Cats in the middle ages

Cats in the middle ages: what medieval manuscripts teach us about our ancestors’ pets

Cat king, Germany, circa 1450. Scheibler’sches Wappenbuch – BSB Cod.icon. 312c
Madeleine S. Killacky, Bangor University

Cats had a bad reputation in the middle ages. Their presumed links with paganism and witchcraft meant they were often treated with suspicion. But despite their association with the supernatural, medieval manuscripts showcase surprisingly playful images of our furry friends.

From these (often very funny) portrayals, we can learn a lot about medieval attitudes towards cats – not least that they were a central fixture of daily medieval life.

In the middle ages, men and women were often identified by the animals they kept. Pet monkeys, for example, were considered exotic and a sign that the owner was wealthy, because they had been imported from distant lands. Pets became part of the personal identity of the nobility. Keeping an animal that was lavished with attention, affection and high-quality food in return for no functional purpose – other than companionship – signified high status.

It was not unusual for high-status men and women in the middle ages to have their portrait completed in the company of a pet, most commonly cats and dogs, to signify their elevated status.

A painting of Jesus and his disciples, gathered round a table on the right. On the left, in a corridor outside of the dinner, a cat and dog are shown.
Last Supper (1320), by Pietro Lorenzetti. Web Gallery of Art

It is commonplace to see images of cats in iconography of feasts and other domestic spaces, which appears to reflect their status as a pet in the medieval household.

In Pietro Lorenzetti’s Last Supper (above), a cat sits by the fire while a small dog licks a plate of leftovers on the ground. The cat and dog play no narrative role in the scene, but instead signal to the viewer that this is a domestic space.

Similarly, in the miniature of a Dutch Book of Hours (a common type of prayer book in the middle ages that marked the divisions of the day with specific prayers), a man and woman feature in a cosy household scene while a well looked-after cat gazes on from the bottom left-hand corner. Again, the cat is not the centre of the image nor the focus of the composition, but it is accepted in this medieval domestic space.

a man and woman feature in a cosy household scene whilst a well-looked after cat gazes on from the bottom left-hand corner.
1500 Book of Hours known as the ‘London Rothschild Hours’ or the ‘Hours of Joanna I of Castile’. Illustrated by Gerard Horenbout. London British Library. Manuscript 35313, folio. 1 verso. C, Author provided

Just like today, medieval families gave their cats names. A 13th-century cat in Beaulieu Abbey, for example, was called “Mite” according to the green ink lettering that appears above a doodle of said cat in the margins of a medieval manuscript.

Royal treatment

Cats were well cared for in the medieval household. In the early 13th century, there is mention in the accounts for the manor at Cuxham (Oxfordshire) of cheese being bought for a cat, which suggests that they were not left to fend for themselves.

A painting of a young woman in a yellow dress, her hair wrapped in fabric and a pearl choker round her neck, holding a tabby kitten to her chest in a pose of affection.
Bacchiacca (circa 1525), by the Italian painter Antonio d'Ubertino Verdi. Christie’s

In fact, the 14th-century queen of France, Isabeau of Bavaria, spent excessive amounts of money on accessories for her pets. In 1387, she commissioned a collar embroidered with pearls and fastened by a gold buckle for her pet squirrel. In 1406, bright green cloth was bought to make a special cover for her cat.

Cats were also common companions for scholars, and eulogies about cats were not uncommon in the 16th century. In one poem, a cat is described as a scholar’s light and dearest companion. Eulogies such as this suggest a strong emotional attachment to pet cats, and show how cats not only cheered up their masters but provided welcome distractions from the hard mental craft of reading and writing.

Cats in the cloisters

Cats are found in abundance as a status symbol in medieval religious spaces. There are lots of medieval manuscripts that feature, for example, illuminations (small images) of nuns with cats, and cats frequently appear as doodles in the margins of Books of Hours.

Rouen bibliotheque municipale ms 3028 fol. 63r
St Matthew and his cat, Bruges, c. 1500. [Rouen bibliotheque municipale. Manuscript 3028, Folio 63r], Author provided

But there is also much criticism about the keeping of cats in medieval sermon literature. The 14th-century English preacher John Bromyard considered them useless and overfed accessories of the rich that benefited while the poor went hungry.

Doodle showing a nun spinning thread, as her pet cat plays with the spindle.
Detail of a miniature of a nun spinning thread, as her pet cat plays with the spindle; from the Maastricht Hours, the Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe manuscript 17, folio 34r

Cats are also recorded as being associated with the devil. Their stealth and cunning when hunting for mice was admired – but this did not always translate into qualities desirable for companionship. These associations led to the killing of some cats, which had detrimental effects during the Black Death and other middle age plagues, when more cats may have reduced flea-infested rat populations.

Because of these associations, many thought that cats had no place in the sacred spaces of religious orders. There do not seem to have been any formal rules, however, stating that members of religious communities were not allowed to keep cats – and the constant criticism of the practice perhaps suggests that pet cats were common.

Doodle in the corner of a page of a medieval manuscript shows a cat on its hind legs, dressed as a nun
A cat cosplaying as a nun. State Library Victoria, 096 R66HF, folio 99r, Author provided

Even if they were not always considered as socially acceptable in religious communities, cats were still clearly well looked after. This is evident in the playful images we see of them in monasteries.

For the most part, cats were quite at home in the medieval household. And as their playful depiction in many medieval manuscripts and artwork makes clear, our medieval ancestors’ relationships with these animals were not too different from our own.The Conversation

Madeleine S. Killacky, PhD Candidate, Medieval Literature, Bangor University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Art in Focus | Glenn Ligon's Condition Report | Tate

Listen to John Hughes, Visitor Engagement Assistant at Tate Liverpool, share his personal response to the work ‘Condition Report’ by American conceptual artist Glenn Ligon. About the artwork, John says: "Lately, I’ve had some unexpected conversations. They start out as guided tours – where I do all the talking – but then something happens. People start to chat amongst themselves. That’s often the case with ‘Condition Report’ by Glenn Ligon. When talked about, this work provokes further reaction and discussion. The work is based on signs carried by Black sanitation workers who were on strike in Memphis in 1968. Ligon shows twice the workers’ slogan ‘I AM A MAN’ along with some scribbly handwritten notes. Art and history, then, according to Ligon, are subject to changing conditions. Art and history are far from static or fixed. Art and history can be re-thought as time goes by. Thanks to Ligon, I’m conducting my guided tours in a new way. His artwork is allowing me to start open discussions on a range of related issues and this work is teaching me to listen. It’s teaching me to be like the artwork itself, open to change and open to various, unexpected reactions." This film has been created as part of the Terra Foundation For American Art Series: New Perspectives. Subscribe for weekly films: http://goo.gl/X1ZnEl

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Ask the Artist | Questions for Lynette Yiadom-Boakye | Tate

Artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye responds to questions from visitors to her 2022 exhibition at Tate Britain. How does she know when an artwork is finished? What music does she listen to while painting? And has her Ghanaian heritage influenced her work? Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is a British artist and writer acclaimed for her enigmatic portraits of fictitious people. Both familiar and mysterious, they invite viewers to project their own interpretations, and raise important questions of identity and representation. See her exhibition at Tate Britain 24 November 2022 – 26 February 2023 https://ift.tt/q1a3M85 Subscribe for weekly films: http://goo.gl/X1ZnEl

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The Muppet Christmas Carol turns 30: how the film became a cult classic

“Cult” is often indiscriminately applied to film and television. In Cult Movies (1981), film critic Danny Peary argued that it should be reserved for “special films which for one reason or another have been taken to heart by segments of the movie audience, cherished, protected, and most of all, enthusiastically championed”.

Subsequent academic and popular debates suggest it is a malleable label. But notwithstanding its elasticity, not all films can claim cult status. Despite their era, genre or industry, cult films stand out because audiences have a special, lasting connection with them that goes above and beyond normal patterns of consumption.

One such example is The Muppet Christmas Carol, which turned 30 in 2022.

The ritualistic rewatching of certain films during the holidays, combined with the strong sense of nostalgia (both historical and personal) that circulates during the festive season, fosters a lasting connection between movie and viewer that can elevate films to cult status.

The special combination of a treasured story and beloved characters from a much-loved and much-missed creator makes for particularly heady nostalgia in The Muppet Christmas Carol.

It’s a nostalgia that continues to lure audiences long after an initially disappointing box office performance, released in a period still under the shadow of Jim Henson’s untimely death.

A surprisingly faithful adaptation

Among the many screen adaptations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, The Muppet Christmas Carol is unique. Not least because it casts Gonzo, the unclassifiable “whatever” as Dickens and Rizzo the Rat (playing himself) as his grounded, wisecracking sidekick.

It draws on yearnings for snowy Victorian Christmases and expertly balances humour, dread and sentimentality.

As Kermit himself tells us in a behind the scenes interview for Entertainment Tonight, the team tried to stay faithful to the original. The only difference, he argues, is that “there’s lots of frogs and pigs and chickens and rats playing the main parts. I think Charles would have liked it that way.”

In the tradition of Jim Henson productions (including The Muppet Show but also big screen outings The Dark Crystal, 1982, and Labyrinth, 1986) the set is brought to life by a menagerie of colourful creatures and anthropomorphised plant life.

Kermit is ‘interviewed’ about The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Popular Muppet characters bring their own special nostalgia for physical puppetry techniques in an age of digital technologies. They also call back to memories of traditional family entertainment. Fozzy Bear, Miss Piggy, Animal, the Swedish Chef, and Statler and Waldorf (perfectly cast as Marley and Marley, Scrooge’s dead partners) all make an appearance.

Michael Caine, no stranger to cult by way of Get Carter (1972), is serious and gruff as Scrooge, seemingly oblivious to the Muppet mayhem around him.

Director Brian Henson has said that Caine only agreed to take the role if he could play it like he was working with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Why is The Muppet Christmas Carol so enduring?

In celebrating the 30th anniversary, many fans point to their personal connections to the film. They talk about poignant family viewing experiences and the film’s cross generational appeal.

Jim Henson has long hair and a bushy beard. He wears 1970s attire, including an orange tie and cream blazer jacket.
Jim Henson, creator The Muppets. Library of Congress

Adding to its cult status, the film even has a “lost” song – a ballad called When Love Is Gone that was cut from the theatrical release on the recommendation of then Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. It has been restored for the anniversary streaming on Disney+.

There are also opportunities to experience Miles Goodman’s score performed live with screenings of the film in cinemas across the UK. Brian Henson has suggested that the enthusiasm for the film in the UK home entertainment market has helped to establish its lasting legacy.

The enduring popularity of the film also demonstrates a continuing affection for Jim Henson that has been especially pronounced in the UK.

It’s a bond enhanced by his personal and professional ties to the capital via The London Creature Shop (his special effects house and puppet workshop) which operated in the city between 1979 and 2005. Marking his significance, an English Heritage Blue Plaque was erected in 2021 at his former Hampstead home.

The Muppets perform It Feels Like Christmas.

Drawing upon several critical perspectives on seasonal cult classics, fan studies scholar Renee Middlemost concluded that something peculiar happens when we embrace our favourite Christmas movies.

“By suspending one’s typical tastes and critiques,” she argues, “cynicism can be transcended in favour of ritual and social bonding. In this way, the ritual bonding over these films functions as an extension of the season itself.”

Or, as put more simply in lyrics from The Muppet Christmas Carol itself: “Wherever you find love, it feels like Christmas.”The Conversation

Andrea Wright, Senior Lecturer in Teaching and Learning Development, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


A walk through Istanbul with artist Hera Büyüktaşçıyan – 'What this ground remembers' | Tate

Artist Hera Büyüktaşçıyan takes us on a tour of Istanbul, the city where she lives and works. Ever since a child, walking has been a way for her to better understand this complex city, which she describes as a "living organism". In this film, we join Büyüktaşçıyan on her daily commute from the island of Heybeliada. Arriving in the city, she explores the old district of Fatih, encountering and observing paper collectors and carpet sellers, Byzantine churches converted into Ottoman mosques. In a visit to her studio, we see how the constant layering of histories, communities and acts of resistance in Istanbul – and in other cities like Toronto and Lahore – inspires her artwork, which ranges from forests of coiled carpets to stop-motion animation and drawing. Subscribe for weekly films: http://goo.gl/X1ZnEl

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Rutland Roman villa

Rutland Roman villa: how we found one of the most significant mosaics discovered in the UK

Archaeology students and ULAS staff from University of Leicester carefully clean the fully exposed Trojan War mosaic. © ULAS, Author provided

The discovery of a previously unknown Roman villa in rural Rutland during the 2020 lockdown was one of the archaeological stories of the year.

Villas are emblematic features of the Roman countryside, and many are known across Britain. But this new discovery is unique. It has what could be considered the most significant Roman mosaic discovery in the past century at its heart.

The mosaic was originally partly exposed by the landowners, who were investigating in the field after discovering pottery and tile fragments. A year later I led a team of archaeologists and students from the University of Leicester in fully exposing the mosaic floor.

This summer we returned as part of a joint excavation with Historic England.

The villa was protected as a scheduled monument by Historic England in 2021 (meaning it’s preserved for future generations to study when new techniques are developed that may assist further research), so these were to be the last excavations at the villa for the foreseeable future. We had plenty of questions.

What did the team discover?

The mosaic forms the floor of a triclinium (dining room) at the northern end of what appears to be a main villa building from the third or fourth century AD.

Here, residents would have wined and dined guests, providing luxurious entertainment while showing off their wealth, affinity with Roman lifestyles – and perhaps in this case – their understanding of classical Greek literature.

An aerial view of the excavation shows the outline of the former buildings in a parched, brown field.
The excavation of the dining room (triclinium) on the left and an adjacent building seen from the air. © Historic England, Author provided

The mosaic tells a grim tale of revenge from towards the end of the Trojan war, famously described in Homer’s Iliad.

Over three panels it depicts the duel between the Greek hero Achilles and Prince Hector of Troy and the unsavoury outcome of Achilles’s victory.

The mosaic is an incredible find. It is the only representation of the Trojan war from Roman Britain, and tells the story in an unusual “comic strip” style.

Dr Jane Masséglia, from the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History, tells the story behind the mosaic.

The value of this new villa lies not only with the mosaic, however, but in its completeness and the fantastic preservation of the archaeology. A geophysical survey of the field revealed an entire complex of buildings.

New discoveries

One of the ancillary buildings appears to have initially been a timber barn but was converted to stone sometime in the third or fourth century AD.

At this time, while the eastern end continued to be used for agricultural and small-scale industrial activity, the western end was converted for residential use. The remains of several partition walls and successive layers of floor suggest it was repeatedly renovated.

An aerial photograph shows the boundaries of the excavation area amid expansive rural fields.
An aerial overview of the villa field showing all of the excavation areas examined in the summer of 2022, with the aisled building in the foreground. © Historic England, Author provided

This reflects evidence from other excavated Roman villas, and provides a good indication of the lifespan and continuing development of this type of building.

On the southern side, the team also found remains of a bath suite. A series of three rooms – hot (caldarium), medium (tepidarium), and cold (frigidarium) incorporated underfloor heating and a water tank which may have been used for collecting rainwater.

Further excavation also took place around the dining room that held the mosaic. Evidence was found for an earlier boundary ditch, provisionally dated to the second or third century AD, built during an earlier iteration of the villa. The ditch lay beneath the mosaic and had caused slumping of the floor over time. Perhaps this led to the room eventually going out of use.

Investigation of the corridors on either side of the triclinium found a collapsed patterned mosaic on the western side and a preserved mosaic in the eastern corridor, which showed a complex kaleidoscope design.

A man in the foreground and woman to the back of the shot bend down with buckets to excavate parts of the mosaic.
Figures emerge from the past as a scene from the Trojan War mosaic is uncovered. © Historic England

The key discovery was that the dining room was a later addition to the building. Examination of the wall relationships indicated a major refurbishment in the third or fourth century to incorporate the triclinium and Trojan war mosaic.

For now, it’s unclear why this major work took place. It may be that the villa had reached sufficient wealth to afford such a luxury installation. Alternatively, the owners may have desired to reaffirm their connections to Roman culture and its classical background.

Whatever the reason, it seems that the grand mosaic only featured fleetingly in the life of the villa. A fireplace installed in one corner of the room and large areas of scorching across the mosaic indicate that the space was repurposed for more workaday activities, before the building finally fell into disrepair.

Now that the excavations are complete, the trenches have been back-filled and the field will return to pasture. Attention will now focus on the detail of the artefacts and environmental information gathered to try to piece the story of this fantastic archaeological site back together.

Archaeology students observe Dr. David Neal, expert on mosaics, as he draws a scaled plan of the Trojan War mosaic.
Archaeology students observe Dr David Neal, expert on mosaics, as he draws a scaled plan of the Trojan War mosaic. © Historic England, Author provided

We know that Roman villas like this were at the centre of large farming estates. While the buildings may have now been put to rest, we hope to widen the search into the surrounding landscape to understand the bigger picture of what was happening in this part of the Roman countryside.

This will allow us to develop the links we have created with the local archaeological community so we can involve them in discovering further ties to their local heritage.The Conversation

John S Thomas, Deputy Director of Archaeological Services, University of Leicester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Cecilia Vicuña – 'Your Rage is Your Gold' | Tate

Cecilia Vicuña is a Chilean poet and artist. Since the late 1960s she has created poems, paintings, sculpture, and film to explore and create alternative systems of knowledge that respect the Indigenous traditions that are a part of her heritage, while finding new ways to form connections with others. In this film, she talks about her exploration of the quipu, an ancient South American recording and communication system made from knotted threads. As well as the collaboration within her work and our collective responsibility to change destructiveness, injustices and harm. See Hyundai Commission: Cecilia Vicuña: Brain Forest Quipu at Tate Modern 11 October 2022 – 16 April 2023 https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/cecilia-vicuña Subscribe for weekly films: http://goo.gl/X1ZnEl Thumbnail image: Beach Ritual, 2017 performance, documenta 14, Athens, Greece. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul and London. Photo: Mathias Völzke

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"Art should be for everyone" – Mari Katayama | Tate

Artist Mari Katayama creates hand-sewn sculptures and photographs that prompt conversations and challenge misconceptions about our bodies. B...