We are all well aware that the Egyptians thought of cats as gods while the late Medievalists thought of them as witches' familiars. But what about the Early Medieval period - Anglo-Saxon England? What side did they take then?
For the cats, any human settlement means scraps of food, warmth, shelter. Wherever a farming community sets up, cats will move in. Crops provide food for rodents as well as people, so cats were - are - always valuable pest controllers. Archaeological evidence has shown where people gather, so do cats.
But during the Dark Ages was this symbiotic relationship welcome?
Kristopher Poole, from my old university, the University of Nottingham, carried out research into this topic and published the findings in 2014. Cat bones were found in York and the evidence suggests that the cats were skinned indicating that there was some who used cat fur.
Poole says, “It would therefore seem that there was at least some commercial exploitation of cat furs in towns, although exactly how extensive this was is uncertain. Notably, none of the cut marks on cat bones from this period indicate that the cat was seen as a food source.”
Cats being cats they ensured that humans didn't have it all their own way. Poole says, “There are clear examples of cats acting in ways which conflicted with human desires. In some cases, the cat may be involved in the ‘theft’ of food. Irish law codes from the seventh to eighth centuries mention the recompense a cat’s owner must pay to another human if their animal had stolen their food.
Equally, in a situation familiar today, cats could defecate in unacceptable places, such as on the rushes of a floor. This was also dealt with under seventh to eighth century Irish law, with the cat owner having to compensate the landowner.”
Of course, cats have an appeal to many people and they were kept as companions or pets. We know this from texts written at the time, such as the poem Pangur Bán, attributed to a nameless Irish monk about a cat called White Pangur, that cats were given names presumably because they were kept as pets.
In tapestries and illuminated manuscripts cats were used as decoration, often depicted hunting but also in domestic household scenes. Sometimes they were doing some really odd things though. This shows that folk saw cats as fascinating creatures. Or maybe they were worried in case the cats became offended and stole their food.
Or, if you believe some stories, stole their breath while they were sleeping.