Quirky History: Cats in Medieval Manuscripts (Or Charming Jerks and the Devil Incarnate)

Posted by E.H. Kern

Cat pics and the Internet go together like peanut butter and jelly. You can’t imagine one without the other. But did you know that LOL cats, cat memes, and cats being jerks go as far back as the Middle Ages?


The relationship between humans and cats began as early as the Neolithic Era when the first cats are believed to have been domesticated. In Ancient Egypt, cats were important to Egyptian society and mythology. During the Viking Age in Scandinavia, the goddess Freya is known for her many cats, who supposedly pulled her chariot.

Our sometimes conflicted relationship to cats developed during the Middle Ages. During the Middle Ages cats were seen both as companions and as representations of the Devil.

As a companion, medieval cats were like cats are today. Charming jerks who enjoyed getting in the way of our work.


Example #1:

Here is a fifteenth-century manuscript where a cat stepped in some ink and simply went for a stroll across the pages.


Example #2:

How about this manuscript from around the year 1420? The scribe stepped away from his desk only to discover that his cat had urinated on the page while he was gone. See the stain? That’s exhibit A of a crime committed. Side note: The text surrounding the stain is the scribe cursing out his feline friend.


Cats as a representation of the Devil developed mainly because of two typical cat traits. First, the cat caught mice just like the Devil caught human souls.


Example #3:

Second, the medieval view of animals was that they were created by God with the purpose of serving the needs of humans. Since cats are difficult to train to perform specific tasks, their independence was seen as a satanic influence.


The relationship of cat vs. mouse was also used as an allegory of the world upside down, where the mice took vengeance on the cat.


Or as the saying goes, when the cat’s away the mice will play.