If you have spent any time on the Internet/social media recently, chances are you have seen images of cats painted during the Middle Ages that look, well, not quite normal. In case you have not had the pleasure of seeing the breadth of these crazy feline images, Buzzfeed’s “23 Ugly Medieval Cat Paintings That Will Speak to your Soul” provides an excellent overview, and if nothing else is great for a laugh.
While these strange depictions may be partly the result of the artistic conventions of the time – they got me thinking about how cats were perceived during the medieval period, perhaps as something quite different from the lovable companion animal we see all over the Internet now. In celebration of International Cat Day yesterday (August 8th), I will explore feline perceptions related to the archaeological, the historical, and the comical.
Domesticating the feline
While survey results are mixed, more conservative estimates of pet ownership based on a 2018 household survey revealed that just over half of American households have a pet, amounting to some 77 million dogs and 54 million cats. The history of domestication for the common house cat, however, took a different path than that of man’s best friend. Definitions of domestication differ, but all emphasize the relationship of humans with the animal or plant in question (Zeder 2006). Some definitions exaggerate the role of humans in changing the genetics and morphology of other species, other researchers see domestication more broadly as a mutually beneficial relationship (Zeder 2006; 2012).
While there is no doubt that barn cats of the ancient world were effective in reducing vermin, the characteristics of wild cats, solitary hunters with no social hierarchy, are not conducive to domestication (Driscoll et al. 2009). Additionally, domestic cats do not significantly differ morphologically from their wild counterparts in terms of body plan (Ottoni et al. 2017). A recent genetic study revealed that modern wild and domestic cats can be traced back to multiple lineages of wild cats that proliferated along human maritime and trade routes (Ottoni et al. 2017). All things considered, evidence suggests that not only are cats not completely domesticated, but they may have initiated this relationship with humans for favorable conditions like easy access to food – essentially, cats may have had a hand in their own domestication.
Evidence of cats in the archaeological record is unfortunately rare. The origins of cat domestication is traditionally placed in Egypt about 4000 years ago, during the Middle Kingdom(c. 1950 BC) based on early archaeological and circumstantial evidence. More recent excavations revealed a cat burial at Hierakonpolis, an elite cemetery in Upper Egypt from the earlier predynastic period (c. 3800-3600 BC). comprised of two adults cats, a male and female, and four kittens (Van Neer et al. 2014) may show evidence of taming, and a human-feline relationship, centuries earlier. Measurements of the adult cat mandibles (lower jaw bone) are smaller than the Egyptian wildcats at the time. Size differences, however, may be due to subspecies differences within the African wildcat population, and it is almost impossible to distinguish whether these individuals are those of tamed wildcats or the beginning of a domesticated line, the un-butchered remains of multiple cats in an elite cemetery suggests a close relationship between humans and cats at the time (Van Neer et al. 2014).
A cat skeleton from Cyprus may challenge this Egypt first model. Since Cyprus is an island, any evidence of a feline presence must be the result of an introduction by humans. A human burial in Shillourokambos, a Neolithic village inhabited from the 9th-8th century BC, revealed extensive grave goods like axes, flint tools, and marine shells, and in the surrounding soil, an 8-month-old cat in the same stratigraphic position (Vigne et al. 2004). The grave goods present are indicative of an individual of a certain status and the associated feline burial, again un-butchered, suggests a close relationship between human and cat. This burial is interpreted as very early evidence of taming and the beginning of the relationship on which domestication hinges, some 9,500 years ago.
Fast forward to the medieval period and we see archaeological evidence for a very different type of human-feline relationship. In the early 1990s, the skeletal remains of 79 cats were discovered in a 13th century well in Cambridge, England. These domestic cats (determined from their size) were all buried at once after their throats were cut and their coats skinned. Luff & Garcia 2017). Evidence of butchery marks on certain skeletal elements as well as a low representation of bones that yield more meat like the humerus of femur indicates that the cats were killed for food (Luff & Garcia 2017). Fragments from other sites in medieval England support the idea that cats may have supplemented diets during times of famine (Hull 1955).
Cats in Popular Culture
Images of cats in popular culture, including those depicted in hieroglyphs and medieval paintings, reveal the nature of our relationship with these creatures, one that is greatly informed by the symbolism of the animal and differs by cultural context (Lawrence 2003). Essentially, our depictions of animals reveal how they are valued in society. “Animals serve as repositories of shared concepts and values, and societal forces give power to their symbolic roles, providing a lens through which preconceived ideology determines the collective view of the species” (Hunting 1997). Different cultures have placed different values on cats across time and space.
Ancient Egyptian societies are well known for their positive treatment of cats, as seen in the illustration from Thebes earlier in this post; a tawny cat can be seen catching birds alongside Nebamun. Egyptians were known to keep cats as family pets but the feline may be present to represent the Sun god (British Museum). In contrast, the treatment of cats during the Middle Ages is most likely related to the fact that cats were associated with witchcraft during this period. Medieval attitudes toward nature were largely informed by Church teachings, and only humans, not animals, were considered divinely created. This division was reinforced by associating certain animal images with the devil (Thomas 2005). Cats in particular were thought to bring misfortune to the house and their connection to the occult meant that their blood, excrement and brains were sometimes used medicinally (Lawrence 2003). This cultural view of felines explains why many look mischievous, or evil, or downright weird in paintings from the Middle Ages. These images operate to reinforce these stereotypes and the Church’s control concerning the narrative of nature during this period.
Today, the copious amounts of “adorable” or “funny” or “insert other clickbait adjective here” cat pictures and videos so commonplace on the Internet today, reinforces our modern western view of cats as beloved pets, not as gods, devils, or food. And now only one question remains, which medieval cat are you today?
Great post Emily! I never thought about it but cats themselves initiating contact with us for food makes sense. I’m glad they did. Love, Mom