|An example of a misericord - a simple wooden ledge for leaning on during lengthy church services.|
Sunday, 16 January 2011
Devilish Cats - how felines got a bad reputation.
In the Middle Ages, any self respecting witch kept a familiar, an animal acting as a link to the devil. The most commonly recognised familiar was a cat, preferably a black one. But have you ever stopped to wonder how such a perfectly adorable animal became linked to black magic and evil?
To answer that question we need to look at the reputation cats had in medieval times. Highly prized as a catcher of mice the 10th century law of Hywel Dda has this to say.
“The value of a kitten from the night it is born until it opens its eyes, one legal penny:
And from then until it kills mice, two legal pence:
And after it kills mice, four legal pence,
And that it remains for ever.
Her properties are to see and hear and kill mice.”
But it was this reputation as a mouser that also got cats into trouble, as typified by this quote by Caxton from the ‘Royal Book’ of 1484.
“The devil playeth often with the synnar [sinner] lyke the catte [cat] doth with the mous. [mouse.]”
This symbolism, with the cat as the devil, toying with the human soul was widely popular in churches and depicted in the misericords. These small wooden ledges, designed to rest against during long periods of standing, were often ornately carved with scenes from cautionary tales. Misericords were seen, and the message understood by illiterate ordinary folk at church.
With this in mind it’s not surprising that as early as 1211 Gervase of Tilbury writes about the cat as a shape shifting manifestation of a witch’s familiar.
“Women have been seen and wounded in the shapes of cat by persons secretly on the watch.”
These same wounds were later identified on the woman….Just a thought but surely having the cat and woman present in the same room at the same time would rapidly discount this argument?