Sunday, 3 July 2016

Pets of the Poor in Victorian London

On the theme of pet-keeping in Victorian times, let’s take a look at the pets of the poor. Whilst the middle classes and better off people treated pets as creatures in need of a civilizing influence, the poor valued them as they were as companions.
A beloved cat such as this, was liable to be turned out onto the streets
when the family went on holiday. No so the dog. 
An example of this is the middle classes who went on holiday and put their house cat out onto the street to fend for herself. The early animal welfare lobby objected to turning domesticated creatures with few hunting skills onto the street where they starved.

However, the reason for this was not what you might suspect. Their objection was the loss of a the owner’s influence forced the animal to act in a more bestial – and therefore less civilized- manner. It had little to do with the cruelty of withdrawing food and shelter from a dependent animal, and much to do with the cat’s poor morality living on the street reflecting badly on the owner.
Squirrels were popular pets in
Victorian Britain
This is contrasted with an ex-sailor living in Houndsditch. He scandalized his neighbours by refusing to go to church on Sundays. The reason for his absence was he refused to leave his pet squirrel alone. As Jack explained:

“How is he to know I be comin’ back? He give’ himself to my care, and I must be true to my charge.”

Indeed the sailors was right to be hesitant. He allowed himself to be persuaded to go to church, but disaster! On returning he found the squirrel had escaped. Four hours later he found his pet…and never went back to church.
Foxes were also kept as pets
Another story of utter devotion to a pet was that of a pet fox called Benny, and his owner living in slums. Benny had been caught in a trap but nursed back to health by his now owner, John. When John moved to London Benny came with him, and lived in a cage. This was doubly necessary because the fox didn’t like children and would have attacked John’s new born baby.

However, sometime later when Benny fell mortally ill, despite the freezing weather John banished his children outdoors because the sound of them playing disturbed the ailing fox. Indeed, such was John’s devotion that Benny had first priority for food, even if that meant his children going to bed hungry. A step too far perhaps.
The children were banished from the house so that
Benny the fox could have peace and quiet
And finally, one man’s devotion to his pet, in this case an owl, saved his life. A rat-catcher had a pet owl called Jim, which sat on his shoulder much like a parrot. The pair were reportedly devoted to each other. Then one night Jim saved his master’s life when burglars burst into the house and the owl woke his master to warn him, by flapping his wings in his face.

The story goes that the rat-catcher was no stranger to crime, and was himself arrested by the police. Faced with a long sentence he wrote a letter of farewell to his wife saying:

“Come to the court to say good-bye with the baby and Jim. If you cannot carry both, bring the bird.” 

Sunday, 19 June 2016

How to Read the Future…Victorian Style

Do you sometimes wonder what the future holds?

My family has recently expanded with the addition of a puggle puppy. As an incurable cat-person, one of the canine qualities I have come to admire most is ‘living in the moment’. Hand on heart and I can say the puppy doesn’t worry about the future, but somehow always manages to find some in the present to make her tail wag.
Not so far removed from kids listening to music through a headset.
 This has taught me to plan less (especially when I can’t influence events) and make more of now. And when it comes to proving how pointless predicting the future is, I was amused to come across these postcards [1]. Originally they were a set of cigarette cards, devised by French artists around 1900, as their take on what they unimaginably distinct year 2000 would look like.
The prediction of drones?
 Many of these images involved flight in one form or another, often with wings attached to people. There are aerial taxis, aerial fire-fighters, airborne torpedo ships, and an early imagining of a jet pack. However, this card showing a flying postman, may not be so far from happening if Amazon get their way with the use of drones to deliver packages.

 Within the home, the 19th century version of a robot doing housework looks somewhat different from 21st century robotics (and don’t you just love that future imaginings didn’t foresee the end of a maid, especially one in uniform.)

Talking of things domestic, one popular Victorian pastime was diving the future by reading tea-leaves. How exactly did they do this?

Well, the subject drank a cup of tea (made with loose tea leaves) and the cup turned upside down to allow the dregs to drain away. The pattern of the tea leaves at the bottom of the cup was then interpreted. 

The following was widely agreed upon as the correct interpretation.

·       Long wavy lines: These denoted vexations or losses. The more lines, the more dire to the loss
·       Straight lines: Conversly these represent good fortune, peace, and long life.
·       Circles: Fortells the arrival of money
·       Squares: More peace and happiness
·       Rectangles: discord
·       A crown: Honor or success
·       A ring: Marriage (especially is a letter of the alphabet is conveniently placed besides it, to predict the initial of the future spouse.
·       A cross: Death
·       Animal shapes: All (except for dogs) forecast trouble and difficulties ahead.
·       Reptile shapes: Treachery
·       Fish: The expectation of a good dinner…

Going back to those cigarette cards, it would be interesting to work out what combination of tea leaves would have foretold this version of a combine harvester!

[1] Public Domain Review: A 19th century vision of the year 2000

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Cat-amarans, Ships, and Cats

Did you know: “Catamaran” is derived from the Italian ‘gatta marina’, and is a vessel that always lands on its feet in high seas.

The modern ship the catamaran is just one example of how cats are linked strongly to the sea. In the days of sailing ships, a cat was considered the guardian spirit of the ship. In theory the cat might have been there to catch vermin, but in reality sailors believed that the feline protected the ship and crew from misfortune.

There are folklore stories of sailors who refused to set sail on a ship because there was no cat on board. Indeed, up until 1975 it was mandatory for a British role Royal Navy to have ship’s cat.
Pincher, ship's cat and mascot for HMS Exeter

Another indication of the importance of cats to a ship was what happened when a ship was in peril. If a ship was abandoned and the cat went too, then the vessel was considered derelict and was forfeit to the Admiralty or King. However, if the cat remained on board under adverse conditions, the ship was protected from confiscation.

Calling vessels “She” may be a throwback to the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis. She was the patroness of nature, family, and magic – indeed her reputation made it as far as pagan Britain in her divine incarnation as a cat. It seems pagan worship of Isis, then cats with their feminine associations, ensured the vessel took on the female pronoun.
Statuette of the Egyptian goddess Isis

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Paganism and the Status of the Cat: From Hero to Zero.

The cat was much persecuted in the later Middle Ages because of her link to witchcraft. But in the early Middle Ages she was revered and had a value equivalent to an adult goat. 

So how did cat PR deteriorate so dramatically? 

Well, it’s all to do with paganism.

The first factor was how early culture was organized in western Europe around 500 AD. Most people lived in villages that were scattered around the countryside, and there was a lack of central government. This meant it was hard for the church to exert a major influence over the population as a whole. As a result pagan religious traditions were able to persist.

Particularly popular was the cult of Diana, the huntress.

Wicked women perverted by the devil…in the hours of the night to ride up certain beasts with Diana, the goddess of the pagans….wander from the right faith.”
Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. J B Russell
Diana the Huntress
17th century painting
Part of Diana’s legend was that she rode out into the night on a wild hunt, accompanied by women and their cats.  Diana’s female companions were said to obey her, rather than the one true god. Indeed, documents from the early church put worship of Diana on the same level as devil worship.

As Christianity began to spread, the early church had to tackle paganism head on if it wanted to dominate. This meant demonizing paganism and especially the cult of Diana. They did so with mixed success.

“Christian people continued to practice ancient superstitions in a more or less disguised form, and pagan and magical elements entered the saints’ cults.”

So what next? 

The Church upped the ante by perverting the worship of Diana into a form of witchcraft. Their propaganda preached the message that those who refused to give up the ‘old ways’ were actually worshipping the devil.
The isolated nature of life in the early Middle Ages
Taking things further still, the Inquisition were doing their part by coercing people into converting. They weren’t afraid to use terror and intimidation in order to make converts, and this often meant persecuting women who resisted and still followed pagan ways.  To be accused of “cat worship” became a dangerous thing, which could result in being burnt at the stake. Then according to the Inquisition, many of these ‘agents of the devil’ admitted in their dying confessions that they worshiped cats as agents of the devil.
Pope Gregory VII

In the 11th century these confessions were then seized up by Pope Gregory VII who issued a Papal Bull stating that black cats were agents of the devil…and so the persecution began. 

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Why are Dogs 'He' and Cats 'She'?

Why is it that dogs are referred to as “he”, whilst cats are “she”?  

One explanation, perhaps the most obvious, is the graceful elegance of cats gives them a feminine air. Whilst this is true, it’s only part of the picture and the actual explanation is much less flattering to the feline.
A gentleman with his hounds
To find the answer we need to go back to a couple of centuries to the Georgian and Victorians, and the birth of pet keeping. In the 18th century more people had disposable income and keeping pets for pleasure (rather than as working animals) became fashionable.

However, not all pets were considered equal. For example, the eagerness of dogs to please and to respond to training, earnt them a label as being loyal, brave, and courageous, which were all desirable male characteristics. Thus dogs were looked on as noble pets that were a fitting companion for man, and in general speech referred to with the male pronoun.

Cats however were a different case. Cats aren’t trainable and prefer to please themselves rather than their mistress. This was strongly frowned upon by the Victorian male who expected obedience from everyone in his household, and upright moral behavior was treasured above all else.

An independent spirit was seen as rebellious, even in an animal. To make matters worse, cats have a habit of escaping and finding a mate, which according to the perceived wisdom of the day meant they were promiscuous.
The character of a cat was likened to that of a prostitute
According to the judgmental Victorian male, the cats’ characteristics of independence (read rebellion) and promiscuity made them akin to prostitutes, and the worst sort of advertisement for feminine wiles. In short, cats became strongly associated with the worst aspect of female behavior and acquired the female pronoun.

Thus dogs became ‘he’ and cats ‘she’. 

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Cardinal Wolsey, Cat Lover

It hasn’t always been safe to like cats. In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull (a law issued by the Vatican) that made it legal to burn those implicated in witch craft, by virtue of owning a cat. Thus, being a cat-owner became a high risk occupation.

As hysteria over witchcraft grew, persecution of cats and cat-owners continued for the next couple of centuries. But in the early 16th century, and the court of King Henry VIII one man was not afraid to like cats – Cardinal Wolsey.
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey
Thomas Wolsey was born in 1473, the son of a cattle dealer and butcher. The young Wolsey studied at Oxford University and joined the church. Obviously a man of talent, he became chaplain to the archbishop of Canterbury and then entered the household of King Henry VII.
This Tudor monarch was prepared to favor talent for its own sake rather than solely promote the nobility, which found Wolsey in the right place at the right time.

Wolsey quickly established a reputation for intelligence, diligence, and diplomacy. When Henry VIII succeeded his father to be king of England, it was natural that he appointed Wolsey as Almoner. The latter’s efficiency and ingenuity won Henry’s trust, so that Wolsey rose and rose, eventually becoming Chancellor and dominating the Royal Council.
Statue of Cardinal Wolsey in Ipswich town center
Note the cat peeking around his seat 
But at a time when being a cat lover was dangerous, the Cardinal was just that. He had several and they were said to keep him company whilst he worked hard on the King’s business. A cat also sat with him during mass, behaving impeccably and providing quiet comfort. A cat was often at his side during formal meetings.  Indeed, Wolsey was said to take two cats along when he accompanied the king of royal progress. It seemed people exercised tact rather than point out the link between cats and witchcraft to one of the most powerful men in England.
Detail of the cat from the above statue

Wolsey’s story came to an unhappy end, but it was nothing to do with cats. When he failed to do what Henry wanted most – to secure his divorce from Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. This saw Wolsey dismissed from his position as Chancellor on 22nd September 1529, and a rapid fall from grace saw him stripped of most of his assets. He died in 1530

Sunday, 24 April 2016

How Cats made Good Pets in Medieval Times

Apologies for a two-week absence of posts. This was due to the arrival of Poggle the Puggle puppy! This week a short post about the character of cats and how they made good illicit pets (at least in medieval times!)
New addition- Poggle!
In the Middle Ages pet keeping was frowned upon. This was because animals were seen as servants of man, as adorned by God and set out in the Bible, and to ‘spoil’ them went against nature. There was also the argument that in times of terrible hardship, keeping a pet took food out of the mouths of the starving poor.

Indeed, noblemen did keep pet dogs and overfed them, since obesity was seen as a way of showing off your wealth and that you had so much food you could feed it to the dog.  
Three black cats using an early form of catdoor
However, cats were hunters which meant they could fend for themselves and not eat valuable rations. This meant in medieval times many people who had no reason to keep a working dog, could justify contact with a cat. Indeed, working animals were usually kept outside, but the nature of mice meant the cat was allowed indoors, which provided another contact point between people and potential pet.

Women who lived and worked in the home, those in religious orders, and scholars spent a lot of time indoors. The quiet nature of cats meant that those in religious orders could pet a cat without being found out, and cats suited the reflective nature of scholars.

"I have seen in my own order, some lectors who despite being highly learned and of great sanctity had a blemish [pet-keeping] on account of which they were judged frivolous men."
Franciscan chronicler: Salimbere de Adam
A bestiary illustration of cats
In religious orders especially, it was considered saintly to love wild animals, but frivolous to keep them as pets. The Cistercian order banned keeping of animals for pleasure.
“Cats, dogs, and other animals are not to be kept by nuns as they distract from seriousness.”

But how do legislate against showing affection to the kitchen cat? In reality, a blind eye was often turned when it came to cats, because of their quietness and use as hunters. 

Sunday, 3 April 2016

A History of Pet-Keeping: The Fascination with Bestiaries

What is a bestiary?

A bestiary is a book about beasts (a sort of early natural history volume); they were popular in the middle ages and reached peek interest Victorian times. Bestiaries were the “Discovery Channel” of their day, offering people a glimpse into an exotic world of fearsome and extraordinary animals that they might otherwise not encounter.
Bestiary image of an elephant
Then as now, people were hugely curious about animals, and a richly detailed bestiary was a source of endless fascination. Indeed, in the 1730s the first children’s natural history book was published and promised to ‘entertain and engage’ attention such that children would develop a reading habit for life.

But the details included were not always what we expect to read in the modern day. For example William Wood’s bestiary of 1792 included descriptions of the animal’s appearance and behavior, but it also described what they tasted like when eaten. The Capybara (a large, guinea pig like rodent from South America) was described as tasting: “Fat and tender…with an oily and fishy taste.” And Edward Topsell’s ‘History of Four-Footed Beasts’ described cat meat as having “poisonous qualities”.
Bestiary images of cats
Bestiaries also held another, perhaps less obvious function. In the 16th and 17th century the animal kingdom had yet to be categorized into families, species, and genus. In other words all of animal creation was largely a disordered jumble. To bring order to this chaos writers of bestiaries sometimes ordered their subjects alphabetically, or by location, or by features such as what they ate (carnivore or herbivore) as the author saw fit. By grouping animals together within the pages of the bestiary, this fulfilled a perceived right of man,  as top of the creation tree, to assert his superiority over other species.

However, the divisions within a bestiary were not always “scientific” to say the least. One 17th century book divided animals into “Those that are hard to draw” (including the lion, unicorn, horse, and rhinoceros) and “Rough and shaggy haired” (such as dogs).
Alternatively, they might be grouped as to the satisfaction they gave the hunter. Beasts that were hunted included the duck, fox, roe, and marten, whilst beasts that gave “Good sport” included the badger, otter, and wild cat.

It was work by men of thought such as Ray, Buffon, and then Linnaeus who began a movement to group animals according to scientific terms, rather than appearance or moral grounds. This wasn’t without problem though, with some authors of bestiaries apologizing that monkeys appeared too close in relation to man.
“…hoped the no specialist reader would pardon the repugnance we feel to place the monkey at the head of the brute creation, and thus to associate him with man.”
However, other people took an alternative view that the new-fangled scientific groupings helped to emphasize man’s supremacy and his pre-eminence and supremacy in creation. With whatever wry smile we might be tempted to think of bestiaries in the modern age, it remains a fact that they had undying appeal to an audience for whom this was the only way to gaze upon extraordinary creatures and marvel.

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! 

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Cat-egorizing Cats 19th Century Style

How do you organize cats?

Last week in How the Victorians went Wild for Cat Shows we looked at the popular 19th century pastime of visiting dog or cat shows. However, the organizers of cat shows had a problem that dog show organizers did not have, which was how to group the entries. With dogs it was relatively easy because they came in so many varied sizes and shapes or breeds. Cats – not so much.
A tortoiseshell and white cat by Louis Wain
Cat fancier Harrison Weir, arranged the very first cat show, which took place at Crystal Palace, July 16, 1871. His stated aim as organizer in “a labor of love to the feline race,” was to draw attention and therefore favor to: “The different breeds, colors, markings.”

However, Weir had a problem because the existing description of cat breeds tended to dwell on distinctions that highlighted their weaknesses. One obvious solution was to arrange the cat classes by color. Gordon Stables, a man who was active in both the dog and cat show worlds, suggested categorizing cats into 13 groups.
A tabby cat by Henriette Ronner Knip
These colors were:
Tortoiseshell, tortoiseshell-and-white,
Brow, blue, and silver tabby
Red, red-and-white, tabby
Spotted tabby
Black-and-white, black, white,
Unusual color and any other variety.

Stables asserted that color was actually key to the cats’ character, and that certain colors were more likely to have certain character traits. In effect he was trying to justify the color-grouped categories as being more significant than they really were.

He argued: “Properly speaking color is often the key to [the cats] characters…temper…and qualities as a hunter…and its power of endurance.”
A black and white kitten by Henriette Ronner Knip
This is an interesting observation, because coat color does carry some associations in the modern age. For example, tortoiseshell cats are often described as “naughty torties” within vet clinics, because they have  reputation for misbehaving.

According to Stables:
Tortoiseshells were “Good mothers and game as bull terriers”
Black cats were “Noble and gentlemanly”
White cats were “Far from brave…fond of society…gentle, and often delicate”
And black-and-whites “Sometimes…did not trouble himself too much about his duties as a house-cat.”

Stables categories didn’t last long and soon went out of fashion. In the 1880s and 1890s Weir replaced them with not dissimilar groupings but broke them down into yet more colors, also long-haired or short-haired, age, and gender. However, he added one final category that was a bit of a showstopper. This was “Cats belonging to Working Men.” 
A blue Persian - in black and white
The latter category was put in place out of the notion that animal social standing mirrored that of humans, and it wouldn’t do to have working men getting ideas above their station. Incredibly, everyone seemed to go along with it, and in 1889, out of 511 entries, 102 were in the category Cats of Working Men.

As the years passed, a greater study was made of the science of cat-breeding and specialist breed cat clubs sprang, such as the Siamese or the Abyssinian cat clubs, the Silver and Smoke Persian cat club or the Tortoiseshell society. However, rather than breeding to improve the cats, the main criteria for selecting animals to breed seemed to be rarity, with a cat with unusual colored eyes or a particularly striking coat commanding the most money.

But that was reckoning without the character of cats, which were perfectly capable of escaping and finding their own mate, much to the consternation of their own.

What are your experiences of different coat colors? Have you noticed distinctive personalities based on color or is it a load of bunkum? 

Sunday, 6 March 2016

How the Victorians went Wild for Cat Shows

In the 19th century there was a mania for dog breeding and dog shows.  Dogs proved to be ‘plastic’ when it came to manipulating their size, shape, and general appearance, which leant itself to the Victorian desire to control everything around them. Cats, however, were not so obliging
A prize-winning Persian cat
For those ambitious cat owners who wished to exhibit their pet in a cat show and have other people appreciate them, their first problem was to devise categories within which to classify the cats. For dogs this was easy because there were distinct breeds ranging in size from a tiny Yorkshire terrier up to a giant Newfoundland. Not so for cats.

It was ever the bane of the Victorian pet keeper that cats defied their master’s (or mistresses – as cats were far more likely to be kept by women) wishes. Cats had a habit of breeding willy-nilly and behind their owner’s back, which made manipulating matings to produce a specific look all the more difficult. Indeed, Charles Darwin himself said as much in 1868.
The first Crystal Palace cat show - 1871
Darwin noted that people’s effort to alter the appearance of cat’s had done – “…nothing by methodical selection, and probably very little by unintentional selection…” except to save the cutest kittens and destroy adult cats that poached gamebirds.

Thus it was accepted that the aspiring cat breeder was actually rather deluded, and that even if they created a stunning cat with wonderful potential, it could all go to pot with the next generation. This was also reflected in the price of purebred kittens, where £1-2 was considered a high price for a kitten “Good enough to win a first-class exhibition.”
Harrison Weir- organizer of the first cat show
However, the lack of diversity in the size and appearance of cats did not deter cat fanciers. On July 16, 1871, the first ever cat show took place. Held at Crystal Palace, it was organized by a well-known writer on animal topics and illustrator, Harrison Weir. His objective for the show was to raise awareness of the “Different breeds, colors, markings etc.”
An exhibitor grooming her cat at a show
Despite Weir’s best intentions, the main method he hit upon of distinguishing the different categories of cats was color. Even so, the show was a success and within ten years, many of the larger cities followed his example and could “boast of an annual exhibition of feline favorites.”

Next week we look at the categorization of cats at cat shows and the vagaries of fashion.