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Cats in the Middle Ages

Cats in the Middle Ages


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The life of a cat in the Middle Ages (c. In the ancient world, the cat was regarded highly by cultures as diverse as China, Egypt, and Rome but, by the 13th century CE in Europe, it had long lost its former status and was generally tolerated for its practical use in curbing vermin but not often valued as a pet.

The cat lost its former position through the efforts of the medieval Church which encouraged the association of the cat with devils and darkness as part of their long-standing agenda of demonizing pagan faiths, rituals, and values. Scholar Desmond Morris writes:

Religious bigots have often employed the cunning device of converting other people's heroes into villains to suit their own purposes. In this way, the ancient horned god that protected earlier cultures was first transformed into the evil Devil of Christianity and the revered sacred feline of ancient Egypt became the wicked sorcerer's cat of medieval Europe. Many things considered holy by a previous religious faith have automatically been damned by a new religion. In this way began the darkest chapter in the cat's long association with mankind. For centuries it was persecuted and the cruelties heaped upon it were given the full backing of the Church. (158)

Once the cat was associated with Satan, it was regularly tortured and killed either to ward off bad luck, as a sign of devotion to Christ, or an integral part of rituals involving ailuromancy (using cats to predict the future). Cats were condemned by popes and massacred by entire villages and would not regain even half their former status until the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century CE. The Victorian Age of the 19th century CE would see the cat's full restoration in status.

Cats in the Ancient World

The association of the cat with ancient Egypt is well known. Cats were so highly valued that, according to Herodotus, when an Egyptian house caught fire, the people first concerned themselves with rescuing their cats and only then thought to put the fire out. When a family cat died, the people of the home observed the same grief-rituals as those for a human family member and cats were routinely mummified in the finest linens.

The cat in ancient Egypt was closely linked to the goddess Bastet who presided over the hearth, home, women, and women's secrets. Bastet was one of the most popular deities of Egypt because she promised peace and prosperity to her adherents of both sexes. Every man had a mother or sister, a wife or daughter they cared for and wanted kept safe while also desiring a tranquil and prosperous home and this was what Bastet delivered.

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Every year, Egyptians by the thousands traveled to her sacred city of Bubastis for her festival and she and her cats were valued so highly that, in 525 BCE, the Egyptian army at Pelusium surrendered to the Persians who had painted Bastet's image on their shields and herded cats and other animals in front of them before the city's walls. The Egyptians considered surrender preferable to harming the cats.

The Egyptians forbade the export of cats – the penalty for taking a cat out of the country was death.

In Greece and Rome, the cat never attained the same divine status but was still valued. The Greeks recognized the cat's value in pest control and also kept it as a pet while the Romans, who preferred using weasels to rid themselves of mice and rats, concentrated their efforts on pampering their feline friends. Cats enjoyed life in ancient Rome almost as much as they did in Egypt as Latin authors and Roman graves depicting grief-stricken cat owners attest.

The Egyptians forbade the export of cats – the penalty for taking a cat out of the country was death – and instituted a task force at their ports which searched disembarking ships to make sure no cat had been smuggled aboard. Clever crews and captains must have found some way around this law, however, as the cat wound up transported from Egypt to Greece, Rome, and Northern Europe. The sailors most likely responsible for this were the Phoenicians, the master sea-farers and most important traders of the ancient world, who quite possibly also spread the association of the cat with witchcraft and the underworld.

Cats, Women, & Jews

The Phoenicians, traveling from country to country, transported a culture's myths and legends along with their goods. The Greek goddess Hecate (and her Roman counterpart Trivia), presided over death, darkness, magic/witchcraft, and ghosts. Hecate was closely associated with dogs who, legend said, could hear her approach and would howl; a dog which appeared to be barking at nothing was said to actually be warning a family of Hecate and her ghosts at the door.

One very popular myth, however, linked Hecate with cats and this was the tale of the great Greek hero Heracles (the Roman Hercules). Heracles is conceived when the god Zeus seduces the mortal princess Alcmene. Hera, Zeus' jealous wife, attempts to kill Alcmene but a woman named Galinthius, maid-servant to Alcmene, thwarts Hera's plan and saves her mistress and the future hero. Enraged, Hera punishes Galinthius by transforming her into a cat and sending her to the underworld to serve Hecate.

The Heracles myth was among the most popular in ancient times and was given a greater boost by the Latin writer Antoninus Liberalis (2nd century CE) in his Metamorphosis, a retelling of older legends and tales, which was copied and distributed from its first publication up through the 9th century CE and continued as a best-seller through the 16th century CE.

Even though the majority of the population of medieval Europe were illiterate, this would not have mattered since stories were commonly transmitted orally. This story associating the cat with darkness, witchcraft, and the underworld, coupled with the Church's efforts at demonizing the values of earlier faiths, would have gone far to condemning the cat to a sub-par existence.

Further contributing to the cat's poor reputation was its association with the feminine, carried over from Egypt, and the poor light in which women in the early Middle Ages were viewed. Prior to the popularization of The Cult of the Virgin Mary in the High Middle Ages (1000-1300 CE), coupled with the French romantic tradition courtly love which elevated women's status, women were closely associated with Eve and the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden. Women were considered innately sinful, lusty, and responsible for man's first fall as well as whatever struggles each individual man after Adam had to endure.

The mythology of the Bible, taken as divine truth, also vilified the Jews as Christ-Killers and during the entire length of the Middle Ages in Europe Jews were linked to the cat as well. Jews were said to worship the cat, were able to transform themselves into cats to sneak into Christian homes to practice mischief or cast spells, and were also believed to crucify cats as a mockery of Christ's death on the cross. To the patriarchal culture of the Middle Ages, then, the cat was easily the vilest creature to creep across the earth.

Cats as Diviners & a Pope's Decree

At the same time, however, medieval Christians found the cat useful for pest control and as a means to supernatural insight. Rats and mice and other vermin, it was observed, were nicely controlled by a cat or two in the house and merchants and ships' crews considered them beneficial as well in protecting grain shipments, or other cargo, in transport or storage.

The practice of ailuromancy, by which one could predict the future by observing a cat's movements, also made the cat a little more appreciated. For the most part, ailuromancy only involved watching a cat whose behavior was thought to be able to predict the weather, an unexpected guest at the door, and other such things. Ailuromancy took a decidedly nasty turn, however, in a ritual known as the taghairm, practiced in Scotland throughout the Middle Ages and up through the 16th century CE.

A person would take cat and roast it alive over an open flame, turning it on a spit. The cat would scream in agony and this would summon the devil to protect one of his own. The devil would plead with the person to end the cat's suffering but the person would hold out until the devil had promised to fulfil a certain request – often some prediction of the future – at which time the cat would be put out of its misery.

The cat was further linked with the demonic through the work of the writer Walter Map (c. 1140-1210 CE) who claimed that the religious movement of the Patarines (who were seeking reforms in the corrupt Catholic Church), whom he closely associated with the heretical sect of the Cathars, worshiped the cat as part of their dark rites. Map reports how, those Christians who had fallen into sin and error in joining the Patarines but who had since returned to the true faith, gave this report of a ritual regularly observed:

At the first watch of the night, with their doors, entrances, and windows closed, the families sit in silence, each in their `synagogue', and wait. And in the middle of them comes, hanging by a rope, a black cat of great size. As soon as they see this cat, the lights are turned out. They do not sing or recite hymns in a distinct way but they mutter them with their teeth closed and they feel in the dark towards where they saw their lord and, when they find it, they kiss it, the more humbly depending on their folly, some on the paws, some under the tail, some on the genitals. (De Nugis Curialum, I.30)

Map's story – corroborated nowhere else and possibly satirical, actually – became so widespread and often repeated that it seems to have factored into the papal bull which condemned cats. Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241 CE), in response to growing reports of heresy throughout Europe, sent the Inquisitor Konrad von Marburg (l. 1180-1233 CE) to Germany to root out heretics by whatever means he felt necessary. Konrad sent the pope back a report of insidious rites enacted which sounds quite similar to Map's earlier account of the cat ritual only with the addition of a frog to the service.

Pope Gregory IX responded by issuing the bull Vox in Rama in 1233 CE which denounced cats – especially black cats – as evil and in league with Satan. Konrad specifically accused the German noble Henry III, Count of Sayn (d. c. 1246 CE) of participating in these rituals but Henry was able to clear his name before a tribunal and retain his position; Konrad wound up “mysteriously” murdered shortly afterwards. The account Konrad gave Pope Gregory IX could not be corroborated by any other Inquisitor or anyone else at all but the concept of the cat as demonic was further ingrained in public consciousness after 1233 CE.

Again, as with the Galinthius-turned-cat tale cited earlier, it did not matter how many people could have – or even would have – been able to read Gregory's Vox in Rama; what mattered was the Church's stand on cats which would have been absorbed by people through Sunday sermons and simple conversation, filtering down from the higher levels of the Church to the congregations in cities and villages. The bull was hardly widespread to begin with, having only been issued to Henry III, and so its impact could only have been felt indirectly.

However the contents of Pope Gregory IX's bull came to public attention, it was bad news for cats and those who cared for them. Elderly women who kept cats were especially vulnerable to a charge of witchcraft as scholar Virginia C. Holmgren notes:

An old woman living alone with no kin to give aid often cherished a cat as a dear friend and only companion. Cat and crone were always together, the cat making play out of any work, especially the task of trying to sweep the dooryard with a scraggly twig-broom. Any villager hiding in the bushes to spy for proof of witchery might see the cat pounce on the twig bundle for a ride across the bumpy ground, and broom and cat be air-borne for a brief moment of contact with a hidden rock. At that very moment in a nearby castle another beloved cat might be taking the same playful ride on her lady's silken train as she crossed from window to mirror, with those close by smiling fondly. But there were smiles on the faces of those spying villagers as they raced home to report proof of witchcraft in action. (108-109)

It was a common punishment to tie a condemned witch in a sack with her cat & throw both into a river.

Holmgren's observation of the lady and cat in her castle is accurate as evident from the house records of Lady Eleanor of Montfort (also known as Eleanor of England, l. 1215-1275 CE) who kept a cat for pest control but also seems to have cared for it as a pet. Lady Eleanor, powerful enough to control, maintain, and finally negotiate the surrender of Dover Castle, had nothing to fear from accusations of witchcraft but the same could not be said for the women of more modest means in the villages and cities. Of all those accused of witchcraft in Europe in the Middle Ages, 80% were women and the charge almost always ended in the woman's death. Although the most popular image is of an alleged witch burning at the stake, it was far more common to tie the condemned in a sack with her cat and throw both into a river.

The Return of the Cat

The outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in 1348 CE has often been blamed on a widespread massacre of cats following Pope Gregory IX's Vox in Rama but this theory is untenable as that was only one occurrence of the plague among many; the plague had been killing Europeans long before 1233 CE. Even so, there seems no reason to argue that a decrease in the cat population, before and after the papal bull, would result in an increase in mice and rats and it has been established that there was such a decrease prior to 1348 CE.

Even if that were not so, the incidents of plague from 1233-1348 CE could be traced to larger numbers of parasite-carrying rodents who were allowed to thrive in the absence of a large cat population. The people of the Middle Ages had no idea that the plague was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis (this remained unknown until 1894 CE) and accepted the Church's opinion that it was sent by God as a punishment for sin. Cats continued to be vilified and killed because people continued to view them through the lens of the Church as evil and worthless.

Desmond Morris cites the continued persecution of cats throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, noting how “as late as 1658 Edward Topsel, in his serious work on natural history, [wrote] `the familiars of Witches do most ordinarily appear in the shape of Cats which is an argument that this beast is dangerous to soul and body” (158). The cat would continue to be seen this way until the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century CE.

The Protestant Reformation (1517-1648 CE) broke the power-hold of the Church over people's lives and allowed for greater freedom of thought. Although, as always, there were people like Edward Topsel who clung to outmoded and irrational beliefs, people were now free to question the Church's views on life in general and cats in particular. The spirit of the Enlightenment encouraged people to keep cats as pets simply for the joy of companionship and this trend would become more commonplace during the Victorian Age (1837-1901 CE) when Queen Victoria returned the cat to the status it had enjoyed in ancient Egypt.

When the Rosetta Stone was deciphered in c. 1822 CE, it opened up Egyptian culture to the world. Previously, hieroglyphics were thought to be some arcane ornamentation but, once it was understood to be a language, Egyptian civilization came into sharper focus and drew worldwide attention. Stories of fantastic finds in ancient tombs made headlines in England and around the world and a number of these referenced Bastet and the Egyptian love of cats. Victoria's interest in Egypt led her to adopt two Blue Persians and she acquired a reputation as a breeder of show cats. As Victoria was a popular monarch, the press reported on her interests, and those interests came to be shared by others who now wanted to have cats of their own.

Victoria's efforts contributed to the cat resuming its ancient place in human society. Her love of cats was noted in America by the popular periodical Godey's Lady's Book, published by Louis A. Godey of Philadelphia between 1830-1878 CE. In 1836 CE, the writer Sarah Josepha Hale joined the Godey's editorial staff and began writing pieces extolling the virtues of the cat and the joys of cat ownership.

The popular author Mark Twain, among many others, added to the momentum writing and lecturing on the sublime joys of the cat-as-companion and so, by the end of the 19th century CE, the medieval concept of the cat as Satan's instrument had been replaced by that of the feline friend and treasured family member, so familiar to cat lovers in the present day as well as those of the ancient world.


Cats and Humans: A 12,000-Year-Old Commensal Relationship

The modern cat (Felis silvestris catus) is descended from one or more of four or five separate wild cats: the Sardinian wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), the European wildcat (F. s. silvestris), the Central Asian wildcat (F.s. ornata), the sub-Saharan African wildcat (F.s. cafra), and (perhaps) the Chinese desert cat (F.s. bieti). Each of these species is a distinctive subspecies of F. silvestris, but F.s. lybica was ultimately domesticated and is an ancestor of all modern domesticated cats. Genetic analysis suggests that all domestic cats derive from at least five founder cats from the Fertile Crescent region, from where they (or rather their descendants) were transported around the world.

Researchers analyzing cat mitochondrial DNA have identified evidence that F.s. lybica was distributed across Anatolia from the early Holocene (ca. 11,600 years ago) at the latest. The cats found their way into southeastern Europe before the onset of farming in the Neolithic. They suggest that cat domestication was a complex long-term process, because people took cats with them on overland and ship-board trade facilitating admixture events between geographically separated F.s. lybica and other wild subspecies like F.S. ornata at different times.


Cat From Middle Ages Leaves Mark On History

A researcher of medieval history was studying a manuscript from 1445 in Croatia, and discovered paw prints. Apparently a scribe was working when the cat stepped in ink, and then stood with all four paws on the work in progress.

Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep. Here's an old saying: Feed and love a dog, and the dog thinks you must be God. Feed and love a cat, and the cat thinks, hey, I must be God. A cat from the Middle Ages apparently demanded attention. A researcher was recently studying a manuscript from 1445 in Croatia, and that researcher discovered paw prints. Apparently, a scribe was working in 1445 when the cat stepped in ink, and then stood with all four paws on the work in progress. It's MORNING EDITION.

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Almost everyone likes cats. The videos of kittens on the internet are perhaps the most popular (how could we forget “grumpy cat”?), and the number of cats featured in the comics (from Felix to Garfield) seem to indicate that, indeed, cats enjoy a pretty fair amount of popularity.

That has always been the case, even in the Middle Ages. Back in those days, it was quite common to find a cat almost anywhere, and monasteries and convents were always welcoming kitties because they helped keep out rodents and other pests that would not only bring diseases but could also steal bread and spoil the crops.

But this rodent-hunting activity, which is beneficial in every way, can also be interpreted metaphorically. In some medieval texts it is said that the devil plays with the sinner “like a cat plays with a mouse before killing it,” for example.

Perhaps the independent nature of the cat also helped creating such a bad reputation

Thus, the image of the cat as a cruel animal, enjoying the pain of others, helped create some metaphorical association of cute little useful kitties with the devil, and the legend that claims the devil would appear as a black cat in satanic rites became popular to the point that Albigensians and other heretics were accused of worshiping cats. In fact, in the trial against the Templars, they were accused, among many other things, of allowing cats in their liturgical services, as we read in this great post published by Medievalists.net on the matter.

The medievalist Irina Metzler (the post of Medievalists.net goes on), who is the author of “Heretical Cats: animal symbolism in religious discourse,” says that perhaps the independent nature of the cat also helped create such a bad reputation. The book of Genesis suggests that animals were created to serve and help mankind, but the cat, no matter how hard you try, will never be as obedient as a dog, a horse or a cow. Metzer writes:

To read the full post on Medievalists.net, click here.

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Cats in the Middle Ages - History

Enjoyed the post! One of my dogs would fit right into the Middle Ages because he's a terrier called Jack - both type and name are recorded in the Middle Ages on tombs. One 'Terri' is noted on a lady's tomb and on a man's there is a 'Jakke' Have you read the Kathleen Walker-Meikle book 'Medieval Pets'? It's a terrific resource.

As the local mad cat lady I would have to bring my cats, my one fear is cars that drive too fast so being int he middle ages my cats would be much safer and probably even more annoying to my neighbours :-) Being four girls and all related they tend to pack hunt and bring down fairly large birds and any small mammal! I may have found myself in trouble if they brought down other folks stock! I worry about tame rabbits as they bring home wild ones now. sadly they tend to bring me the heads and not the meat for any pots but they probably wouldn't need feeding much.

"Of all the birds that I do know, Philip my sparrow hath no peer. " Although she might be a bird of the human variety.

Then as now, dogs and cats were the preferred pets. Terriers could be ratters as well as pampered pets, so they could find their way into the homes of ordinary people, not just the aristocracy, and would have been useful on farms and peasant small-holdings. Cats hunting in packs would have earned a useful place in any household plagued by rats or mice, and certainly would be safe from modern cars. There was plenty of traffic then, of course, but I reckon any cat worth its salt could get out of the way of horse-drawn or ox-drawn vehicles. I've always been intrigued by pet sparrows, ever since reading Catullus's poems when working for A Level Latin. Considering the frequency with which they are mentioned, they must be fairly easy to tame. Our garden sparrows always sem to be very cheery little souls.

Loved this post, Ann. It is a lovely insight into life in the Middle Ages, and is a much needed anecdote to the usual descriptions of Age as brutal and cruel.

Loved this post. I also love the painting (can't remember the artist) of the lady in ermine from this period holding the ferret.

I love your post your amazing. Thanks for sharing.website authority

Speaking for myself, I would like to have a big goldfish in somewhat an aquarium. And from among these, I'd say a dog is a man's best friend.

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One thing to consider is that pets in middle ages didn't have access to the same type of care. This quite clearly made many people have their expectations tempered throughout their lives.


Cats in the Middle Ages

The life of a cat in the Middle Ages (c. 476-1500 CE) differed significantly from that of a dog owing primarily to its association with witchcraft, darkness, and the devil. In the ancient world, the cat was regarded highly by cultures as diverse as China, Egypt, and Rome but, by the 13th century CE in Europe, it had long lost its former status and was generally tolerated for its practical use in curbing vermin but not often valued as a pet.

The cat lost its former position through the efforts of the medieval Church which encouraged the association of the cat with devils and darkness as part of their long-standing agenda of demonizing pagan faiths, rituals, and values. Scholar Desmond Morris writes:

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Religious bigots have often employed the cunning device of converting other people's heroes into villains to suit their own purposes. In this way, the ancient horned god that protected earlier cultures was first transformed into the evil Devil of Christianity and the revered sacred feline of ancient Egypt became the wicked sorcerer's cat of medieval Europe. Many things considered holy by a previous religious faith have automatically been damned by a new religion. In this way began the darkest chapter in the cat's long association with mankind. For centuries it was persecuted and the cruelties heaped upon it were given the full backing of the Church. (158)

Once the cat was associated with Satan, it was regularly tortured and killed either to ward off bad luck, as a sign of devotion to Christ, or an integral part of rituals involving ailuromancy (using cats to predict the future). Cats were condemned by popes and massacred by entire villages and would not regain even half their former status until the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century CE. The Victorian Age of the 19th century CE would see the cat's full restoration in status.

Cats in the Ancient World

The association of the cat with ancient Egypt is well known. Cats were so highly valued that, according to Herodotus, when an Egyptian house caught fire, the people first concerned themselves with rescuing their cats and only then thought to put the fire out. When a family cat died, the people of the home observed the same grief-rituals as those for a human family member and cats were routinely mummified in the finest linens.

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The cat in ancient Egypt was closely linked to the goddess Bastet who presided over the hearth, home, women, and women's secrets. Bastet was one of the most popular deities of Egypt because she promised peace and prosperity to her adherents of both sexes. Every man had a mother or sister, a wife or daughter they cared for and wanted kept safe while also desiring a tranquil and prosperous home and this was what Bastet delivered.

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Every year, Egyptians by the thousands traveled to her sacred city of Bubastis for her festival and she and her cats were valued so highly that, in 525 BCE, the Egyptian army at Pelusium surrendered to the Persians who had painted Bastet's image on their shields and herded cats and other animals in front of them before the city's walls. The Egyptians considered surrender preferable to harming the cats.

In Greece and Rome, the cat never attained the same divine status but was still valued. The Greeks recognized the cat's value in pest control and also kept it as a pet while the Romans, who preferred using weasels to rid themselves of mice and rats, concentrated their efforts on pampering their feline friends. Cats enjoyed life in ancient Rome almost as much as they did in Egypt as Latin authors and Roman graves depicting grief-stricken cat owners attest.

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The Egyptians forbade the export of cats – the penalty for taking a cat out of the country was death – and instituted a task force at their ports which searched disembarking ships to make sure no cat had been smuggled aboard. Clever crews and captains must have found some way around this law, however, as the cat wound up transported from Egypt to Greece, Rome, and Northern Europe. The sailors most likely responsible for this were the Phoenicians, the master sea-farers and most important traders of the ancient world, who quite possibly also spread the association of the cat with witchcraft and the underworld.

Cats, Women, & Jews

The Phoenicians, traveling from country to country, transported a culture's myths and legends along with their goods. The Greek goddess Hecate (and her Roman counterpart Trivia), presided over death, darkness, magic/witchcraft, and ghosts. Hecate was closely associated with dogs who, legend said, could hear her approach and would howl a dog which appeared to be barking at nothing was said to actually be warning a family of Hecate and her ghosts at the door.

One very popular myth, however, linked Hecate with cats and this was the tale of the great Greek hero Heracles (the Roman Hercules). Heracles is conceived when the god Zeus seduces the mortal princess Alcmene. Hera, Zeus' jealous wife, attempts to kill Alcmene but a woman named Galinthius, maid-servant to Alcmene, thwarts Hera's plan and saves her mistress and the future hero. Enraged, Hera punishes Galinthius by transforming her into a cat and sending her to the underworld to serve Hecate.

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The Heracles myth was among the most popular in ancient times and was given a greater boost by the Latin writer Antoninus Liberalis (2nd century CE) in his Metamorphosis, a retelling of older legends and tales, which was copied and distributed from its first publication up through the 9th century CE and continued as a best-seller through the 16th century CE.

Even though the majority of the population of medieval Europe were illiterate, this would not have mattered since stories were commonly transmitted orally. This story associating the cat with darkness, witchcraft, and the underworld, coupled with the Church's efforts at demonizing the values of earlier faiths, would have gone far to condemning the cat to a sub-par existence.

Further contributing to the cat's poor reputation was its association with the feminine, carried over from Egypt, and the poor light in which women in the early Middle Ages were viewed. Prior to the popularization of The Cult of the Virgin Mary in the High Middle Ages (1000-1300 CE), coupled with the French romantic tradition courtly love which elevated women's status, women were closely associated with Eve and the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden. Women were considered innately sinful, lusty, and responsible for man's first fall as well as whatever struggles each individual man after Adam had to endure.

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The mythology of the Bible, taken as divine truth, also vilified the Jews as Christ-Killers and during the entire length of the Middle Ages in Europe Jews were linked to the cat as well. Jews were said to worship the cat, were able to transform themselves into cats to sneak into Christian homes to practice mischief or cast spells, and were also believed to crucify cats as a mockery of Christ's death on the cross. To the patriarchal culture of the Middle Ages, then, the cat was easily the vilest creature to creep across the earth.

Cats as Diviners & a Pope's Decree

At the same time, however, medieval Christians found the cat useful for pest control and as a means to supernatural insight. Rats and mice and other vermin, it was observed, were nicely controlled by a cat or two in the house and merchants and ships' crews considered them beneficial as well in protecting grain shipments, or other cargo, in transport or storage.

The practice of ailuromancy, by which one could predict the future by observing a cat's movements, also made the cat a little more appreciated. For the most part, ailuromancy only involved watching a cat whose behavior was thought to be able to predict the weather, an unexpected guest at the door, and other such things. Ailuromancy took a decidedly nasty turn, however, in a ritual known as the taghairm, practiced in Scotland throughout the Middle Ages and up through the 16th century CE.

A person would take cat and roast it alive over an open flame, turning it on a spit. The cat would scream in agony and this would summon the devil to protect one of his own. The devil would plead with the person to end the cat's suffering but the person would hold out until the devil had promised to fulfil a certain request – often some prediction of the future – at which time the cat would be put out of its misery.

The cat was further linked with the demonic through the work of the writer Walter Map (c. 1140-1210 CE) who claimed that the religious movement of the Patarines (who were seeking reforms in the corrupt Catholic Church), whom he closely associated with the heretical sect of the Cathars, worshiped the cat as part of their dark rites. Map reports how, those Christians who had fallen into sin and error in joining the Patarines but who had since returned to the true faith, gave this report of a ritual regularly observed:

At the first watch of the night, with their doors, entrances, and windows closed, the families sit in silence, each in their `synagogue', and wait. And in the middle of them comes, hanging by a rope, a black cat of great size. As soon as they see this cat, the lights are turned out. They do not sing or recite hymns in a distinct way but they mutter them with their teeth closed and they feel in the dark towards where they saw their lord and, when they find it, they kiss it, the more humbly depending on their folly, some on the paws, some under the tail, some on the genitals. (De Nugis Curialum, I.30)

Map's story – corroborated nowhere else and possibly satirical, actually – became so widespread and often repeated that it seems to have factored into the papal bull which condemned cats. Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241 CE), in response to growing reports of heresy throughout Europe, sent the Inquisitor Konrad von Marburg (l. 1180-1233 CE) to Germany to root out heretics by whatever means he felt necessary. Konrad sent the pope back a report of insidious rites enacted which sounds quite similar to Map's earlier account of the cat ritual only with the addition of a frog to the service.

Pope Gregory IX responded by issuing the bull Vox in Rama in 1233 CE which denounced cats – especially black cats – as evil and in league with Satan. Konrad specifically accused the German noble Henry III, Count of Sayn (d. c. 1246 CE) of participating in these rituals but Henry was able to clear his name before a tribunal and retain his position Konrad wound up “mysteriously” murdered shortly afterwards. The account Konrad gave Pope Gregory IX could not be corroborated by any other Inquisitor or anyone else at all but the concept of the cat as demonic was further ingrained in public consciousness after 1233 CE.

Again, as with the Galinthius-turned-cat tale cited earlier, it did not matter how many people could have – or even would have – been able to read Gregory's Vox in Rama what mattered was the Church's stand on cats which would have been absorbed by people through Sunday sermons and simple conversation, filtering down from the higher levels of the Church to the congregations in cities and villages. The bull was hardly widespread to begin with, having only been issued to Henry III, and so its impact could only have been felt indirectly.

However the contents of Pope Gregory IX's bull came to public attention, it was bad news for cats and those who cared for them. Elderly women who kept cats were especially vulnerable to a charge of witchcraft as scholar Virginia C. Holmgren notes:

An old woman living alone with no kin to give aid often cherished a cat as a dear friend and only companion. Cat and crone were always together, the cat making play out of any work, especially the task of trying to sweep the dooryard with a scraggly twig-broom. Any villager hiding in the bushes to spy for proof of witchery might see the cat pounce on the twig bundle for a ride across the bumpy ground, and broom and cat be air-borne for a brief moment of contact with a hidden rock. At that very moment in a nearby castle another beloved cat might be taking the same playful ride on her lady's silken train as she crossed from window to mirror, with those close by smiling fondly. But there were smiles on the faces of those spying villagers as they raced home to report proof of witchcraft in action. (108-109)

Holmgren's observation of the lady and cat in her castle is accurate as evident from the house records of Lady Eleanor of Montfort (also known as Eleanor of England, l. 1215-1275 CE) who kept a cat for pest control but also seems to have cared for it as a pet. Lady Eleanor, powerful enough to control, maintain, and finally negotiate the surrender of Dover Castle, had nothing to fear from accusations of witchcraft but the same could not be said for the women of more modest means in the villages and cities. Of all those accused of witchcraft in Europe in the Middle Ages, 80% were women and the charge almost always ended in the woman's death. Although the most popular image is of an alleged witch burning at the stake, it was far more common to tie the condemned in a sack with her cat and throw both into a river.

The Return of the Cat

The outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in 1348 CE has often been blamed on a widespread massacre of cats following Pope Gregory IX's Vox in Rama but this theory is untenable as that was only one occurrence of the plague among many the plague had been killing Europeans long before 1233 CE. Even so, there seems no reason to argue that a decrease in the cat population, before and after the papal bull, would result in an increase in mice and rats and it has been established that there was such a decrease prior to 1348 CE.

Even if that were not so, the incidents of plague from 1233-1348 CE could be traced to larger numbers of parasite-carrying rodents who were allowed to thrive in the absence of a large cat population. The people of the Middle Ages had no idea that the plague was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis (this remained unknown until 1894 CE) and accepted the Church's opinion that it was sent by God as a punishment for sin. Cats continued to be vilified and killed because people continued to view them through the lens of the Church as evil and worthless.

Desmond Morris cites the continued persecution of cats throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, noting how “as late as 1658 Edward Topsel, in his serious work on natural history, [wrote] `the familiars of Witches do most ordinarily appear in the shape of Cats which is an argument that this beast is dangerous to soul and body” (158). The cat would continue to be seen this way until the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century CE.

The Protestant Reformation (1517-1648 CE) broke the power-hold of the Church over people's lives and allowed for greater freedom of thought. Although, as always, there were people like Edward Topsel who clung to outmoded and irrational beliefs, people were now free to question the Church's views on life in general and cats in particular. The spirit of the Enlightenment encouraged people to keep cats as pets simply for the joy of companionship and this trend would become more commonplace during the Victorian Age (1837-1901 CE) when Queen Victoria returned the cat to the status it had enjoyed in ancient Egypt.

When the Rosetta Stone was deciphered in c. 1822 CE, it opened up Egyptian culture to the world. Previously, hieroglyphics were thought to be some arcane ornamentation but, once it was understood to be a language, Egyptian civilization came into sharper focus and drew worldwide attention. Stories of fantastic finds in ancient tombs made headlines in England and around the world and a number of these referenced Bastet and the Egyptian love of cats. Victoria's interest in Egypt led her to adopt two Blue Persians and she acquired a reputation as a breeder of show cats. As Victoria was a popular monarch, the press reported on her interests, and those interests came to be shared by others who now wanted to have cats of their own.

Victoria's efforts contributed to the cat resuming its ancient place in human society. Her love of cats was noted in America by the popular periodical Godey's Lady's Book, published by Louis A. Godey of Philadelphia between 1830-1878 CE. In 1836 CE, the writer Sarah Josepha Hale joined the Godey's editorial staff and began writing pieces extolling the virtues of the cat and the joys of cat ownership.

The popular author Mark Twain, among many others, added to the momentum writing and lecturing on the sublime joys of the cat-as-companion and so, by the end of the 19th century CE, the medieval concept of the cat as Satan's instrument had been replaced by that of the feline friend and treasured family member, so familiar to cat lovers in the present day as well as those of the ancient world.


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Our eating habits have transformed drastically over the centuries in both the food we eat and the way we eat it. For example, most of us consider breakfast, lunch, and dinner vitally important meals that are not to be skipped if one can help it. Yet the Romans did not see it that way and stuck to only eating one big meal at noon. Anything else was seen as gluttony, and no one wanted to be a glutton.

This changed somewhat during the Middle Ages in that two meals a day – dinner at noon and supper in the evening – became the norm. Snacking was also quite common, albeit mostly among commoners and those performing manual labor.

According to some sources, breakfast was seen as a weakness and a form of gluttony by the church. But while upper classes could afford to skip breakfast, working-class men and women could not.

Interestingly, some sources suggest that during the Middle Ages, the church advocated that the whole household eat together which meant no separation between lords and ladies and servants during the meal. Of course, the rich were not so keen on this form of dining, and towards the end of the Middle Ages often sought privacy when eating their meals.

While medieval foods weren't so different from the meals we eat today – think bread, porridge, pasta and vegetables for the poor and meat and spices for the rich – the way it was prepared often differed greatly from the way we prepare our food today.

Indeed, if one flicks through a recipe book from the Middle Ages one may be alarmed by the dishes suggested. It seems that roasted swans, peacocks, cats, and hedgehogs were rather popular for the nobility.

Furthermore, seeing as entertainment options back in the day were certainly scarcer than today, people came up with innovative and unique ways of amusing themselves during dinner.

For instance, they had roasted peacocks adorned in their own feathers and "live pies," which consisted of pastry stuffed with live frogs, served to keep dinner guests delighted and entertained all night long.

Enjoy this look at weird medieval foods? After this, why not have a look at the most painful medieval medical procedures. Then, why not learn more about medieval knights.


Cats as Pets in the Middle Ages

Warning: this post pretty much exists to prove one of my friends wrong. Traditionally, there are expected ways of dealing with people who are wrong on the internet–ways that usually involve pithy (or not so pithy) phrases and the judicious application of cat pictures. In this case, this is doubly effective, because what my nameless friend said was this:

‘ Oh, but cats weren’t PETS in the middle ages. People didn’t like them!‘

Full disclosure: it does appear that there was a market at certain points for cat skins. Bartholomew de Glanville mentioned this in a thirteenth-century history, and Langland’s Piers Ploughman mentions a pedlar of such, who ‘would kill if he could for the sake of their skins’.

People were also quite horrible to cats during things like witch hunts (when, to be fair, they were also quite horrible to each other) and the Black Plague, and during strange awful things like the Kattenstoet in Ypres. While not treasured the way, say, horses were, I’m not sure they suffered more than people at the time concern about the sanctity of life in general was not really at its highest around the thirteenth century.

In the accounts and lawbooks

Good old Hywel Dda (or rather, Iorwerth ap Owain Gwynedd) listed the sarhaed of a cat:

The value of a kitten from the night it is born until it opens its eyes, a penny, and from then until it kills mice, two pence, and after it kills mice, four pence.


(If your cat was a fierce warrior like this gent here, presumably it would be more.)

Eleanor de Montfort (Countess of Leicester, not her daughter who married Lleweyn the Last) bought a cat in 1265 it doesn’t specify whether she wanted it for snuggling or because her fortress had a mouse problem. She did have a reputation, however, for liking animals in general.

Exeter Cathedral, meanwhile, had a cat on the payroll. Fifteenth-century accounts list its salary as a penny per week, so it wasn’t working purely on commission and eating only the mice it got rid of. There is still a small cat door to the cathedral’s south tower.


It might have looked like this, hard at work.

Bestiaries are the first place to look for any sort of animal, of course, though they’re not the only place we find cats. Isidore of Seville suggests that the Latin word ‘cattus’ may come from ‘to catch’, as in what they do with mice, or else because their eyes capture the light.

(An archaic and lesser-known Latin word for cat is aelura–yes, the Twitter handle adopted by yours truly–David Mankin’s edition of Cicero is dedicatd to ‘the memory of Marmalade, aelura mirabilis ,’ which I think is delightful.)

But cats are also found in manuscript illuminations, like the one above. They are often chasing mice, though not always–the British Library has a list of some of the more humourous ones, including a cat defending a castle from the mice who have it under siege!

Cats are also mentioned in courtesy manuals such as The Boke of Nurture, which asks the host to dryve out dogge and catte, or els geve them a clout, which rather suggests that both sort of pet were frolicking about the tables waiting for people to drop food, or else just helping themselves to it.

The most compelling evidence, though, that cats were actually considered pets and not just employees of the house comes from men and women of the Church, who surely wouldn’t have kept them on hand if they actually thought they were servants of the Devil. Here, for instance, is an illustration of a nun with her spinning, and her cat ‘helping’ in that way that cats love to do with soft crafts:

The Ancrene Wisse is explicit that while hermits could own three acres and a cow, there was only one companion suitable for an anchoress it reads ‘ shall not possess any beast, my dear sisters, except only a cat.‘ Again, if they were that evil, they would hardly have been fit companions for women who had given up all earthly society in favour of contemplation and prayer.

And then, of course, if you are the sort of person who follows both medieval things and cats, you will have seen this fellow floating around the internet. He left his mark quite literally on a fifteenth century manuscript, and it’s not hard to envision the poor monk sitting there copying away, trying in vain to keep his feline companion from messing up his work. Not that we know anything about that in the modern day, of course. I mean, don’t laptops just automatically come full of cat hair?

Which brings us to the final piece of medieval kitty love, and my favourite. A ninth-century Irish monk working in Reichenau Abbey wrote one in the margins of his manuscript a lovely poem to his pet, a (presumably) white cat called Pangur Ban:

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

That is a person who is very fond of his cat.

If you’re still curious (or not convinced), check out the book Medieval Cats by Kathleen Walker-Meikle. It really turns out that even after Egypt, cats kept this world-ruling thing pretty well in hand!


Cats in the Middle Ages - History

True stories, fables and anecdotes from the Middle Ages

In the 9th century, an Irish monk living in Reichenau on Lake Constance revealed his humor, learning, and love for his little white cat in a poem he wrote there. As we read, both he and Pangur Ban seem to be in the room with us, not in their monkish cell viewed down the long vista of eleven centuries:

Excerpts from: Life in Medieval Times by Marjorie Rowling. New York: The Berkely Publishing Group, 1979.


Cats were not such common pets as dogs were in the Middle Ages, and it seems they were viewed in more practical terms as mousers and ratters. There is a drawing in the Luttrell Psalter of a tabby toying with a mouse, and there is also a carving of a cat with a rat in its mouth, by a craftsman who appreciated everyday scenes, on the 15th-century timber watching gallery beside the shrine of St. Alban in St. Alban's Abbey (now the cathedral). On a further practical note, William Langland wrote in Piers Plowman of a pedlar who was disposed to kill cats for their skins if he could manage to catch them. Archaeologists have found cat bones with cut marks suggesting that the fur had been removed. Such a use of the animal signifies the keeping of cats as livestock, not pets. Eleanor de Montfort, Countess of Leicester and sister of Henry III, appreciated cats, although whether for practical or affectionate reasons is not clear, for in 1265 one was purchased for her household on arrival at Oldham and another was purchased when the household moved to Dover.

Bartholomew de Glanville, who is better known as Bartholomew the Englishman, completed a widely used encyclopaedia in about 1240. In this he wrote some observant lines about cats, which were translated from Latin into English late in the 14th-century by John Trevisa:

Notice is due here of the succession of official cats of Exeter Cathedral. The obit accounts for the cathedral from 1305 through 1467 contain the entry custoribus et cato (to the "custors" - keepers - and the cat), and on one occasion pro cato (for the cat), amounting to a penny per week. This sum was apparantly to supplement the diet of the official cat, who was expected to control the pest population of the cathedral. A cat-hole is still to be found in the door in the north transept wall beneath the clock, through which the salaried feline could enter and egress while going about its task of hunting rats, mice, birds, and other threats to the cathedral. One wonders if John Catterick during his brief tenure in 1419 as Bishop of Exeter was ever informed by someone with a whimsical sense of humour of the existence of the official cat.

Excerpts from: Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England by Compton Reeves. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Cats suffered horribly during witch hunts, which fostered or encouraged all kinds of superstition and brutality. Yet manuscripts show them about the house, playing with the spinster's twirling bobbin, and earning their living on farms.

There was a certain monastic cat who played with serpents. The monks came out in spots, and accused the cat of conveying the serpent's poison. Fortunately (for the cat) it was pointed out that the serpent only played with the cat - so that any poison was delivered accidentally: as there was no "malice intent," harm would not be transmitted.

However, it was advisable in the dairy to "set trap for a mouse," for though a dog is reasonably honest, and properly ashamed if caught, any cat who will not steal must be mentally deficient - it's the first thing their mother's teach them!

Excerpts from: Lost Country Life by Dorothy Hartley. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

This page is dedicated to the memory of my beloved companion Buster Cat, April 11th 1988 - December 3rd, 1999.
____________________

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Medieval(ish) matters #13: Why aren’t monuments to medieval figures included in the statues debate, and was there racism in the Middle Ages?

Statues are very much in the news. The footage of Edward Colston’s monument being dumped unceremoniously into the harbour in Bristol is one for future history books. Figures associated with slavery, the slave trade, and racism generally across the globe have come under close inspection from people questioning whether they should still stand as commemorative artefacts. Most of these statues are of figures from the 18th century and later, though the conversation has drifted back in time to the likes of Sir Francis Drake and the 16th-century development of the Atlantic slave trade. Globally, statues of Christopher Columbus have also been drawn into the debate.

However, little has been said about statues in Britain depicting medieval figures, some of whom may be equally problematic when viewed through a modern lens, as the likes of Colston. Why is that? I recorded a conversation with Dr Simon John of Swansea University for the HistoryExtra podcast.

Dr John is both a medievalist (an expert on the socio-cultural impact of the Crusades in Latin Christendom) and an authority on statuary his current project is ‘Contested Pasts: public monuments and historical culture in Western Europe, 1815-1930’ (funded by the British Academy and Leverhulme Trust), which explores the political uses of public monuments and statues in 19th-century European states.

We particularly talked about the statue of King Richard I, the Lionheart, which stands directly outside the Palace of Westminster in London. Dr John has studied the circumstances in which this statue was erected in 1860, and also considered whether it is an appropriate monument to stand at the heart of British democracy (many in the 19th century did not think so).

Statue-mania

Along with many of the statues that are proving to be objects of contention today, its origins lie in the mid-19th century, an age of statue-mania, when they were springing up in capital cities across the continent. Many of the people honoured with statues at this time were associated with European imperialism, but there were also a number that depicted people from the medieval past.

“There’s a real fashion in creating monuments to medieval figures, and it’s continental-wide,” explains Dr John. “So Charlemagne, for example, we see statues of him created in both France and Belgium. Joan of Arc is commemorated by numerous statues in France and figures like Frederick Barbarossa have statues created in their honour in the German-speaking lands. So we can connect this on one hand to a far wider 19th-century interest in the Middle Ages, which manifests itself in other ways.

“In Britain, for example, we have the novels of Walter Scott, and the paintings of the pre-Raphaelites. What we’re seeing is a society that’s reaching toward the Middle Ages for a very particular reason. The 19th century witnessed great societal upheavals caused by industrialisation. For many, this brought about spiritual anxieties. And in this context, the Middle Ages was idealised as a simpler, more pious age, as a soothing antidote to the societal changes that industrialisation was bringing around.”

Many commentators have noted that these statues do speak more of 19th-century attitudes, in terms of state-building and positive attitudes to imperialism, than they reflect the activities or legacy of the people actually commemorated. That is the context in which Richard I came to be commemorated in Westminster.

Muscular monarchy

The statue was the work of the Italian-born, French-raised sculptor Carlo Marochetti. His muscular King Richard, raising his sword aloft and sitting astride a noble horse, caught the attention of no lesser figures than Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who championed the statue, the first version of which was created for the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Dr John’s research has shown that it was partly due to their patronage that the statue was funded and erected outside parliament, though it faced some opposition from those who were against a foreigner getting such a prominent commission. Others felt that a man known principally for his martial achievements was not appropriate for a place of government and seat of industrial progress, and particularly not a monarch who spent most of his time outside of England campaigning in foreign lands, funded by taxes on his English subjects. This indeed reflected a more critical analysis of Richard I in academic circles at the time.

The life of Richard I

Dr Simon John gives a potted history of the life of King Richard I

“He was born in Oxford in 1157, the third son of the incumbent king of England, ruler of the Angevin empire, Henry II. This was an empire that encompassed about half of what we would today call France. So he wasn’t just king of England, he had authority over this great continental empire as well.

“So Richard spent his early years in England, but then from 1172, he was active almost exclusively on the continent because in that year, his father appointed him Duke of Aquitaine. So basically for the rest of his life, the most dominant feature of Richard’s life was warfare. His two older brothers both died before him and their father, which meant that when Henry II died in 1189, Richard was the successor.

“Richard succeeded to be king of England and ruler of the Angevin lands. But even before his inauguration as king of England in 1189, he had been planning to go on crusade in response to the loss of Jerusalem to the forces of Saladin in 1187. Between 1190 and 1192, he was away from the west participating in what historians call the Third Crusade. It was this above all that propelled him towards legendary status because it was the crusade that brought him into conflict with the legendary figure of Saladin.

“The Third Crusade ended, but the Christian forces and Richard didn’t recover Jerusalem. They did shore up the Christian presence in the Holy Land, making a bridgehead that their 13 th – century successors would use to try and recover Jerusalem. Richard left the Holy Land in 1192. But on the way home through Austria he was captured by an enemy. For just over a year he was held captive at the behest of Emperor Henry VI. He was moved through various locations in Germany while his subjects back in his lands were raising the necessary ransom.

“The money was finally raised, and in 1194 Richard was released and went back to his lands, briefly to England, but for most of the rest of his life from 1194 he was on campaign in his continental lands, trying to restore the position that he’d had before he left. While he was away, his younger brother, John, of Magna Carta fame, had been in cahoots with Richard’s enemy Phillip II, king of France, and undermined Richard’s position in his lands.

“So it was in the context of this effort to recover his position, as he was taking part in a siege in 1199 in his old duchy of Aquitaine, that he was struck by a crossbow bolt. The wound turned gangrenous, and a week or so later, he died.”

As Professor John Gillingham notes in his entry for Richard in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “Although works of literary fiction, most notably Ivanhoe (1819) and The Talisman (1825) by Walter Scott, continued to present a glamorous image of Richard I, one given lasting visual form by the equestrian statue of the king by Carlo Marochetti which was financed by public subscription and placed outside the houses of parliament in 1860, virtually all historians came to think of Richard as ‘a bad ruler’, an absentee king who neglected his kingdom”.

Wider public perceptions of Richard in England in the 19th century were less critical and tended to associate him more with muscular Christianity, chivalry and honour, and for many he probably carried with him broader notions about the importance of morality, religion, and the monarchy in Victorian society.

The contemporary conversation

Richard I was, of course, a famed warrior and an enthusiastic crusader. It’s his actions on campaign and in the Third Crusade, upon which he embarked not long after his 1189 succession to the throne of England, that for Dr John, make Richard a candidate for inclusion in the current statue conversation. The reaction of his contemporaries to his martial activities is particularly instructive.

“He is a figure that even in his own lifetime evoked very strong reactions, both positive and negative,” says Dr John. “There are contemporaries, including his critics, who really emphasised his bravery and his abilities as a leader, his qualities as a fighter himself, as a man of war. He was known as the Lionheart while he was still alive, and the kernel of his legend came into existence while he still lived.

“In the centuries after his death, it evolved and developed. However, there was a sense amongst some contemporaries that sometimes he waged war in a way that went beyond normal levels. As part of his efforts in Aquitaine, for example, in the 1170s, some of his opponents saw him as acting in an overly brutal, cruel way. Some critics wrote that he spent much of his time chasing around the wives and daughters of his subjects – hardly behaviour that was going to endear him to his subjects. And in terms of the financial issues, contemporaries complained time and again about the financial demands he was placing on his subjects, first to raise money to go on Crusade and then to raise funds to pay for the ransom that would see him released from the captivity of Henry VI of Germany”.

Listen to Rebecca Rist responding to listener queries and popular search enquiries about the medieval Christian campaigns in the Middle East:

There is one particular incident that is often overlooked in modern public assessments of Richard I: his treatment of hostages after the siege of Acre in 1191, as Dr John outlines: “Richard arrived in June 1191 and the crusaders captured the city in July. In the process, they captured several thousand hostages: some reports say around 3,000 Muslims were taken captive. And in the period afterwards, these hostages became bargaining chips in the negotiation between Saladin and Richard. The crusaders made several demands from Saladin for their safe return. When Saladin failed to meet them in time, this prompted Richard to take a fateful decision. So on 20 August he ordered these hostages to be marched out of the city, placed in front of the Muslim camp and executed.

“Again, this comes down to the question of perspective. Richard himself, in a letter sent back to the west in October 1191, said this was quite proper because Saladin defaulted on his agreement and, therefore, he was completely within his rights to order the deaths of these hostages.

“What’s crucial, though is that as we saw with some of Richard’s activities in Aquitaine earlier in his career, there were at least some contemporaries who believed that this was beyond the pale and exceeded normal standards. On the one hand we have Islamic chroniclers, the biographers of Saladin, who, as we might expect, saw this as a barbarous, treacherous act. But there are some Christian writers who outright decried it. Others were very anxious to shift blame away from Richard saying that this wasn’t his fault but Saladin’s, for failing to follow through on the agreement.

“In terms of where this fits in to our collective understanding and memorialisation of Richard today, I would say that this event is almost completely overlooked. What comes to the fore, what is embodied in the statue in Westminster, is the glorious, heroic, chivalrous figure. So there’s almost a collective amnesia to put to one side the bits that don’t fit that narrative and instead to focus on the aspects that do match up to it.”

On this podcast, Professor Jonathan Phillips is joined by medieval historian Dan Jones to discuss the life and legacy of the Muslim ruler Saladin:

Was there racism in the Middle Ages?

King Richard I’s actions after Acre, and the 12th-century reaction to it, opens the question about how far he stands up to the 21st-century moral compass. It also leads into the wider question of our view and understanding of the Crusades in general, and whether they should be seen in the context of racism in the Middle Ages. The work of Professor Geraldine Heng has been ground-breaking in this debate, particularly in her 2018 book The Invention of Race (a very thought-provoking read, also helpfully summarised to some extent in this online article.)

“I regard Professor Heng’s research as a really important contribution to a subject that needs to be treated very carefully,” says Dr John. “Her work is important is because it encourages us to consider not only what people did or didn’t think in the Middle Ages, but also how modern historians have gone about approaching this topic as well. So an argument that she makes that I find very convincing is that a form of racism did exist in the Middle Ages, but that modern historians writing about the Middle Ages have been very unwilling to refer to it in those terms.

“She says that historians have used euphemisms such as chauvinism or xenophobia to describe what actually we should call racism. It’s clear from the start of human history that people have noted differences between different groups and in some contexts, those differences have given grounds for discrimination. What Professor Heng points out is that while in the Middle Ages the key grounds for discrimination were indeed religion and religious difference, in some contexts those differences were seen to include physical differences as well. In other words, particularly hated groups were ascribed particular physical characteristics as part of the process of discriminating against them.

“I think we should speak of racism in the Middle Ages, while accepting that racial difference was construed in a way that doesn’t fully map onto how it’s construed today. But what Professor Heng would say is that if we use a word or term other than racism, arguably what we’re doing is an injustice both to the period of the Middle Ages and our own conversation about the relevance of that period to our own modern-day discussions on race.”

Anti-Semitic attitudes

Placing Richard I’s enthusiasm for the Crusades within the context of racist attitudes puts an entirely different spin on his reputation today. But he wouldn’t be the only medieval monarch to come under the microscope. Professor Heng’s thesis about medieval racism is particularly focused around anti-Semitism and the way that Jews in England were discriminated against, in a very extreme fashion, as a group. As she says in the web article noted above, “Rather than oppose premodern ‘prejudice’ to modern racisms, we can see the treatment of medieval Jews – including their legalised murder by the state on the basis of community rumours and lies – as racial acts, which today we might even call hate crimes, of a sanctioned and legalised kind.”

With that in mind, how should we view statues of King Henry III, the great re-builder of Westminster Abbey, who also presided over an attempt to convert the Jews of England to Christianity? Or indeed his son Edward I, who infamously expelled England’s Jews in 1290? None of these figures have yet come under the microscope of the current debate, though it should be said that there has been some discussion around a statue of Henry III’s close contemporary, King Louis IX of France, in St Louis, USA, for his role in the Crusades and his persecution of Jews. Also, a statue of Robert Bruce at Bannockburn was recently defaced, though the circumstances of that are somewhat enigmatic.

Why, then, are these medieval figures and attitudes not for the most part included in this conversation?

“On the one hand, there’s potentially the same kind of cultural dynamic that we talked about in relation to the 19th century, a tendency to regard the Middle Ages as a safer, simpler time associated more with qualities like chivalry, moral values rather than some of the more complex issues that we’ve started to talk about,” says Dr John. “I think there’s a wider issue that Geraldine Heng’s work might help us to push through, namely the fact that premodern discrimination – racism – in the Middle Ages isn’t seen in the same kind of continuum as subjects like slavery, colonialism, and imperialism. Whereas if we’re to have a conversation about the impact of subjects like the Crusades and the treatment of Jews in the Middle Ages, we might be raising some of the very same issues that are so vital in our own conversations about statues now, statues of more modern figures involved in the slave trade and so on.”

Specifically, as regards King Richard and the Westminster statue, Dr John wonders if his very English appeal is appropriate: “If we are to have a conversation about Richard in the 21st century, we might well discuss whether an icon of Englishness fully encapsulates the ideas and values of all the peoples of Britain and Ireland who are represented at Westminster. I see this issue from the perspective of someone who isn’t English. And I can see the case for arguing that, actually, an icon of Englishness in the home of British democracy might not be all that in keeping with the ideas of everyone to whom that building is important today.”

Finally, to sum up, Dr John proclaims a call to arms for us all to engage more fully with, and seek to better understand, the place of Richard I and his contemporaries within the current important conversations: “From the very start, the act of creating a statue is political. It’s a symbolic act. And above all, it’s designed to create a group identity amongst a particular set of people designed to bring a group together. So in instances like those we’ve been seeing recently, certain statues have caused controversy. The real debate behind this is the fact that these statues of past figures are invoking history in a way that causes division in the present, and that division ultimately stems from the fact people have different interpretations of the past.

“What history will tell us is that when such examples arise, when controversial statues become part of a wider conversation, it’s only right that society’s response is to hold a conversation about whether these artefacts still merit their status as cultural symbols. So we come back to our case study of Richard I and his statue at parliament. I think it’s only natural that we as a society might want to ask whether this 19th-century statue of a 12th-century figure fully matches up to what we hold to be dear about our own 21st-century society.”

David Musgrove is content director at HistoryExtra. He tweets @DJMusgrove. Read the full medieval matters blog series here


Watch the video: Top10 Πιο Περίεργες Γάτες Στον Κόσμο (July 2022).


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