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Bookish Diversions: Cat and Mouse in the Library
Medieval Monks and Mousers, Japanese Woodblock Cats, Top Cats in Literature, More
Cats and books have had a long and curious relationship. They’ve played countless roles in literature, and you can probably think of several without wracking your brain. There’s the Cheshire Cat from Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland and Mr. Mistoffelees from T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. My older daughter pounced on every Warriors cat novel Erin Hunter ever wrote.1 And the Cat in the Hat knows a lot about—as you may have heard—that.
Why the connection?
Cats have been part of human culture for millennia now and have played helpful roles in ancient libraries and medieval scriptoria, especially as mousers. While cats once received bad press thanks to spurious connections to witchcraft, they nonetheless make a lot of appearances in medieval manuscripts—not only as subjects of art, but as accidental contributors as well.
Ten years ago now, historian Erik Kwakkel tweeted an amusing medieval illumination of a cat preparing to scratch a man’s face. Kwakkel has, alas, deactivated his account—taking the image with it. (You’ll have to do your best: Wrinkle your brow a bit and imagine a naive man, hands behind his back, approaching a cat with drawn claws at the ready.) In response, PhD student Emir O. Filipović shared an image of cat prints in a manuscript he found while working on his doctoral research.
Filipović imagined the scene that produced the artifact:
A cat, presumably owned by the scribe, pounced first on the ink container and then on the book, branding it for the ensuing centuries. You can almost picture the writer shooing the cat in a panicky fashion. . . .
Filipović‘s picture went viral, shared like crazy through social media and picked up by various bloggers. As singular as these paw prints may appear, however, it turns out cat smudges in manuscripts and early printed books are not as rare as you might suppose.
Record of the Chase
Cats regularly prowled monastic scriptoria to keep rodents at bay. A medieval Irish poem, originally written in Gaelic, conjures a monk and mouser at work one evening. Here’s a bit from Robin Flower’s translation:
I and Pangur Bán my cat, ‘Tis a like task we are at: Hunting mice is his delight, Hunting words I sit all night. Better far than praise of men ‘Tis to sit with book and pen; Pangur bears me no ill-will, He too plies his simple skill.
It turns out many others have have taken a turn at “Pangur Bán,” putting their own spin on the verses. Here’s Seamus Heaney’s. In some cases poets reimagine the verses entirely, as Colm Toibin does here.
Maybe manuscript paw prints are the accidental record of cats doing their job. “Perhaps we are looking at the traces of a high-speed cat-and-mouse chase through the monastic library,” said British Museum manuscript curator Eleanor Jackson, looking at one set of prints.2
There were consequences when cats failed to do their job. Looking through a book printed by Johann Mentelin around 1472 or 1473, University of Otago special collections librarian Donald Kerr found a set of inky cat prints. His theory? The printer “laid his pages on benches or table tops to dry, where his cat had walked on one or more.”
Assuming there could be more such prints from the same print run, Kerr began inquiring of others who possessed copies of the book. One correspondent replied,
There seem to be no obvious traces of a black-footed cat running around on the sheets. If only a cat had been around. There is bad damage on the first 30 leaves or so, clearly rodent nibblings, and also on the final leaves. Now we know why Johann M. kept a cat in the printing house.
Manuscript illuminations might provide additional evidence of shirker felines. Consider this image of King Solomon and his distracted mouser! “Yes, my Lord,” you can hear the servant saying, “His candle does look grand, but what about these mice?”
Prowling cats left other evidence of their skulking beyond paw prints. One cat peed on a book left open overnight. The scribe drew a poor image of the cantankerous critter and left a curse in the margin:
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.
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Have Cats, Will Travel
The presence of cats in books is not uniquely medieval nor European. Buddhist monks brought cats with them to Japan in the sixth century along with copies of their scriptures. “They believed that these creatures could bring good luck and that they would be able to guard the sacred texts from the hungry mice that had stowed on board their ships,” explains Philip Kennedy at Illustration Chronicles.
When the producers of books keep cats, it’s unsurprising that pictures of cats ended up in books—true alike in West and East. Kennedy explores the work of one Japanese woodblock illustrator famous for his cats, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861). In one triptych Kuniyoshi stylized a “map” of a lengthy road called the Tōkaidō with fifty-three different waypoints for travelers to eat, sleep, and secure supplies for their journey.
A prior illustrator depicted each of these waypoints by highlighting landmarks. In his version, Kuniyoshi instead imagined each of the locations as cats and used visual puns for his identifiers.
Kennedy offers a couple examples of the puns employed. Here’s one for the fifty-first waypoint, which you can see on the bottom row on the far left.
This stop is called Ishibe, and its name sounds similar to the Japanese word miji-me (ミじめ), meaning “miserable.” To illustrate this, Kuniyoshi drew the town as a miserable looking cat. . . . Its body looks frail, its hair is coarse, and it yelps out with a wretched purr.
And while less necessary for rodent mitigation, cats also remain popular guests of bookish institutions. Beyond Japan, there’s a whole subculture of bookshops where resident cats stalk the shelves and shop with customers. Fodor’s actually identified seventeen bookstore cats worth traveling to see.
Famous Literary Cats
Given their proximity to the page, it’s natural that cats moved from being pictured in miniatures and illustrations to being fully featured as characters themselves. If you’re looking for the best representations of cats in literature, the Guardian has a useful top-ten list. Penguin also shares its own “definitive” top-ten.
There are some overlaps as well as felines unique to each. Mr. Mistoffelees straddles both lists, for instance, but Penguin alone mentions Behemoth from Mikhail Bulgakov‘s classic, The Master and Margarita. An “obnoxious miscreant,” this “fictional moggie” is described as
a roguish cigar-smoking, gun-toting creature with a penchant for vodka, chess, pickled mushrooms and endless quipping . . . the jester of the novel.
Written in Stalinist Russia, as Jesse Walker notes, the satirical novel tackles “Soviet censors, informers, and intellectual courtiers.” With inexplicable favored status from Stalin and knowing the book would be censored before publication, Bulgakov felt free to include every scandalous idea he could manage—no matter how critical it was of the authorities.
Finished in 1940, the complete uncensored version didn’t appear until 1973. Since then, it’s become a classic and its survival stands as testament to the unquenchability of human creativity.
Noting its cult status, Viv Groskop says, “The Master and Margarita is a reminder that, ultimately, everything is better if you can inject a note of silliness and of the absurd.” And there’s nothing more silly and absurd than a cat.
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She never wrote any, actually. Junior high girls will be scandalized to learn “Erin Hunter” was a pseudonym for several writers collectively churning out books in the Warriors series.