat Catching Rats

Cats were not such common pets as dogs were in the Middle Ages, and it seems they were viewed in more practical terms as mousers and ratters. There is a drawing in the Luttrell Psalter of a tabby toying with a mouse, and there is also a carving of a cat with a rat in its mouth, by a craftsman who appreciated everyday scenes, on the 15th-century timber watching gallery beside the shrine of St. Alban in St. Alban's Abbey (now the cathedral). On a further practical note, William Langland wrote in Piers Plowman of a pedlar who was disposed to kill cats for their skins if he could manage to catch them. Archaeologists have found cat bones with cut marks suggesting that the fur had been removed. Such a use of the animal signifies the keeping of cats as livestock, not pets. Eleanor de Montfort, Countess of Leicester and sister of Henry III, appreciated cats, although whether for practical or affectionate reasons is not clear, for in 1265 one was purchased for her household on arrival at Oldham and another was purchased when the household moved to Dover.

Bartholomew de Glanville, who is better known as Bartholomew the Englishman, completed a widely used encyclopaedia in about 1240. In this he wrote some observant lines about cats, which were translated from Latin into English late in the 14th-century by John Trevisa:

"... a beste of uncerteyn heare (hair) and colour. For some catte is whyte, some reed, and som black, som scowed (piebald or calico) and spenked in the feet and in the eeren... And hath a gret mough and sawe teeth and scharpe and longe tonge and pliaunt, thynne, and sotile. And lapeth therwith whanne he drynketh... And he is a ful leccherous beste in youthe, swyfte, plyaunt, and mery. And lepeth and reseth (rusheth) on alle thyng that is tofore him and is yladde by a strawe and pleyeth therwith. And is a wel heuy beste in eelde (old age) and ful slepy. And lith sliliche in awayte for mys and is ware where they ben more by smelle than by sight. And hunteth and reseth on hem in priuey place. And whanne he taketh a mous he pleyeth therwith, and eteth him after the pleye. And is as it were wylde, and goth aboute in tyme of generacioun. Among cattes in tyme of loue is hard fightynge for wyues, and oon cracceth and rendeth the other greuousliche with bytyng and with clawes. And he maketh a reweliche noyse and horrible whan oon profreth to fighte with another. And is a cruel beste whanne he is wilde and wonyeth in wodes and hunteth thanne smale wilde bestes, as conynges and hares. And falleth on his owne feet whanne he falleth out of highe place..."

"... a beast of uncertain hair and color. For some cat is white, some red, and some black, some calico and speckled in the feet and in the ears... And hath a great mouth and saw teeth and sharp and long tongue and pliant, thin, and subtle. And lappeth therewith when he drinketh... And he is a full lecherous in youth, swift, pliant and merry, and leapeth and rusheth on everything that is before him and is led by a straw, and playeth therewith; and is a right heavy beast in age and full sleepy, and lieth slyly in wait for mice and is aware where they be more by smell than by sight, and hunteth and rusheth on them in privy places. And when he taketh a mouse, he playeth therewith, and eateth him after the play. In time of love is hard fighting for wives, and one scratcheth and rendeth the other grieviously with biting and with claws. And he maketh a ruthful noise and ghastful, when one proffereth to fight with one another, and unneth is hurt when he is thrown from a high place. And when he hath a fair skin, he is as it were proud thereof, and goeth fast about. And when his skin is burnt, then he bideth at home. And is oft for his fair skin taken of the skinner, and slain and flayed."

(Translation and additional text from Lost Country Life by Dorothy Hartley, 1979, Pantheon Books.)

The words of the Franciscan friar Bartholomew reach with clarity from the 13th-century to any observer of cats today, and urge us to believe that some Medievals took pleasure in cats as pets. We must note, however, that Batholomew concluded his remarks on cats by saying that the animal "is ofte for his fayre skynne ytake of the skynnere and yslayne."

Notice is due here of the succession of official cats of Exeter Cathedral. The obit accounts for the cathedral from 1305 through 1467 contain the entry custoribus et cato (to the "custors" - keepers - and the cat), and on one occasion pro cato (for the cat), amounting to a penny per week. This sum was apparantly to supplement the diet of the official cat, who was expected to control the pest population of the cathedral. A cat-hole is still to be found in the door in the north transept wall beneath the clock, through which the salaried feline could enter and egress while going about its task of hunting rats, mice, birds, and other threats to the cathedral. One wonders if John Catterick during his brief tenure in 1419 as Bishop of Exeter was ever informed by someone with a whimsical sense of humour of the existence of the official cat.

Excerpts from: Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England by Compton Reeves. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Cats suffered horribly during witch hunts, which fostered or encouraged all kinds of superstition and brutality. Yet manuscripts show them about the house, playing with the spinster's twirling bobbin, and earning their living on farms.

There was a certain monastic cat who played with serpents. The monks came out in spots, and accused the cat of conveying the serpent's poison. Fortunately (for the cat) it was pointed out that the serpent only played with the cat - so that any poison was delivered accidentally: as there was no "malice intent," harm would not be transmitted.

However, it was advisable in the dairy to "set trap for a mouse," for though a dog is reasonably honest, and properly ashamed if caught, any cat who will not steal must be mentally deficient - it's the first thing their mother's teach them!

Excerpts from: Lost Country Life by Dorothy Hartley. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

This page is dedicated to the memory of my beloved companion Buster Cat, April 11th 1988 - December 3rd, 1999.

Tales of the Middle Ages

© 1997-2004 James L. Matterer

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