Sunday, 18 October 2015

Cats and Law in Medieval Times

There is a long association between cats and the law, with some dating back to the 10th century and the laws of Howel Dda.
Detail from the book of the Law of Howel Dda
"Dda" means "good".

The King of South Wales, Howel Dda, perceived that the customs of his beloved kingdom were open to abuse. His solution was to call together a meeting of noblemen, archbishops, and bishops to create a framework of binding laws. During Lent, the company spent time together fasting and praying. The King then selected 12 of the wisest men to work with a doctor of law, Blegywryd, to examine the resulting legislation for soundness.
The Laws of Howel Dda

It was decided that because of Wales’ large size (remember this is over a 1,000 years ago when travel was either on foot or horseback, so the distances must have seemed immense) three different groups, or Codes, of laws were needed. These were the Vendotian, Dimetian, and Gwentian Codes.
In these Codes there are several interesting laws pertaining to cats.

For a start, a cat was one of the necessary components required to make up a community. It was written that a lawful hamlet consisted of nine buildings, one kiln, one plough, one cock, one bull, one horse, and one cat. (Notice the omission of dogs and horses).
In the Dimetian Code it states that if husband and wife separate, then the husband get the cat! That is unless there were several cats in the household, then the man got first pick of the felines and the wife the rest.

When selling a cat, again according to the Dimetian Code it was the vendor’s responsibility to vouch that the cat won’t go out caterwauling every night (!) but is a good mouser with a full set of teeth and claws, and a good mother to her kittens.
The Gwentian Code writes about the qualities of a cat, which was basically to be perfect in tooth, tail, and claw, and (here is the bizarre bit) without ‘marks of fire’. Again, for understandable reasons a cat was also to be a good mouser and mouser – and not caterwaul every moon.

Each cat also had a price. The penalty for killing a cat was four pence. But for a cat that guards a house or barn, the miscreant must pay the equivalent amount of good wheat required to bury a cat that hanging by its tail tip so her nose touched the ground.
The Venedotian Code gives a more detailed account of how much a cat was worth.

“A cat from the night it is kittened until it shall open its eyes is a legal penny,
From that time until it shall kill mice, two legal pence,
And after it shall kill mice, four legal pence.”

To put this in perspective, one penny was equivalent to a lamb, kid or goose, whilst four pence would buy a sheep or goat. All of which makes me wonder how common cats were in 10th century Wales. After all, you have only to think of how quickly a large feral cat population can become established in our cities, to understand how readily cats breed. For cats to be prized as highly as a sheep – an animal which produces both wool and meat – it makes me suspect our feline friends were much more rare than in the modern age. 


  1. Fascinating! Cats must have been really rare to be so valuable.

    1. It's an interesting idea, isn't it, that cats weren't as common in medieval times. They certainly made up for it though, in the following centuries.
      G x

  2. Interesting and wonderful post. Very informative.

    1. Thank you, Lindsay. You are such a loyal follower, I really appreciate you taking the time to visit and read the posts each week.
      G x


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