The Bizarre Life of Cats in Shakespeare’s England

Cassidy Cash

4 mins

12 Mar 2019

“The cat will mew, and the dog will have his day” is a famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Along with mewing for the Danish Prince, there are over 30 references to cats in Shakespeare’s plays, attesting to the popularity of our favourite feline in the life of Elizabethan England.

Far from just being good mouse catchers, cats during the life of William Shakespeare were also profitable members of several economic industries including the work of medical apothecaries and the perfume industry.

With their quirky nature, and well known ability to stare at you with evil eyes, cats found themselves embroiled in superstitious practices, and even served on the front lines as an actual military weapon.

Here are five incredible facts about the life of cats in Elizabethan England, that are so bizarre, you’ll hardly believe it’s true.

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1. Cats as perfumers

Perfumers prepared many aromatics from civet cats. The civet “cat” was a lot more like a skunk, capable of producing a strong pungent odour popular in aromatics, like perfume.

A secretion from the anal glands of Civets was one of the most expensive materials used by 17th century perfumers. The liquid nature of civet secretions made it easy to add in homeopathic treatments.

You could treat fatigue, stomach sickness, colic, and even give it to pregnant women as a protection for the unborn baby, and was also used as an aphrodisiac.

Zibeth or Sivet-Cat. This woodcut is an illustration from the book “The history of four-footed beasts and serpents…” by Edward Topsell, printed by E. Cotes for G. Sawbridge, T. Williams and T. Johnson in London in 1658. courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.

In the late 17th century, John Barksdale and Daniel Defoe, became known as The Civet Merchants. They owned 70 civets, including a special house constructed for the cats, where they prepared meals precisely thinking that good food would produce the highest quality scent.

These cats regularly have their anal glands scraped (a process that is not only painful, but would result in the cat’s death if done too frequently.) Merchants often displayed their caged civet cats for customers and pictures of the civet cat were used in marketing materials like shop signs and trading cards.

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2. Cats against plague

Cats ate the rats, and this helps effectively keep plague at bay. For many residents, there was only a connection between cats and plague, with many unsure what that connection might be. Sadly, cats were blamed for plague.

After becoming the culprit, cats were rounded up and exterminated. As the cats were eradicated, the rodent population blossomed, and millions of rats carrying fleas are now considered one of the main reasons the Black Death spread across Europe.

When the persecution of cats ended in the late 17th century, the cats were able to hunt the rats again, and Europeans saw the plague decrease.

3. Cats as a military weapon

Treatise on munitions and explosive devices, with many illustrations of the various devices and their uses. By Helm, Franz, approximately 1500-1567.

Published in official military manuals, one strategy for burning down a town including strapping flammable material to the back of a cat, lighting it on fire, and setting the cat loose in the town.

The cat being extremely hard to catch anyway, it’s even harder to catch once it’s on fire, so the cat would mercilessly spread fire over an entire town during this death run.

These kinds of animal bombs originated with Franz Helm of Cologne, an artillery specialist, as a way “To set fire to a castle or city which you can’t get at otherwise.”

The manual outlines how to get the cat to hide in a barn or other similarly flammable place where a cat will unwittingly set ablaze large structures which it is difficult to squelch, leading to a town fire.

4. Cats as household pets

Cat on a ledge with a mouse by Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1580.

During Richard III’s reign, Henry Wyatt was imprisoned in the Tower of London and claimed to have been saved from starvation by a cat who daily brought him a pigeon.

After his release under Henry VII, Wyatt would spend his life praising the values of the cat with one record stating that that he “would ever make much of cats, as other men will of their spaniels or hounds.”

Many paintings dating to Shakespeare’s lifetime show the cat as a well loved family pet, appearing in the kitchen to ward off mice, playing in the floor with the family children, and sitting next to family members in official portraiture.

Eventually, cats were bred specifically for companionship. One ship that crashed off the Isle of Mann in the 15-16th centuries, includes the first pedigree cat called the Manx in their list of cargo. Cats were very useful mouse catchers on board a ship, being small, easy to carry, and the mice functioned as their food.

5. Cats embalmed inside the walls of your house

Mummified cats found in the walls of Tudor homes. On display at Moyse’s Hall Museum.

Nothing demonstrates the dichotomy concerning the Tudor love for cats more than the odd, but verifiable, truth that the body of dead cats, along with a dead rat, would be intentionally built into the construction of a new home with the belief that their dead bodies would keep away any mice in the home.

While that’s not been a proven effective method of mouse repellent, we do have records of embalmed cat and rat bodies uncovered from the walls of 15-16th century houses demonstrating that this practice, as Shakespeare would say, “is all as true as it is strange” (Measure for Measure, V.1).

Cassidy Cash takes you behind the curtain and into the real life of William Shakespeare each week as host of the podcast, That Shakespeare Life, weekly YouTube episodes on how you can Experience Shakespeare history at home, award winning animated short films, and many illustrated guides and resources on the history of William, the man they call Shakespeare. Meet Cassidy, and learn something new about the bard, at www.cassidycash.com