People kept domesticated felines as far back as 9,500 years ago. More than perhaps any other animal, cats have captured humanity’s imagination, fitting right into our civilised lives, while keeping us connected with a bit of ‘wild’ nature. They’ve also sometimes represented the ‘darker’ aspects of the human psyche.
Like people today, historical cultures kept cats for practical purposes as well as enjoying them for their decorative, amusing and comforting qualities. Here are 3 examples of how peoples of the Medieval Period lived with cats.
1. Islamic World
Cats had been highly regarded in the Near East before the emergence of Islam but as the religion spread in the region it adopted this aspect of local tradition. They were common pets at all levels of society for both men and women.
Abu Hurairah, whose name translates literally as father of the kitten, was important in cementing cats’ popularity in the Islamic world. He was a companion of Muhammad and many stories about his life revolve around cats. He is supposed to have cared for them, sheltering them from the sun and providing food for stray cats from the mosque which he was in charge of.
Islamic tradition holds that cats are ritually clean and therefore they were seen as more suitable pets than dogs or other ‘unclean’ animals. This led to their presence being seen as accepted in homes and even mosques.
Cats did not always have an easy life in medieval Europe. Unlike dogs, who had enjoyed privileged places in human homes at least since the days of the Roman Empire, cats were seen more ambivalently.
Cats were associated with evil and formed part of various superstitions. As a result they were often persecuted in times of crisis particularly during the black death. In the Flemish town of Ypres this violence was ritualised in the Kattentoet, a festival where cats were flung from the belfry tower in the town square.
Cats weren’t hated universally though and many people kept them to deal with mice and rats. In this capacity they became pets and companions too.
There’s evidence that Europe’s medieval cat owners really bonded with their pets despite society’s suspicion of their animals.
Cats were common pets in monasteries where they were kept for their mousing skills, but often treated more as pets. The most famous example of this was Pangur Ban, a 9th century cat from an Irish monastery who became the subject of a poem by an anonymous Irish monk.
3. East Asia
In China there was a long history of cat ownership and like in the Islamic world they were generally held in high regard.
They were first introduced to Chinese households to deal with mice, but by the Song dynasty they were also kept as pets. Some cats, like the lion-cat, were bred specifically for their looks in order to make them more appealing pets.
In Japan too cats were viewed positively due to their status as good luck symbols. They were popular among silk makers who used them to kill the mice which preyed on the silk worms. This relationship is commemorated in a shrine on Tashirojima island.