Based on the variety of ways in which they were discussed in the secondary source material we read for class today, cats seem to be particularly good to think with in terms of their complexity and many roles in medieval and early modern life. Cats, we learned, are good for gloves, though only for the cheap sort.[i] This actually surprised me a bit, if we make any assumption that value is attached to difficulty of procurement: as Arya in Game of Thrones learned a few seasons (or books) ago, cats can be rather difficult to catch, and they tend to put up a fight. If we are convinced by Barbara Newmann’s argument in “The Catte’s Tale,” in spite of her fictional primary source with which she tricks us, cats were also pets and companions. Cats seem to serve as an emblem both for instinct and for the natural order of the world, wherein cats hunt mice.[ii] Conversely, rather outside that order, cats apparently have a fondness for playing the fiddle, an unnatural, non-instinctual activity, and they are associated with those ultimate inverters of order, witches.[iii] In fact, as is well-exemplified by Douglas Gray in his aptly titled “Notes on Some Medieval Mystical, Magical and Moral Cats,” cats seem to both have served many roles and stood for a huge array of things. They can be the devil or God, magical in the fairy sense or magical in the witch sense— as in, they might actually be witches, occasionally.[iv]
Given this wild variety of meanings possible for just one animal, as we discussed at some length today, it seems inaccurate to assume that, whenever an animal appears in any context, it likely holds a particular symbolism. How, then, might we interpret a potentially symbolic animal? Sara Lipton seems to have provided something of a solution to the problem of determining which among any number of symbolisms one might choose from in a given situation. Lipton examines cats in the context of a couple of medieval Christian texts, working out how these texts built an association between Jews, Christian heretics, and cats through images of heretics kissing cats beneath the tail in a heretical ceremony, then in the placement of cats alongside Jews. As Lipton describes, in one folio of the Latin manuscript, a “Jew holds a domestic cat,” and the fact that the other depictions of cats in the text are “so unusual and so graphic” leaves “no doubt” that the cat should be interpreted as a symbol for heresy,[v] at least in this instance— and that seems to be the important part. Here, the manuscript goes out of its way to make the symbol it intends clear, and the associated symbolism suits the context for which it is being used. Lipton’s reading, therefore, seems quite persuasive, while, as we discussed, Alexandra Cuffel’s broader, less nuanced argument that projected symbolisms beyond their context was arguably less so.
As I pointed out at the end of class, our class discussion on complexity and my concluding argument for the importance of time and place can also be found in fairly famous historical debate between Robert Darnton and Roger Chartier, and it may be helpful to provide a bit more background on that here. Coincidentally (or perhaps not— maybe symbolic complexity is one of the occult qualities of cats?), this argument about symbolism happened to center on the symbolism of cats in Darnton’s analysis of a massacre of those creatures by a group of workers at a printing shop in France in the 18th century. In attempting to explain why a massacre of generally harmless, useful animals struck the workers as wildly funny, Darnton argues that this was because the cats were not just cats.There is something about cats, Darnton argues, an “ambiguous ontological position” that makes them, along with “pigs, dogs, and cassowaries,” particularly suited for use in ritual and taboo symbolism.[vi] Ultimately, in the cat massacre he is investigating, the massacre is funny because cats represented witchcraft, the occult, women, charivari, and cuckoldry: “Cats bore enormous symbolic weight in the folklore of France and that lore was rich, ancient, and widespread enough to have penetrated the printing shop.”[vii]
In return, Roger Chartier contends in his review of Darnton’s book, rather than being universally shared and agreed upon signs, symbols are “unstable, mobile, equivocal.”[viii] A historian must pay extreme attention to context, and she likely should not assume that every meaning and understanding is in play all at once, as Darnton appears to do. Again, as we argued in class, it might be too easy to project symbols beyond their domains and see things where we shouldn’t, such as in assuming that every pig is meant to represent a religious group. As Professor Fulton Brown also emphasized, it is similarly important to not assume that every person is attaching the same symbolisms and, relatedly, holding the same prejudices.
Plus, assuming one symbolism can blind us to the symbolisms that are actually there, or a more complicated picture, perhaps one in which the lived reality of the animal plays a significant part. For example, in William Baldwin’s 1553 Beware the Cat, which Barbara Newmann mentions in her “The Catte’s Tale” article[ix] and which I am examining in my final project, cats appear as main characters in a satire about Catholicism, were often associated with Catholicism at the time, and at one point in the text, they are explicitly compared to both Catholics and witches. These seem to be the most obvious meanings behind the cat characters. However, the closing message of the text is that the reader should beware of cats, who live in households and have the capacity to spy on their masters. Cats, in this context, seem to also represent moral, state, or neighborly surveillance in an England that was increasingly concerned with such an issue in the 16th century, and this representation seems to rest in large part on their real capacity to enter and leave households, see clearly, and sneak about. I believe it would be a mistake, methodologically speaking, to allow dominant, agreed-upon symbolisms to dictate the way we automatically read an animal character. If we simply assume that cats represent heresy, or witchcraft, or Jews, what are we missing out on about possible reflections of real, lived interactions between people and animals? It seems to me, as well as to a number of animal studies scholars, that universally subsuming animals to their symbolism is doing them a disservice.[x]
Finally, thinking about the many symbolisms as well as the living animals behind those symbolisms raises a couple of questions for me about symbolic animals in general. As Darnton contends, cats are supposed to be some of the most richly symbolic animals out there. After all, the title of this section was of readings had “especially cats” at the end of it. Why is that, exactly? Is it, as Darnton contends, that they are liminal sorts of creatures, or is that they have a particular, as he describes it, “je ne sais quoi”?[xi] Is there something physically special about cats that makes them especially symbolic? Or is this even true? As we discussed in class, and as a couple of our readings mention, “Cats rarely appear in bestiaries, probably because they are absent from the Bile and thus void of allegorical auctoritas.”[xii] For such an apparently symbolic animal, it is also striking that, as Lipton mentions, the cat does not appear as a common symbol in Gothic art, and generally in bestiaries, those “that do include a cat refer merely to its ability to see at night and to its skill at catching mice.”[xiii] Plus, in Chaucer, for example, cats appear— but they are just cats being cats. Very often, in fact, they seem to be just cats being cats, doing what cats are known to do best: hunting rodents and cleaning themselves.
Doves, on the other hand, as we saw, have about a million pages of symbolism explicitly attached to them in the authorities we have had a tendency to refer to for animal symbolism in this class: the bestiaries. However, we do not historically think of the dove, necessarily, as an especially symbolic animal. It is a symbolic animal like all of the other symbolic animals in the bestiaries. I think it is worth considering why this might be. Is it because, while the bestiaries drifted out of fashion around the seventeenth century, witch hunts and folk-tales, where we attach and find a lot of the cat symbolism, stuck around longer, especially in popular memory? Do we, as historians, think of cats as particularly symbolic anachronistically? Or is it a preference for popular symbolism that we are displaying? What, exactly, makes an animal lastingly symbolic, and can we assume that our preferences for them are shared? Does it have anything to do with the animal itself or more to do with us?
As a closing thought, this may simply have been a coincidental consequence of the selections of readings for the course, but I found it particularly interesting that our authors did not particularly link cats with women, except for an offhand remark that we found in Newmann’s piece: “This feminist passage is especially interesting because cats were so often used to vilify female sexuality.”[xiv] To again bring in Darnton, he insists that “Cats connoted fertility and female sexuality everywhere.”[xv] Why do we not see this in these readings, and what might we make of, among a number of listings of all the possible symbolisms of cats, this is not one of them? Apart from coincidence, my only idea is that Darnton’s focus was later in the early modern period, and perhaps the link with femininity developed more heavily later on. Symbols, after all, are not static.
[i] Jones, 108.
[ii] Jones, 98, 104.
[iii] Jones, 99-101.
[iv] Gray, 189-191, 198.
[v] Lipton, 364.
[vi] Robert Darnton. The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 89-90.
[vii] Darnton, 96.
[viii] Roger Chartier, “Text, Symbols, and Frenchness” The Journal of Modern History 57 (1985): 689-90.
[ix] Newmann, 418.
[x] See, for example, Susan Crane, Animal Encounters (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).
[xi] Darnton, 89.
[xii] Newmann, 414.
[xiii] Newmann, 364.
[xiv] Newmann, 415.
[xv] Darnton, 95.