The appearance of domestic cats in art and literature dates back thousands of years.
In medieval Europe, cats held a particular fascination for monks and scribes, who often included them in the margins of manuscripts. From whimsical marginalia to symbolic representations, cats in medieval manuscripts reveal a wealth of information about the relationship between humans and felines during this period.
Cats and medieval life
In the Middle Ages, cats were both loved and feared. Cats in medieval Europe were important for practical reasons, such as pest control, but they also held significant symbolic, cultural, and superstitious value.
Cats helped to protect food and manuscripts
As natural predators of rats and mice, cats were valued for their hunting abilities that protected grains and other stored foods in medieval times.
Cats were also used in medieval libraries to prevent rodents from chewing on manuscripts which were made out of stretched animal skin called vellum. Rodents would also go after communion wafers which were made out of wheat.
Consequently, cats became a common sight in monastic communities, where they helped to protect the precious manuscripts and other valuable items stored in scriptoriums.
Cats, in fact, were the only animals allowed in convents and monasteries. Anchoress, religious women who withdrew from secular society, were allowed a cat as a companion.
Cats were also believed to have mystical powers
During the Middle Ages, it was widely believed that nature, which included all the animals, was divinely crafted by God with the express purpose of serving humans. Each creature was considered to be lessons in morality and faith.
For example, many manuscripts show a beaver self-castrating to escape its hunter. This scene was means to be a cautionary allegory in the Middle Ages, illustrating the importance of renouncing one’s vices to evade the pursuit of the devil and maintain a virtuous life.
Cats, especially black cats, were seen as mysterious, enigmatic creatures and therefore were believed to possess supernatural qualities. Those living during the Middle Ages believed the cat’s nocturnal habits linked them to the moon, darkness, and demonic powers.
This led to black cats being associated with witches, who were believed to transform into cats to escape persecution.
The widespread medieval fear of cats in Europe was initiated with the issuance of Vox in Rama on June 13, 1233, by Pope Gregory IX. In this papal bull, which aimed to suppress heresy, was the first European church document to link cats with Satanic practices and witchcraft.
Cats faced further demonization under Pope Innocent VIII, who proclaimed in his 1484 papal bull on witchcraft, “Summis Desiderantes Affectibus,” that felines were “the devil’s preferred creature and the idol of all witches.”
Cats in medieval manuscripts
Manuscripts are intricate handwritten books, many of which were adorned with elaborate illustrations and ornamentation.
Most medieval manuscripts were religious or scriptural in nature and would feature highly stylized lettering and biblical scenes.
Cats were among the many types of animals that would be featured in some of these manuscripts, either as part of some of the main drawings or as decorative elements in the margins, known as marginalia.
Famous examples of cats in medieval manuscripts
- Luttrell Psalter: Produced in the early 14th century, the Luttrell Psalter is an illuminated manuscript famous for its lively marginalia. Cats appear throughout the margins, engaged in various activities such as hunting mice, playing bagpipes, and even riding goats.
- Book of Kells: This 9th-century illuminated manuscript, considered one of the most important examples of Insular art, features an image of two cats flanking a chalice. The felines’ positioning and the inclusion of a mouse between them suggest a symbolic representation of balance and harmony.
- Maastricht Hours: Dating from the early 14th century, the Maastricht Hours contains a wealth of marginalia, including several humorous depictions of cats. One notable illustration features a cat wearing a bishop’s mitre, a playful commentary on the hierarchy of the Church.
- The Rochester Bestiary: A 13th-century English manuscript, the Rochester Bestiary is a collection of descriptions and illustrations of various animals, both real and mythical. In this work, cats are portrayed as both protectors and hunters, demonstrating their dual nature.
- The Aberdeen Bestiary: Another medieval bestiary, the Aberdeen Bestiary dates back to the 12th century and features a beautifully illustrated page dedicated to the cat. The image depicts a cat with a mouse in its mouth, accompanied by a description of the cat’s hunting prowess and its significance in medieval society.
Cats in medieval manuscript marginalia
In addition to their presence in the main narrative illustrations, cats also appeared as marginalia – small, often whimsical, drawings in the margins of manuscripts.
Marginalia served multiple purposes, from providing commentary on the text to showcasing the artist’s creativity and humor.
Cats in marginalia were often anthropomorphized, engaging in human activities such as playing musical instruments, hunting, or even participating in religious ceremonies. These fanciful illustrations also provided a window into the medieval understanding of cats’ personalities and characteristics.
Role of cats in medieval manuscripts
Cats seemed to represent two dichotomies in medieval manuscripts: that of a protector of Christ and the sacraments and that of a worship tool of the devil.
Medieval cats as protectors of Christ
Cats, especially lions, were often drawn to represent Christ. Cats also protected sacramental life in medieval Europe. The manuscript pages below show a trio of cats catching a mouse and another chasing a mouse off the page. Under the bestiary’s entry for mus, meaning mouse in Latin, a mouse is drawn with two communion wafers in its mouse.
Medieval black cats as symbols of devil worship
Particularly after Pope Gregory IX’s papal bull associating black cats with demonic worship practices, black cats were often drawn chasing mice in medieval manuscripts. The drawings were a symbolism for the devil playing with the human soul.
This allegory was repeated in multiple medieval writings. In Alphabetum Narrationum by Arnold of Liège compares the cat hunting a mouse with a devil stalking a human soul. In 1484’s Royal Book, William Caxton, writes, “The devyl playeth ofte with the synnar, lyke as the catte doth with the mous.”
Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York, who wrote a book on hunting between 1406 and 1413 wrote, “But one thing I dare well say that if any beast hath the devil’s spirit in him, without doubt it is the cat, both the wild and the tame.” (1909 translation)
Cats in bestiaries
Here Begins the Book of the Nature of Beasts. Of Lions and Panthers and Tigers, Wolves and Foxes, Dogs and Apes. ~ Aberdeen Bestiary, ca. 1200
One place where the role of cats as symbolism can be found is in medieval bestiaries.
Medieval Europe was a highly religious time. Everything was viewed from the lens of the divine and God’s will. This view extended to interpreting the acts of animals as moral tales. Medieval people firmly believe that spiritual lessons could be gleaned from the behavior of animals.
Medieval bestiaries were not intended as a comprehensive catalog of all animals living in the earthly and supernatural realm. Each creature in a bestiary is typically accompanied by a moral lesson, drawing on the animal’s perceived characteristics to teach virtues or condemn vices. Lions, boars, owls, dragons, serpents, and dogs were among the many animals commonly found in bestiaries.
Lions earned a placed of honor in bestiaries, usually appearing first in the manuscript. In medieval manuscripts and bestiaries, the lion often symbolized Christ due to various attributes and legends attributed to the lion that seemed to parallel aspects of Christian belief and the figure of Christ.
During medieval times, the lion represented Christ:
- King of Beasts: The lion was often referred to as the king of beasts, mirroring Christ’s title as the King of Kings. This association underscored the sovereignty and supreme authority of Christ.
- Resurrection Symbolism: There was a widespread legend in the medieval period that lion cubs were born dead and brought to life on the third day by the breath or roar of their father. This was seen as an allegory for Christ’s resurrection on the third day after His crucifixion.
- Courage and Nobility: The lion’s reputation for bravery and nobility could be seen as representing the virtues of Christ, who was perceived as the ultimate embodiment of these qualities.
- Protection and Justice: The lion’s role as a protector of its pride and enforcer of justice in the animal kingdom resonated with the concept of Christ as a protector of the faithful and the just judge of humanity.
Symbolism of the medieval cat
In medieval manuscripts, the symbolism of the cat was multifaceted and complex. Cats were both savior and tempter to the medieval scribe.
Explore Cats is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.
Blair, L. N. (2016). Cats and Dogs: The Development of the Household Pet through Symbolic Interpretations and Social Practices in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Doctoral dissertation, University of Iowa). https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/61139956.pdf
Dingley, R. J. (1982). A Demon in’s-Hertogenbosch. The Art Bulletin, 64(4), 639-640. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00043079.1982.10788027
Engels, D. W. (1999). Classical cats: the rise and fall of the sacred cat. Psychology Press.