One of the most high profile posts in today’s civil service is that of Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office, a position which has been held by Larry, a ten-year old brown and white tabby, since 15 February 2011. His assumption of this important office generated a great deal of attention in the press. Coverage at the time often framed the feline’s mouse-catching role against the careers of some of his predecessors, with one BBC article tracing the genesis of Larry’s post to Rufus of England, a regal-sounding marmalade tomcat who served in Downing Street in the 1920s. Employing felines as rat catchers in official capacities, however, has a much longer history, and it is in fact in the medieval period when we first see felines officially recruited by rulers and institutions as specialist mousers. A brief survey of some of the rich sources we have for cats and their activities in the medieval home and household reveals not only the enduring centrality of keeping pets throughout history, but also the importance that the medieval period played in crafting the modern stereotypes surrounding one of our favourite household pets.
Legal, financial, and devotional texts, from throughout the medieval period, all make it clear that cats were not just mainstays in the domestic environment, but highly prized as mousers and companions. Felines are the subject of their very own section in a collection of laws attributed to the Welsh King, Hywel Dda, who reigned over a conglomerate of lands in southern Wales in the mid-tenth century. The law code makes it clear that cats were used to guard the king’s barn, and that if any were killed or stolen then the owner would need to be generously compensated – either, as the law minutely sets out, with a quantity of wheat equal in volume to the length of the cat’s body from its head to the tip of its tail, or with the gift of a sheep with her lamb and wool. The importance placed on the cat’s rodent-catching abilities is made clear by the condition that a cat can only be sold upon guarantee that it was ‘a good mouser’. The law code also suggests an ambitious royal desire to control feline behaviour with legislation – perhaps the first such attempt in European history – as another clause adds that cats were not supposed to caterwaul every moon, though just how that was to be enforced the law code does not say!
Larry and his feline colleagues, including Palmerston (Chief Mouser of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office) and Gladstone (Chief Mouser of Her Majesty’s Treasury), continue to attract a great deal of attention in the press and in social media, and one could be forgiven for thinking that institutional positions for felines are a modern phenomenon. Nevertheless, our patchy medieval records demonstrate that such employment opportunities may have been even more widespread in the middle ages, and suggest that both secular and ecclesiastical institutions offered employment to cats for often long periods of time. Financial accounts from Exeter Cathedral, for example, record that in the fifteenth century they had on their payroll a resident feline mouser, who earned roughly one penny a week (thirteen pennies per quarter, to be precise). Between 1363 and 1366 the quarterly payment for the cat doubled to twenty-six pence, which suggests that, at least for a while, the cathedral strengthened their mousing capabilities by employing a second feline. If every cathedral had employed a mouser as in Exeter, then dozens of cats across medieval England would have been in gainful employment.
Felines were also highly prized simply for their companionship. An important work produced in an early form of Middle English is the Ancrene Wisse (often called the Guide for Anchoresses or Anchorites’ Rule in modern English), a guidebook produced in the first half of the thirteenth century for a group of female anchorites, women who enclosed themselves into cells or similar places (often in or near churches or religious sites) for spiritual purposes. Anchorites were supposed to abandon all connections with the secular world, their possessions included, and the Ancrene Wisse laid out in detail how women could best follow such a lifestyle. Even in such a devotional work, however, felines still appear. The guidebook stipulated that anchorites, if unhappy enough, were allowed to take a feline as a companion into their cells: ‘unless distress drive you and your director advise it, you should have no animal but one cat only’. Julian of Norwich, a female anchorite and mystic from Norfolk active in the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, composed the influential Revelations of Divine Love which was perhaps the first book in the English language to be written by a woman, and she apparently shared her cell with a cat.
Felines were highly regarded as mousers and as companions, but their more mischievous side was certainly not lost on medieval contemporaries. The feline penchant for clawing at things that dangle, swing, or simply look enticing, must have been somewhat frustrating in domestic environments where considerable time and effort was spent spinning wool. In a manuscript from the early fourteenth century, for example, a cat is depicted with both their front claws enthusiastically dug into a spindle hanging from the owner’s hand, although it must be said that the owner in question – a nun, in this case – seems to be more amused rather than annoyed by the antics of her committed ‘helper’. More questions are raised than answered when reading the Novelle (short stories) of Franco Sacchetti, an Italian novelist and poet writing in the fourteenth century. One wonders whether he was speaking from experience when he warned men, whose habit it was to dry themselves naked in front of their hearth, to beware of mischievous felines tempted to claw at what hung between their legs!
Whether law codes, devotional texts, manuscript illuminations, or vernacular literature, felines feature in them all. The sheer range of source materials in which cats appear throughout the medieval period attest to the respect and high regard in which they were held by their contemporaries, whether as guards, mousers, or simple companions. The charm and allure which they engendered also emerges very clearly too, and reminds us that the fascination and attention lavished on cats in the press, on the internet, and in our homes, has a long history indeed.
This blog was written by Dr Mark Whelan, Lecturer in Medieval History, University of Manchester.