Purrpetrators: The Medieval Version

Many will be familiar with the Paws, Pee, and Pests: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts blog by dr Thijs Porck. A picture tweeted by prof dr Erik Kwakkel, and taken up by Porck, shows how cats in the fifteenth century already had a knack for putting their paws in places it shouldn’t.

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Inky paw marks on 1445 ‘Lettere e commissioni di Levante’. Photograph: Emir Filipović. Dubrovnik State Archives.

The cat may have stood in an ink container before pouncing on the book. It is the medieval equivalent of a cat walking across your keyboard while you are working on something important. I speak from personal experience:

Even though cats are useful to have around (e.g. catching mice, purring you to sleep, wake you up early in the morning), they can also be disruptive. The scribe working on the manuscript pictured above must have thought the feline’s artistic addition a rather unpleasant one. However, I am grateful the scribe did not attempt to get rid of the crime. This is understandable as each book was a unique product made by hours, days, and weeks of human effort. Medieval scribes would usually handle errors by scratching or crossing them out. However, the positioning of the paws indicate that the book had already been bound at this point. The scribe was thus not in the process of writing up the manuscript. Instead, the cat may have walked over it whilst the book was being read, left open while the reader was on a break.

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Close up. Inky paw marks on 1445 ‘Lettere e commissioni di Levante’. Photograph: Emir Filipović. Dubrovnik State Archives.

As our ancestors were fascinated with cats, our endless supply of cat memes show we are smitten as well. Since cats were venerated by the Egyptians across classes, it is likely that people reporting on Egypt would have mentioned the significance of cats. 500 BCE to 500 CE saw the introduction of the cat into Western Europe. For a thousand years, cats were important religious symbols for the goddess Bastet of the Egyptians, Artemis of the Greeks, Diana of the Romans, Isis of the Greco-Egyptians, and the Scandinavian goddess Freyja. It was probably due to merchants and their trade networks that Egyptian cats ended up in Greece. Throughout the classical age, Greeks and Romans continued to regard the cat as an exotic Egyptian animal. As a result, classical authors were not very interested in cats. Natural compendiums rarely discuss the cat, showing that it was little known or perhaps not as highly valued.

Fortunately, the cat regained some of its god-like status in the early Middle Ages. In Europe’s rural areas the cat’s mousing skills were highly valued and ensured its survival amongst the peasantry. As rodents also enjoyed feasting on manuscripts, medieval institutions and laypeople owning books gladly took on a cat to protect their precious possessions. However, medieval books are vulnerable, especially when left on the desk of a scribe. It is therefore not surprising that the fifteenth century manuscript is not the only victim of a cat! I have collected some other medieval purrpertrators for your pleasure. Each and every instance is wonderful evidence for the close relationship between medieval people and ‘their’ cats.

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London, British Library, Burney MS 326, fol. 106v.

Some muddy feline paws have pounced across this twelfth-century copy of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae. It would have been amusing if these paws were left on the page containing Isidore’s entry on the cat. Especially since his many of his etymological derivations are famously incorrect:

The mouser (musio) is so called because it is troublesome to mice (mus). Common people call it the cat (cattus) from ‘catching’ (captura). Others say it is so named because cattat, that is, “it sees” – for it can see so keenly (acute) that with the gleam of its eyes it overcomes the darkness of night (Isidore XII.ii.38).

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Oxford, Balliol College, MS 192, fol. 67r (England, 15th century).

The archivist at Balliol College, Oxford also came upon dirty cat paws in an early fifteenth-century copy of the Quodlibeta of Duns Scotus and Robert Cowton’s Commentary on the Sentences (of Peter Lombard). This particular page shows a part of a list of contents between the two main texts. Whether these paws were by a medieval feline or a purrpetrator from a later century is uncertain.

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Oxford, Magdalen College Arch. B.III.5.

It seems that cats preferred to work with muddy paws. This Parisian printed collection of Latin works from 1475 also has paw prints over its pages.

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‘Illustrated Map of Nagasaki’, London, British Library, Shelfmark Or.75.g.25. (Photo: Christina Duffy, British Library)

Naturally, feline paw prints were not only found in Europe and not only in the Middle Ages. For instance, the British Library owns a seventeenth-century untitled map – traditionally referred to as Nagasaki ezu. It is a map of the Japanse port city of Nagasaki. Thanks to ultraviolet photography, paw prints of a cat were revealed! The map is part of the collection acquired by Sir Hans Sloane.

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Last but not least, a manuscript with inky paws again! The description alongside this image was in Japanese. Consequently, the only thing I could make out of it was that this manuscript resides at the National Archives Library Cabinet Collection. If you know more about this particular case, do let me know.

Works Cited

Isidore of Seville. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Translated by Stephen A. Barney,

Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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