Mischievous Cats in World History, Part 3

If you've been following the blog this week, you've seen our posts on a cat that left its pawprints on a medieval scribe's work and another that left its mark on a brick made in England during Roman times that ended up in a remote outpost of the Hudson's Bay Company called Fort Vancouver in Washington State, where it now sits in a museum to be visited by schoolchildren. 

I love both of these cat stories, but neither of them is as funny as the duo of anecdotes recorded by Thijs Porck, a lecturer in the Department of English Language and Culture at Universiteit Leiden. 

In the first, he recounts the story of a 1420 scribe whose precious work was peed on by one cat and then, the smell being attractive to other cats, many other felines. He had to draw a little picture of a cat and what appear to be hands pointing to the edges of the urine stain. Reader beware, he seems to be saying (here with the original Latin and Porck's translation):

"Hic non defectus est, sed cattus minxit desuper nocte quadam. Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum ostum in nocte Daventrie, et consimiliter omnes alii propter illum. Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem uni cattie venire possunt."

[Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.]


Given the everpresent risk of urination, why would these scribes keep the cats around? As you might guess and Porck confirms, the cats helped keep down the mice, who loved to munch on the paper.

This helpful hunting tendency was immortalized in Porck's second anecdote. This one comes from a fairly well known poem by a 9th-century Irish monk, and it describes a scene many writers with cats will be familiar with:

I and Pangur Bán my cat, 
'Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Why do I bother telling you these funny cat stories? Because I think they humanize history in a useful way. It's easy to remember 1420 as kings and wars and agricultural statistics. And it those are useful ways of thinking about the past. But so is the idea that tucked inside every historical moment, no matter how big, you will find someone nearby sitting in a room writing poems about the cat. Which surprises exactly no one about our own time, but can seem astonishing in history.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

Just In