November 19, 2012 by Gail Armstrong
In this run-up to Christmas-time, I have already posted twice on the subject of the Annunciation to the Virgin, setting the scene, as it were, for the nativity, adoration and annunciation-to-the-shepherds scenes to come.
Having said that, I will now, for no particular reason, blog about cats. (Cats in illuminated manuscripts, that is, lest you think I’ve totally lost the plot.)
But why blog about cats, and why now, you ask? Why not, I reply. After all, who doesn’t love cats? Only those with evil in their hearts and ice in their souls…and my Aunt Betty, in whom I overlook the defect as she’s otherwise really quite nice.
Cats frequently frolic in the margins of illuminated manuscripts, and sometimes make appearances in the central miniatures as well. Here are a few of the things our kitty friends got up to in Medieval Times:
1. They chased mice. No surprise there.
From a French Book of Hours, 1500 – 1515.
2.They fought dragons. Admit it – you’re surprised.
From the Queen Mary Psalter, England, between 1310 and 1320.
3. They hung out in herb gardens, ignoring the mice running rampant through the vegetation. Well, they do strike me as contemplative creatures.
From an herbal, Italy, c. 1440.
4. They got entangled in snail shells and looked none too pleased about it. You know a cat – they see a container, they have to see if they fit.
From The Maastrict Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century.
5. They listened to fiddling fools. Haven’t we all, at some point?
From Voeux de paon, Northern France or Belgium, possibly Tournai, c. 1350.
6. They got chased by broom-wielding, dragon-riding men who didn’t realize their nighties were tucked into their underpants and that the cat was really laughing at them. Haven’t we all, at some point?
Also from Voeux de paon, Northern France or Belgium, possibly Tournai, c. 1350.
7. They bathed in the privacy of their acanthus leaf bower, undisturbed by wing-flapping swans or bag-piping fools in the next room. Nothing worse than a bag-piping fool disturbing your ablutions.
From a French Book of Hours, c. 1470.
8. They resented people shouting “Hey Diddle Diddle” at them every time they tried to practice violin. Well, wouldn’t you?
From a French Book of Hours, 1480-1500.
I told you, it’s bugging this one too.
From a Book of Hours (fragmentary), England, c. 1320 – 1330.
9. They took up other instruments just to get away from that silly nursery rhyme. Well, wouldn’t you?
From a Belgian Book of Hours, c. 1470.
(And you thought cats playing piano was a YouTube phenomenon!)
From a French Book of Hours, c. 1485 – 1490.
They even joined marching bands.
Also from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, between 1310 and 1320.
10. They waited for table scraps… in the manner of cats since time immemorial.
From the Breviary of Eleanor of Portugal, Bruges, c. 1500.
11. They guarded tree-houses…in the manner of not so many cats since time immemorial.
Also from the Breviary of Eleanor of Portugal, Bruges, c. 1500.
12. They allowed themselves to be bridled and ridden by fools while disapproving hybrids looked down their beaks at them. I’m pretty sure this is the only cat since time immemorial who has allowed that to happen.
From a French Book of Hours, Rouen, c. 1470.
13. They sat comfortably on a stool, watching the household hard at work and play. Ah yes, that’s the way of cats since time immemorial.
From a Gospel Lectionary, Padua, Italy, dated 1436.
14. They…um, they….hmmm, what is this cat doing?
Oh yes, of course, he’s hissing at a dog…in the manner of cats since time immemorial.
From a Breviary, Taranto, Italy, between 1350 and 1400.
15. They climbed trees. Perhaps with a view to guarding treehouses (see above).
Also from the Breviary from Taranto, Italy and created between 1350 and 1400.
16. They met unfortunate fates as a result of taking misguided submarine rides.
From Historia de proelis in a French translation (Le livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre), France, c. 1420.
Ok, there’s a back-story to this one…the write-up to a similar image on the British Library website explains that it depicts
“Alexander being lowered into the sea in a cask, with the queen and her lover attempting to drown him but cutting the chains that support the diving bell. Alexander is saved by the knowledge that if he kills the cat that accompanies him, the sea, which cannot tolerate blood, will throw the bell.”
(Write-up and accompanying image found at http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=38953.)
And now you know why cats hate water!
Next time: we explore more fully the relationship of medieval cat to medieval mouse (including the relationship of cat to giant mouse, cat to giant rat, and cat to attack of the rebel mice-people)…stay tuned!