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The British Museum Book of Cats

Today, we are pleased to announce a new edition of The British Museum Book of Cats, written by Juliet Clutton-Brock.

A long history of myth and superstition surrounds the cat. Its solitary nature, demanding personality and secret nightlife set it apart from all other domestic animals, while its beauty, charm and beguiling character have secured it a very special relationship with human beings. For centuries, cats have intrigued us, amused us and delighted us, inspiring writers, artists and sculptors from ancient Egypt to twenty-first century London.

British Museum Book of Cats

With help from the latest scientific research and beautifully illustrated with images from the British Museum’s superb collection and beyond, this delightful book is a celebration of the cat from the temple to the home that gives new insight into the life of our most charming and mysterious animal companion.

To mark the publication of The British Museum Book of Cats, we’ve included here an excerpt from the chapter entitled ‘The Cat in Legend and Witchcraft’, debunking superstitions from ‘black cats’ to cats having ‘nine lives’.

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“During the Christian era many legends concerning cats have been passed down in folklore, but since medieval times most have represented the cat as a witch’s ‘familiar’ or as a disciple of the devil. The earliest English legend, which appears to put the cat in a good light, is that of Dick Whittington and his cat. Dick was a poor boy who came to London with nothing but his cat; he made his fortune, and in the end was thrice Lord Mayor of London. This legend may date back as early as the late 1300s, but it has been suggested that the ‘cat’ was not the feline animal but the kind of heavy ship known as a ‘cat’ which was used for carrying coal from Newcastle to London. After this time the cat was always seen as a villain, and in fairy stories every witch has a black cat, although oddly enough black cats are supposed to bring their owners good luck.

The True Portraiture of Richard Whittington, by Renold Elstrack. Engraving of Richard Whittington, Lord Mayor of Londo, with his cat. Britain, 1600-1625. 18.8 x 11cm. British Museum, G, 10.113, bequeathed by John Charles Crowle.

The True Portraiture of Richard Whittington, by Renold Elstrack. Engraving of Richard Whittington, Lord Mayor of Londo, with his cat. Britain, 1600-1625. 18.8 x 11cm. British Museum, G, 10.113, bequeathed by John Charles Crowle.

From this time the cat gradually took on the character of evilness, of Satanism and of witchcraft. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the terrible period of trails for witchcraft. Topsell, in 1607, wrote: ‘The familiars of witches do most ordinarily appear in the shape of cats, which is an argument that the beast is dangerous to soul and body.’ The first trial for witchcraft in England was in 1566, in the reign of Elizabeth I. Agnes Waterhouse and her daughter Joan were executed for being linked in witchcraft with a cat that was ‘a whytte spotted catte (and they) fed the sayde catte with breade and milkye… and call it by the name of Sathan’. The last official execution for witchcraft took place in 1684, and during this 118-year period the cat became progressively more feared as the witch’s ‘familiar’, although other animals were also considered to carry evil spirits.

According to Tabor (1983) the belief that a cat has nine lives first arose from a statement in about 1560 in Beware the Cat by Baldwin who wrote, ‘it was permitted for a witch to take her cattes body nine times’.

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries cats were subjected to appalling torments in the cause of searching out the devil, especially during Lent when it was customary to throw them into bonfires and so on. Later, during the eighteenth century, cats were very cruelly treated in all sorts of baiting ‘sports’.

One superstition of which there is material evidence was that if the body of a cat, or better still the bodies of a cat and a rat, were built into a house wall they would keep away rats. This belief survived as late as the eighteenth century, and the dried mummified corpses of cats have been found in a fairly large number of buildings in Britain and Europe. Some of these corpses may be the result of cats creeping into holes while a new house was being built and then being trapped. Most, however, have been dried in a lifelike posture and then carefully built into the wall. Several of these dried cats are held in the research collections of the Natural History Museum, London, the finest being a cat with a rat placed just beneath it from a house that was recently demolished in Bloomsbury, London.”

Text and image © Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum Book of Cats, by Juliet Clutton-Brock, is available for £9.99 from the British Museum shop.

Category: History

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