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In 5th-century Britain, cats helped humans survive winter, but the way people regarded them depended on their religious beliefs.

Romans introduced housecats to Britain in the 1st century. The island already had native feline species: the lynx (now extinct) and the Scottish wildcat (now endangered). But these animals had no interest in humans—today a Scottish wildcat remained wild, even if it’s raised in captivity. The most significant difference between the housecat and the wildcat is temperament. Housecats live with us, although we’re big enough to be predators.

Unlike a lot of other animals, the early medieval housecat is similar to today’s domestic shorthair. By contrast, horses and sheep were smaller in the Dark Ages. Pigs had bristles and tusks. While some dog breeds such as greyhounds and mastiffs go back to the ancients, many were quite different from today. Some canines, like a hunting and herding dog called alaunt, have since become extinct.

Mosaic of cats and ducks
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Cats brought by the Romans descended from the Near Eastern wildcat, a species that hunted mice in granaries about 10,000 years ago. Today’s Near Eastern wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica, also called the African wildcat) looks like a large housecat with longer legs and a more upright posture when sitting or walking. In ancient times, the friendlier felines domesticated themselves by hanging out with the humans who fed them table scraps. Just like a cat who decided to live with me and my husband in the 1990s. After my husband fed her, she left a dead mouse on the doormat. A thank-you gift, apparently.

We named the cat Ellie, and she went on to become a pampered pet, still killing rodents on occasion. Had she lived in Arthurian Britain she would have had a job to do—just like every human and every other animal. The only pets, as we understand them, were toy-breed dogs for the wealthy who wanted to show off that they could have an animal that didn’t need to do anything. I suppose those dogs had a job, too—status symbol.

Housecats, along with ferrets and weasels, had the essential job of killing rodents that would otherwise eat the stored grain humans needed to get through winter. Perhaps, it is not too far a stretch for the Egyptians to see them as divine.

Egyptian wildcat
By Edward Howe Forbush (1858-1929) (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

When the Romans occupied Britain, housecats and other rodent killers played an important role in the international economy, too. Surplus grain from Britain was exported to the rest of the empire. A lot of people depended on cats’ hunting skills.

Cats had a spiritual role as well. With their reproductive abilities—a female cat can have two to three litters a year, with up to eight kittens—they were symbols of fertility, an important thing in an age when aristocrats needed heirs and people didn’t know how many children would live to adulthood.

Egyptian artifacts
By Carole Raddato from Frankfurt, Germany (CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Romans might have smuggled housecats from Egypt, where they were believed to be too sacred for export, and some Egyptian beliefs about the cat-headed Egyptian goddess Bastet might have seeped into Greco-Roman mythology. Bastet, goddess of fertility and motherhood and protector of the home, became associated with the Greek Artemis and by extension the Roman Diana.  A dream about a cat was a good omen and a sign of a good harvest.

Roman amulets to ward off evil have images of cats. Feline images appear on a sistrum, a bronze musical instrument a handle and a rounded open frame with bronze rods that rattled. Common in Egypt, the sistrum, associated with fertility, also was used throughout the Roman Empire and even as far as London.

The Celts, particularly the Irish and Scots, had their own belief about cats. It’s possible the Kellas cat, a black hybrid of the Scottish wildcat and housecat, had something to do with it. In the Highlands, the large black Cat Sidhe or Cat Sith could steal the soul of the dead before the gods claimed it, and the folk had several rituals to distract the creature until the body was laid to rest. At Samhain, they left a saucer of milk for the Cat Sidhe, who would bless the house. Those who neglected to leave the treat would be cursed.

Kellas cat
Photo of Kellas cat by Sagaciousphil (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Christian clergy saw them as companions—purring sphinxes. Greek monks who came to Europe brought cats with them to share their cells. One of the most delightful poems about a churchman’s relationship with his pet is the 9th century “Pangur Ban.” The Irish monk compares his hunt for knowledge to his white cat’s hunt for mice and the joy each of them feels.

In 5th century Britain, religious beliefs were fluid. Pagan and Christian beliefs coexisted, often in the same person. A Christian might wear an amulet with a cat right beside their cross. They might interpret a dream of a cat as a good omen right before they attend sunrise Mass.

Regardless of religious beliefs, people would have appreciated how the felines preserved the food supply. That furry creature who killed and ate mice in the granary was still essential.

Wildcats
Photo of wildcats by SuperJew (CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Sources

Greek and Roman Household Pets” by Francis D. Lazenby

“Cats were so nice, they conquered the world twice” by Nsikan Akpan, PBS News Hour

The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat” by Donald W. Engels, Classical Cats

A cat that can never be tamed” by Bec Crew, Scientific American

The Cat Sidhe by Deborah MacGillivray

“House Cat Origin Traced to Middle Eastern Wildcat Ancestor” by Brian Handwerk, National Geographic News

Originally published Nov. 20, 2017, in English Historical Fiction Authors.

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