Sunday, 1 May 2016
It hasn’t always been safe to like cats. In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull (a law issued by the Vatican) that made it legal to burn those implicated in witch craft, by virtue of owning a cat. Thus, being a cat-owner became a high risk occupation.
As hysteria over witchcraft grew, persecution of cats and cat-owners continued for the next couple of centuries. But in the early 16th century, and the court of King Henry VIII one man was not afraid to like cats – Cardinal Wolsey.
Thomas Wolsey was born in 1473, the son of a cattle dealer and butcher. The young Wolsey studied at Oxford University and joined the church. Obviously a man of talent, he became chaplain to the archbishop of Canterbury and then entered the household of King Henry VII.
This Tudor monarch was prepared to favor talent for its own sake rather than solely promote the nobility, which found Wolsey in the right place at the right time.
Wolsey quickly established a reputation for intelligence, diligence, and diplomacy. When Henry VIII succeeded his father to be king of England, it was natural that he appointed Wolsey as Almoner. The latter’s efficiency and ingenuity won Henry’s trust, so that Wolsey rose and rose, eventually becoming Chancellor and dominating the Royal Council.
But at a time when being a cat lover was dangerous, the Cardinal was just that. He had several and they were said to keep him company whilst he worked hard on the King’s business. A cat also sat with him during mass, behaving impeccably and providing quiet comfort. A cat was often at his side during formal meetings. Indeed, Wolsey was said to take two cats along when he accompanied the king of royal progress. It seemed people exercised tact rather than point out the link between cats and witchcraft to one of the most powerful men in England.
Wolsey’s story came to an unhappy end, but it was nothing to do with cats. When he failed to do what Henry wanted most – to secure his divorce from Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. This saw Wolsey dismissed from his position as Chancellor on 22nd September 1529, and a rapid fall from grace saw him stripped of most of his assets. He died in 1530
Sunday, 24 April 2016
Apologies for a two-week absence of posts. This was due to the arrival of Poggle the Puggle puppy! This week a short post about the character of cats and how they made good illicit pets (at least in medieval times!)
In the Middle Ages pet keeping was frowned upon. This was because animals were seen as servants of man, as adorned by God and set out in the Bible, and to ‘spoil’ them went against nature. There was also the argument that in times of terrible hardship, keeping a pet took food out of the mouths of the starving poor.
Indeed, noblemen did keep pet dogs and overfed them, since obesity was seen as a way of showing off your wealth and that you had so much food you could feed it to the dog.
However, cats were hunters which meant they could fend for themselves and not eat valuable rations. This meant in medieval times many people who had no reason to keep a working dog, could justify contact with a cat. Indeed, working animals were usually kept outside, but the nature of mice meant the cat was allowed indoors, which provided another contact point between people and potential pet.
Women who lived and worked in the home, those in religious orders, and scholars spent a lot of time indoors. The quiet nature of cats meant that those in religious orders could pet a cat without being found out, and cats suited the reflective nature of scholars.
"I have seen in my own order, some lectors who despite being highly learned and of great sanctity had a blemish [pet-keeping] on account of which they were judged frivolous men."
In religious orders especially, it was considered saintly to love wild animals, but frivolous to keep them as pets. The Cistercian order banned keeping of animals for pleasure.
“Cats, dogs, and other animals are not to be kept by nuns as they distract from seriousness.”
But how do legislate against showing affection to the kitchen cat? In reality, a blind eye was often turned when it came to cats, because of their quietness and use as hunters.
Sunday, 3 April 2016
What is a bestiary?
A bestiary is a book about beasts (a sort of early natural history volume); they were popular in the middle ages and reached peek interest Victorian times. Bestiaries were the “Discovery Channel” of their day, offering people a glimpse into an exotic world of fearsome and extraordinary animals that they might otherwise not encounter.
Then as now, people were hugely curious about animals, and a richly detailed bestiary was a source of endless fascination. Indeed, in the 1730s the first children’s natural history book was published and promised to ‘entertain and engage’ attention such that children would develop a reading habit for life.
But the details included were not always what we expect to read in the modern day. For example William Wood’s bestiary of 1792 included descriptions of the animal’s appearance and behavior, but it also described what they tasted like when eaten. The Capybara (a large, guinea pig like rodent from South America) was described as tasting: “Fat and tender…with an oily and fishy taste.” And Edward Topsell’s ‘History of Four-Footed Beasts’ described cat meat as having “poisonous qualities”.
Bestiaries also held another, perhaps less obvious function. In the 16th and 17th century the animal kingdom had yet to be categorized into families, species, and genus. In other words all of animal creation was largely a disordered jumble. To bring order to this chaos writers of bestiaries sometimes ordered their subjects alphabetically, or by location, or by features such as what they ate (carnivore or herbivore) as the author saw fit. By grouping animals together within the pages of the bestiary, this fulfilled a perceived right of man, as top of the creation tree, to assert his superiority over other species.
However, the divisions within a bestiary were not always “scientific” to say the least. One 17th century book divided animals into “Those that are hard to draw” (including the lion, unicorn, horse, and rhinoceros) and “Rough and shaggy haired” (such as dogs).
Alternatively, they might be grouped as to the satisfaction they gave the hunter. Beasts that were hunted included the duck, fox, roe, and marten, whilst beasts that gave “Good sport” included the badger, otter, and wild cat.
It was work by men of thought such as Ray, Buffon, and then Linnaeus who began a movement to group animals according to scientific terms, rather than appearance or moral grounds. This wasn’t without problem though, with some authors of bestiaries apologizing that monkeys appeared too close in relation to man.
“…hoped the no specialist reader would pardon the repugnance we feel to place the monkey at the head of the brute creation, and thus to associate him with man.”
However, other people took an alternative view that the new-fangled scientific groupings helped to emphasize man’s supremacy and his pre-eminence and supremacy in creation. With whatever wry smile we might be tempted to think of bestiaries in the modern age, it remains a fact that they had undying appeal to an audience for whom this was the only way to gaze upon extraordinary creatures and marvel.
Sunday, 27 March 2016
Did you know the Pied Piper of Hamelin was a rat-charmer?
|The Pied Piper of Hamelin-|
charming the rats and inviting them to leave
What’s even more interesting is that in medieval times ‘rat-rhymers’ were an established profession. Their job was to write incantations or poems, which were chanted aloud to induce rats to leave properties where they caused a nuisance.
The rationale behind this bizarre occupation was a widely held belief that rats (and all other animals) were responsible for their own actions, and had the ability to respond to a well-reasoned argument – should they see fit. It was also held that if an animal deliberately misbehaved in active defiance of their owners, then they must accept the consequences.
This extended to animals being summoned as witnesses in formal court proceedings. Indeed, early laws in England gave animals members of the household with the same rights as women and serfs (turning this on its head, this could also be a reflection of the low regard in which women were held).
|It was held dogs could not live without man|
(Cats however ...)
For example, if a farmer’s house was robbed and there were no human witnesses to testify in court, it was not unusual to summon animal witnesses instead. Their presence in court strengthened the victim’s case (although quite how this worked is not clear.)
However, this also meant that animals could be put on trial held for their misdeeds and found guilty in the same way as people. Thus a dog that followed their natural instincts and worried sheep, could be tried in a court, found guilty, and sentenced to death by hanging.
It took until the 19th century for the British authorities to drop the practice of sentencing animals to death for their ‘crimes’ and instead think of them as property
This led to a shift in responsibility from the animal onto the owner. It was now the owner’s job to decide if his livestock were a risk to other people, and take steps to prevent harm. Thus the female cat that bit someone interfering with her kittens was no longer held ‘at fault’ and the action was acknowledged as typical of a nursing cat. Furthermore, when a farmer let a vicious ram run amuck, it was no longer the ram that paid the price with his life, but the farmer who was required to pay compensation.
|The natural hunting ability of cats|
made them less dependent on man
This represents a fundamental shift in the relationship between man and beast. But whilst it might be tempting to view this as a wholesale improvement for animals, this change of attitude was not without its problems.
This new shift meant that people had to assume responsibility the actions of their animals. This led to a change in attitude where people now exerted power over their livestock and expected the animals to comply with their wishes. This was the beginning of people manipulating animals and asserting power over them. In the fields of stock breeding and selective breeding, man went a step further to show his influence by bending nature to his own will.
This in part goes to explain the 19th century attitude to cats, a constant source of frustration to the authoritarian Victorian male. Cats failed to conform to mans will in the same way as dogs and defied attempts at selective breeding (by escaping and finding their own mate).
At a time when animals were meant to yield their free will and be willingly led, clearly no one explained this to the cats.
|Promiscuous and in need of guidance:|
The 19th century man's opinion of cats and women
In a world where man measured success by his supremacy, the cat remained blissfully aloof, and so man's answer was to label cats as promiscuous, degenerate creatures –and also led to them being looked on as feminine creatures and labelled as a womanly pet (as opposed to a noble, loyal dog who was a manly pet.)
The attitude of the Victorian male to both women and cats was remarkably similar. He believed they both needed a firm hand to prevent them sliding into their natural state of promiscuity and laziness!
Sunday, 13 March 2016
How do you organize cats?
Last week in How the Victorians went Wild for Cat Shows we looked at the popular 19th century pastime of visiting dog or cat shows. However, the organizers of cat shows had a problem that dog show organizers did not have, which was how to group the entries. With dogs it was relatively easy because they came in so many varied sizes and shapes or breeds. Cats – not so much.
Cat fancier Harrison Weir, arranged the very first cat show, which took place at Crystal Palace, July 16, 1871. His stated aim as organizer in “a labor of love to the feline race,” was to draw attention and therefore favor to: “The different breeds, colors, markings.”
However, Weir had a problem because the existing description of cat breeds tended to dwell on distinctions that highlighted their weaknesses. One obvious solution was to arrange the cat classes by color. Gordon Stables, a man who was active in both the dog and cat show worlds, suggested categorizing cats into 13 groups.
These colors were:
Brow, blue, and silver tabby
Red, red-and-white, tabby
Black-and-white, black, white,
Unusual color and any other variety.
Stables asserted that color was actually key to the cats’ character, and that certain colors were more likely to have certain character traits. In effect he was trying to justify the color-grouped categories as being more significant than they really were.
He argued: “Properly speaking color is often the key to [the cats] characters…temper…and qualities as a hunter…and its power of endurance.”
This is an interesting observation, because coat color does carry some associations in the modern age. For example, tortoiseshell cats are often described as “naughty torties” within vet clinics, because they have reputation for misbehaving.
According to Stables:
Tortoiseshells were “Good mothers and game as bull terriers”
Black cats were “Noble and gentlemanly”
White cats were “Far from brave…fond of society…gentle, and often delicate”
And black-and-whites “Sometimes…did not trouble himself too much about his duties as a house-cat.”
Stables categories didn’t last long and soon went out of fashion. In the 1880s and 1890s Weir replaced them with not dissimilar groupings but broke them down into yet more colors, also long-haired or short-haired, age, and gender. However, he added one final category that was a bit of a showstopper. This was “Cats belonging to Working Men.”
The latter category was put in place out of the notion that animal social standing mirrored that of humans, and it wouldn’t do to have working men getting ideas above their station. Incredibly, everyone seemed to go along with it, and in 1889, out of 511 entries, 102 were in the category Cats of Working Men.
As the years passed, a greater study was made of the science of cat-breeding and specialist breed cat clubs sprang, such as the Siamese or the Abyssinian cat clubs, the Silver and Smoke Persian cat club or the Tortoiseshell society. However, rather than breeding to improve the cats, the main criteria for selecting animals to breed seemed to be rarity, with a cat with unusual colored eyes or a particularly striking coat commanding the most money.
But that was reckoning without the character of cats, which were perfectly capable of escaping and finding their own mate, much to the consternation of their own.
What are your experiences of different coat colors? Have you noticed distinctive personalities based on color or is it a load of bunkum?
Sunday, 6 March 2016
In the 19th century there was a mania for dog breeding and dog shows. Dogs proved to be ‘plastic’ when it came to manipulating their size, shape, and general appearance, which leant itself to the Victorian desire to control everything around them. Cats, however, were not so obliging
For those ambitious cat owners who wished to exhibit their pet in a cat show and have other people appreciate them, their first problem was to devise categories within which to classify the cats. For dogs this was easy because there were distinct breeds ranging in size from a tiny Yorkshire terrier up to a giant Newfoundland. Not so for cats.
It was ever the bane of the Victorian pet keeper that cats defied their master’s (or mistresses – as cats were far more likely to be kept by women) wishes. Cats had a habit of breeding willy-nilly and behind their owner’s back, which made manipulating matings to produce a specific look all the more difficult. Indeed, Charles Darwin himself said as much in 1868.
Darwin noted that people’s effort to alter the appearance of cat’s had done – “…nothing by methodical selection, and probably very little by unintentional selection…” except to save the cutest kittens and destroy adult cats that poached gamebirds.
Thus it was accepted that the aspiring cat breeder was actually rather deluded, and that even if they created a stunning cat with wonderful potential, it could all go to pot with the next generation. This was also reflected in the price of purebred kittens, where £1-2 was considered a high price for a kitten “Good enough to win a first-class exhibition.”
However, the lack of diversity in the size and appearance of cats did not deter cat fanciers. On July 16, 1871, the first ever cat show took place. Held at Crystal Palace, it was organized by a well-known writer on animal topics and illustrator, Harrison Weir. His objective for the show was to raise awareness of the “Different breeds, colors, markings etc.”
Despite Weir’s best intentions, the main method he hit upon of distinguishing the different categories of cats was color. Even so, the show was a success and within ten years, many of the larger cities followed his example and could “boast of an annual exhibition of feline favorites.”
Next week we look at the categorization of cats at cat shows and the vagaries of fashion.
Sunday, 28 February 2016
In earlier posts we learnt that in the 19th century dogs’ embodied masculine superiority and cats’ feminine promiscuity. The Victorian’s liked people to be neatly pigeon-holed within society and kept nicely in their place. This even extended to the images in popular culture which reinforced the message that people were happier when they accepted their proper rank. To emphasize this message, there was a fashion for vignettes of animals depicted as people, looking civilized, content, and happy because they had decided to conform to human standards.
A typical example is the work of Walter Potter, an hotelier by day and a taxidermist by night (he ran a hotel in Sussex and used his wages to finance his hobby.) He started small by stuffing birds and worked his way up to large-scale scenes depicting animals engaged in human activities.
His tableaus may seem bizarre (and even repulsive) to modern tastes but at the height of his popularity Potter’s scenes attracted 30,000 visits a year. It was the human-like qualities of the stuffed animals which made them so popular, of which perhaps one of his best known exhibits was “The Kitten’s Wedding”. (Sold in 2003 for £21,150!)
In the modern age it is entirely distasteful to think of kittens being killed to provide corpses to put on display (but before getting too irate, don’t forget the numbers of pets which are killed each year because shelters can't house them. OK we don’t display their corpses, but modern society isn’t above killing for convenience.)
It is perhaps the execution (taxidermy) we find unpleasant, rather than the images themselves. Think of Beatrix Potter (no relation to Walter), Louis Wain, and Aesop’s Fables and animals acting out human adventures becomes more engaging than repulsive.
What we also have to remember is that in the 19th century cats had a more conflicted popular image than today. Memories were long and cats were still associated with witchcraft and devilment, and thought of as dangerously independent (at a time when obedience was prized) and sexually promiscuous (scandalous and totally unacceptable). Cats were linked to behaviors which were frowned upon, such as being independent and promiscuous, and therefore seeing them ‘civilized’ in humanized vignettes made the average Victorian feel self-righteous, masterful, and triumphant.
The message in scenes such as ‘The Kittens’ Wedding” was seen and understand by the Victorians. It rather amused them to see cats standing upright like people and engaged in ‘polite society’ activities such as being guests at a wedding.
By having the kittens participate in such a human activity, it emphasized the difference between human civilized society and the behavior of cats. This amused the Victorians and made them feel superior to see animals successfully integrated (or redeemed from their base nature) in this way. Clearly, if you wanted to be accepted in the 19th century this meant conforming – no quarter given to individuality and instinct, especially if you were a cat.