To Western eyes, the above picture is adorable. But in Japanese cultural history, it is the dread Nekomata, and the image is part of a 1737 illustration of a hundred monsters.
Western portrayals of “bad” cats were surprisingly adorable in the early modern period, too:
There is Eve, offering Adam the apple in the presence of a cat, not the traditional serpent. And a devilish goat looks on, quite pleased with itself.
The domestic cat’s round, baby-like face; its sensuousness and rather disconcerting combination of beauty, cunning, and carnivory; its blatant sex cravings; and perhaps most of all, our inability to ever know exactly what a cat is thinking–all of these combined down through the centuries into quite a body of scary legends.
These range from monsters like the Nekomata in Japan and cat curses in China to outright persecution in the West.
Fortunately, domestic cats are the “of course” of human history – they seem to be everywhere, not just at the focus of superstition and moral panics. Artists both East and West have always loved them.
No one knows the full details of how cats completed their journey out of Egypt into the wide world.
The biggest missing piece of this feline puzzle is what happened after cats reached the New World in the 16th century.
As we saw last time, conquistadors had cats as early as 1514.
Modern research shows that native people in the Caribbean and Latin American lowlands don’t share the European idea of proper boundaries between humans and animals. In this view, both animals and people can be either wild or tame. The idea of “domestication” doesn’t exist. (N)
Not that the conquistadors cared what the native residents of the New World thought. Cats were introduced and went feral or were accepted and used by local people. It would be fascinating to uncover the details of that process, though.
This last timeline in the series covers the European witch hunts, as well as a few relevant events during what historians call “the Scientific Revolution” and “the Age of Sail.” It ends with the founding of the modern cat fancy in 1871, at the Crystal Palace cat show in London.
Cat Chronology – 1571 to 1871 AD
1578: North America: Contemporary accounts describe 100 Spanish ships, 20-30 Basque whalers, about 150 French and Breton ships, and 50 English ships fishing the waters off the Newfoundland coast. (M&C) (Presumably most of those ships have cats aboard for pest control and companionship; they may have stopped ashore, though no one knows exactly when the domestic cat first reached North America.)
1580-1588: Europe: At some point during these eight years, a French statesman and essayist writes what modern philosopher Jacques Derrida calls “one of the greatest pre- or anti-Cartesian texts on the [cat].”
When I play with my cat, who knows whether I do not make her more sport than she makes me? we mutually divert one another with our monkey tricks: if I have my hour to begin or to refuse, she also has hers.
— Michel de Montaigne, in “Apology for Raimond Sebond”
(Cartesian refers to René Descartes, born in 1596. Besides mathematics, he is also famous for his philosophy – “I think therefore I am” (“Cogito ergo sum”) – and scientific work. Urban legends that he or his followers threw a cat out of a window to prove that it had no feelings are not true. Descartes apparently was well aware that animals feel such things as pain, anger, and fear. He compared them to machines, but he also called the human body a machine. The Cartesian view that changed how Westerners relate to animals was this: animals are incapable of abstract or generalized thought. (Cottingham)
Combine this with a hierarchal world view in the West (the “Great Chain of Being”) that puts humans above animals, add in a very narrow interpretation of the Biblical word rādâ that focuses on despotic domination rather than the word’s additional meaning of careful handling of a trust (P&F), and you get people doing some terrible things to animals guilt-free during the 17th and early 18th centuries, like scientific experimentation without anesthesia or working a horse to death.
Not everybody was on board with this, but concern for animal welfare didn’t begin to go mainstream until the 1750s.)
1580-1630: The peak years for European witch-hunts. This panic was much more complex than it seems to many of us today. Tens of thousands of people were executed, and of course no one knows how many cats suffered along with them. Here is Wikipedia’s list of trials.
1583: Italy: St. Philip Neri reportedly leaves his cat in Rome when told by the pope to relocate to another monastery. Supported by the saint’s followers, she outlives her master and becomes one of the city’s most famous cats.
Cats are protected by law in Italy today. Here is a video from a cat sanctuary in Rome. (There are several versions on YouTube — I think this is the original.)
1588: Europe: The Spanish Armada is destroyed off the coast of England. ( W ) (This is relevant because of the lore on the Isle of Man that the famous Manx cat is descended from cats that swam ashore at Spanish Head, along with a few Spanish sailors. Unfortunately, there isn’t any evidence to back this up.)
1598: England: Winchester holds a cat show. There isn’t a lot of documentation about this event, but some online sources claim that it was performance based, with live rodents released and cats awarded prizes for “best ratter” and “best mouser.” (Hartwell)
1606: Australia: Europeans arrive. ( W ) (Presumably accompanied by ship cats–a type of carnivore that the local wildlife has never seen before, thanks to this continent’s multi-million-year isolation. It’s another setup for mass extinction, like the one that might have occurred there when the first humans arrived, accompanied by dogs, at least 4000 years ago.)
Europe: During this century, Dutch painters, known for their realism, show cats and people living together more or less peacefully.
In England, 1606 may be the year that Shakespeare’s Macbeth is first performed. One of the witches in that play calls to her familiar spirit – a cat.)
Meanwhile, in the Tower of London, Trixie the cat keeps her friend Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of South Hampton, company.
1607 – North America: Jamestown becomes the first English settlement in the New World. ( W )
1618-1648: Europe: The Thirty-Years war devastates Europe. Some 8 million people are killed. ( W )
1624-1642: In France, Cardinal Richelieu, a cat lover, centralizes his power. ( W )
1627: Aurochs – the wild ancestors of domestic cattle – go extinct. ( W ) (Apparently no one missed them. It’s a different situation today, when conservationists worry about domestic cats causing a genetic extinction of their ancestors, the wildcats.)
1630: North America: The Massachusetts Bay Colony is established. ( W ) (There is no evidence that the Pilgrims had cats aboard the “Mayflower” – documents do show dogs. It’s probably safe to assume that there were ship-cats and that some probably joined the settlements on land.)
1642: New Zealand: Europeans arrive. (Same note as for Australia, above. The long geographic isolation of this land and Australia has protected wildlife from placental carnivores like cats and dogs..)
1644-1647: England: While jury trials are suspended during the Civil War, witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne “discover” at least 300 witches, who are executed. Hopkins’ book The Discovery of Witches is quite popular and has an effect in the colonies. ( W )
Starting in 1650, witch-hunts start to decline in Europe. Though there are occasional flares of mob violence and lynchings, upper-class support for belief in witches is no longer present. ( W )
1658: Edward Topsell gives a detailed scientific description of the domestic cat in The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents. (W&W)
That amazing cat had lost all its fur. Pepys describes it as “a poor cat” but gives no further information on its injuries or chances for recovery.
1692-1693: North America: The Salem witch trials. Tituba claims that a red cat and a black cat are among the spirits she has seen telling her to hurt the girls. ( W )
1697: Europe: “Puss in Boots” is published as one of the Stories of Tales of Past Times with Morals: Tales of Mother Goose.
Around 1700, Isaac Newton invents the cat flap so his pet ktty can come and go without letting in the weather through an open hole in the door.
1727: France: François-Augustin de Paradis de Moncrif writes the first book about cats, Les Chats, later called Histoire des Chats. He was ridiculed at the time, but the book is still in print today. (LAV)
1730: Workers riot and kill their owner’s cats. (LAV) (This is called “The Great Cat Massacre,” but it is relatively small in scale compared to some of the horrible persecutions of cats in the West that I came across while researching this post.)
1735: England: According to a new Witchcraft Act, witchcraft is no longer a legal offense. ( W )
1745: Elizabeth of Russia orders cats to be installed for pest control in the Hermitage. ( W )
Cats are still on the job there.
Europe: Starting around 1750, popular support for kindness to animals increases.
Methinks I hear my little Doctor pouring forth all his rhetoric and logic upon an abstruse question…that “all the animal functions and operation of the brute-creation…were entirely owing to the operation of evil spirits, who are the moving principle in every one of them”…Sweet Miss Jenny, who has lavished away more kisses upon her favourite cat, than she would bestow upon the best man in the parish, felt some compunction within herself, that she had been wantonly, and almost maliciously, throwing away those caresses upon an evil spirit, whic many a good Christian would have been glad of.
— Rev. John Hildrop, 1742, with heavy sarcasm intended
1758: Linnaeus publishes the first scientific description and categorization of the domestic cat.
1798: Japan: The artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi is born. Cats will be one of his most popular themes, including paintings of cats arranged to spell out “catfish,” illustrating proverbs, and a homage to Hiroshige’s “50 Stations of the Tokaido.” ( W )
An 18th century law forbids imprisonment or trade of cats. ( Wik-es)
Over 50 million people leave Europe for the Americas during this century. ( W ) (Presumably some of them have pet cats; also, the incidence of ship-cats going ashore may have increased along with this boost in the number of voyages.)
1801-1803: Australia: Trim the cat circumnavigates the continent while his owner maps the coastline. ( W )
1805: England: The battle of Trafalgar ensures British dominance of the sea from this point on. ( W ) (Relevant because a study by Todd shows that the blotched tabby pattern (swirls and “bull’s-eyes”) in domestic cats, which probably originated in Britain, spread across the world with British expansion.)
1805: Europe: Astronomer Joseph Jérôme Lefrançois de Lalande adds a domestic cat to the celestrial lions and lynx when he formally announces, in his book Bibliographie Astronomique, the constellation Felis. Lalande often invented new constellations, sometimes while under the influence, and Felis doesn’t last very long.
1810: Australia: Macquarie Island is discovered. (Relevance.)
1822: England: Parliament passes the first animal abuse bill. (P)
1825: Europe: The cat duet is first performed, a compilation of opera melodies, probably by Rossini. ( W )
Seriously, they even were doing this in the early 19th century!
1840s to 1850s: “French cats,” preferably white ones, are very popular long-haired pets in Britain. (Weir)
1859: Ireland: A cat show possibly was held in Dublin. (Hartwell)
New England: Farmers show their beautiful long-haired cats during county fairs and exhibitions – the cats are known as either “Maine cats” or “coon cats” (from a legend that they come from a cat-raccoon ancestor). (Hartwell, Simpson)
No one actually knows where or when the Maine Coon’s European ancestors reached the New World.
1871: England: The Crystal Palace cat show.
And so it all began . . .
Featured image: Nekomata, 1737. Source.
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