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.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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