Sunday, 24 May 2015

Medieval Monks, Marginalia, and Cats

Your job is boring and repetitive. You ache to express yourself. The only way you can do this is to wait until your supervisor isn’t looking – and doodle on your notepad. Well, this is equivalent to the medieval monks who laboriously copied out manuscripts by hand – and added small drawings of their own invention in the margins.
Cats will be cats
as in this marginalia illustration
Perhaps the cats that inspired these drawings in the margins (or “marginalia”), also kept the monks company. As the monks drew, so these felines worked alongside, keeping down the rats and mice. This was big problem for the monks because the vermin were attracted to the paper which they ate – destroying all that painstaking work. But the vermin were also bold, and climbed the desks where the scribes worked and stole their food.
“Most wretched mouse, often you provoke me to anger. May God destroy you!”
[Caption from a humours illustration of a Hildebert, a 12th century scribe, as he tries to catch the mouse that steals his cheese.]
Another cat doing what cats do.
Clearly this scribe was bored
But let’s face it many medieval monks did match the psychological profile of a typical cat lover as creative and intelligent. However, one writer was left his cat’s autograph when the cat stepped in ink and walked across the manuscript.
A cat with wearing what appears to be a
prototype jet pack

Perhaps another scribe who was perhaps less pleased by his cat’s “signature” was the one who returned in the morning to find a page soaked in cat wee. He was forced to leave that page blank with a message to the effect that nothing was missing but he’d learnt a lesson not to leave books out at night.
Medieval paw prints captured in ink

We know at least one Irish monk welcomed his feline companion. He even gave the cat a name, Pangur Ban, and wrote a rather sweet poem about him:

I and Pangur Ban my cat
Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delightful
Hunting words I sit all night
This scribe was not a cat lover by all accounts

What is interesting is that whilst cats were valued as mousers, they were also feared as devilish creatures. Indeed, cats were widely used elsewhere in medieval carvings and paintings, to tell ordinary folk cautionary tales of good and evil – where the cat was portrayed as a cunning trickster. Hmmm, I suppose cats have at least got their own back in the 21st century, with life on their terms. 
Widget- very much a 21st century cat


  1. What can I say. Meow?

    Love your posts, Grace!

    1. Awh, thank you Debra.
      So glad you enjoyed the post and thanks, as ever, for visiting.
      G x


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