Sunday, 27 March 2016

A History of Pet-Keeping: When Animals had Free-Will

Did you know the Pied Piper of Hamelin was a rat-charmer?
The Pied Piper of Hamelin-
charming the rats and inviting them to leave
What’s even more interesting is that in medieval times ‘rat-rhymers’ were an established profession. Their job was to write incantations or poems, which were chanted aloud to induce rats to leave properties where they caused a nuisance.
The rationale behind this bizarre occupation was a widely held belief that rats (and all other animals) were responsible for their own actions, and had the ability to respond to a well-reasoned argument – should they see fit. It was also held that if an animal deliberately misbehaved in active defiance of their owners, then they must accept the consequences.
This extended to animals being summoned as witnesses in formal court proceedings. Indeed, early laws in England gave animals members of the household with the same rights as women and serfs (turning this on its head, this could also be a reflection of the low regard in which women were held).
It was held dogs could not live without man
(Cats however ...)
For example, if a farmer’s house was robbed and there were no human witnesses to testify in court, it was not unusual to summon animal witnesses instead. Their presence in court strengthened the victim’s case (although quite how this worked is not clear.)
However, this also meant that animals could be put on trial held for their misdeeds and found guilty in the same way as people. Thus a dog that followed their natural instincts and worried sheep, could be tried in a court, found guilty, and sentenced to death by hanging.
It took until the 19th century for the British authorities to drop the practice of sentencing animals to death for their ‘crimes’ and instead think of them as property
This led to a shift in responsibility from the animal onto the owner. It was now the owner’s job to decide if his livestock were a risk to other people, and take steps to prevent harm. Thus the female cat that bit someone interfering with her kittens was no longer held ‘at fault’ and the action was acknowledged as typical of a nursing cat. Furthermore, when a farmer let a vicious ram run amuck, it was no longer the ram that paid the price with his life, but the farmer who was required to pay compensation.
The natural hunting ability of cats
made them less dependent on man
This represents a fundamental shift in the relationship between man and beast. But whilst it might be tempting to view this as a wholesale improvement for animals, this change of attitude was not without its problems.
This new shift meant that people had to assume responsibility the actions of their animals. This led to a change in attitude where people now exerted power over their livestock and expected the animals to comply with their wishes. This was the beginning of people manipulating animals and asserting power over them. In the fields of stock breeding and selective breeding, man went a step further to show his influence by bending nature to his own will.
This in part goes to explain the 19th century attitude to cats, a constant source of frustration to the authoritarian Victorian male. Cats failed to conform to mans will in the same way as dogs and defied attempts at selective breeding (by escaping and finding their own mate).
At a time when animals were meant to yield their free will and be willingly led, clearly no one explained this to the cats.
Promiscuous and in need of guidance:
The 19th century man's opinion of cats and women
In a world where man measured success by his supremacy, the cat remained blissfully aloof, and so man's answer was to label cats as promiscuous, degenerate creatures –and also led to them being looked on as feminine creatures and labelled as a womanly pet (as opposed to a noble, loyal dog who was a manly pet.)

The attitude of the Victorian male to both women and cats was remarkably similar. He believed they both needed a firm hand to prevent them sliding into their natural state of promiscuity and laziness! 


  1. I find it interesting that the males, through history and in particular the Victorian era, considered cats and women to use your words 'needed a firm hand to prevent them sliding into their natural state of promiscuity and laziness'. After all, wasn't it the human male who might have kept a mistress or two.

    1. Totally double standards! What was considered healthy and virile in a male, was labeled promiscous in the female. Bah!
      G x

  2. Good grief! Can you imagine the trial of a dog? How would they even expect it to answer questions? And how would you understand the answer? Cats, having a mind of their own makes sense, and they are promiscuous, depending on the time of the month! But I am surprised that we women were compared to cats in that respect. You learn something new every day.


Due to the amount of SPAM I have been forced to moderate comments. If you are a spammer - please go away! You comment will not be posted and you are wasting your own time.