The story of cats and people expanded in richness and beauty during these years. The challenge in this post is to include everything relevant to cats without getting side-tracked by other events.
This stretch of human history is full of battles and other events that I will only bring in when there is a feline connection, even if that might be indirect, like the Silk Road.
A word about sources
I don’t normally use informal sources without double-checking. I did here because the human story overall is so complex; Wikipedia is also a wonderfully detailed encyclopedia of exactly the obscure kind of information I needed sometimes.
Just keep in mind that almost everything below without an academic source has not been double-checked.
Witches and cats
The biggie during this general period in the West, of course, was the witch hunts. But those didn’t just suddenly start up–such horrible episodes of mass hysteria and scapegoating never do. And that slow start is why they lasted so long.
This timeline post covers the whole interval during which the Church gradually switched over from condemning witch-burning to authorizing the Inquisition to deal with them. It’s very complex, and I have only touched on a few highlights (or low lights) as it got started.
The witch-trials that you probably have heard about, like those in Sussex and Salem, came later–in the 17th century (next time!).
Cats don’t realize just how good they have it these days.
One assumption I did make in this timeline is that most English-speakers like me already have a general idea of how Western civilization developed. So this is very lightly touched upon, and I added in some cat-related surprises from other cultures that I found.
The timeline ends in 1571 AD only because the last oar-rowed galleys were used in a battle that year. (Wik)
That really has nothing to do with cats, but it’s a significant point in the history of ships–and, as Neil Todd says, “[W]hat are water barriers to most animals become veritable highways to cats.”
This tradition of sailing with cats might be why moggies have such a varied appearance today.
Take the port of Alexandria, for instance. It was a bustling city, and since this was Ancient Egypt, there were a lot of cats around. One cat’s genes wouldn’t make much of a difference there, but smuggle that individual out and it might found a new lineage because cats were so rare elsewhere.
Geneticists can actually track down some of the domestic cat lines that developed this way after Ancient Egypt collapsed. (Kurushima; O)
This also held true after the Romans moved in. Merchants and legionnaires alike selected cats for companions based on some appealing novelty (Todd) and then carried them out of Egypt and eventually all around the world.
So what you adore most about your pet’s look might have begun long ago at some port or Roman road inn when something about a street cat caught the eye of a traveler.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Cat Chronology – 27 BC to 1571 AD
1st Century BC
100 BC: Southern Asia: Buddhist monks break with tradition to the extent of writing down the Pali canon on bark, palm leaves, and other fragile material. These texts will travel with missionaries both north into China and south across the Eastern Asian mainland and some islands. (B) (And the tradition of temple cats to protect the scrolls from rodent damage begins.)
30 BC: Anthony and Cleopatra kill themselves after Alexandria falls to Roman forces. Egypt is now a province and will go on to be the “breadbasket of Rome.”
27 BC: after some political maneuvering, Caesar’s heir Octavian becomes the Emperor Augustus and the Roman Empire begins. (A)
6 to 4 BC: Jesus is born, probably somewhere during this interval. (Wik)
1st Century AD/CE
1 AD: Silk Road trade: Silk seen for the first time in Rome. (C) (It soon becomes a popular exotic treasure among the aristocrats, just like domestic cats both East and West.)
9 AD: Roman Empire: Domestic cats are across the Alps, heading north and west with Roman legions. (O)
As cats became more popular in the empire, legionnaires would put the feline image on their shields or even name their unit after cats. (LAV) Michael Coghlan. CC BY-SA 2.0.
26-37 AD: According to some reckonings, the crucifixion of Jesus happens somewhere in this interval. (Wik)
43 AD: The Roman conquest of Britain. (A)
Mid to late 60s: The Great Fire in Rome. In the social reaction, Christians are persecuted and killed in horrific ways, including burning. (Wik) Cats are not involved–yet.
58-76 AD: China: Emperor Ming-Ti has cats imported from India for the Temple of the White Horse, where the first Chinese sutta translations are stored. (DelRW)
79 AD: Italy: A Pompeiian woman dies, holding a cat, when Vesuvius erupts and buries her town. Their skeletons will be excavated centuries later. Did she die trying to save her pet? (Cats were popular in Pompeii; long-haired cats, perhaps Persians or Angoras, appear in the mosaics of the House of the Faun (see image at top of post).) (LAV)
Silk Road trade: By the third quarter of the 1st century, Roman merchants are in parts of Asia while Chinese traders under the Han Dynasty expand westward into Central Asia. (C)
2nd Century AD/CE
Silk Road trade: The Roman Empire is now a huge market for Eastern goods. (C) The road doesn’t just run east-west, either. In 166 AD, for example, Rome sends an envoy by sea to China, and Roman and Han merchants trade goods in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). (C, LAV)
At some point in the 1st or 2nd century, a little DNA from the steppe wildcat of Central Asia – Felis silvestris ornata – gets into one cat lineage at the Red Sea port of Berinike on the Maritime Silk Road. (O)
“Felis silvestris ornata” is the only spotted member of the wildcat group. Raja Bandi. CC BY-SA 4.0.
Roman Empire: During the empire’s peak, cats are extremely popular. Roman women are called “kittens,” while children are named after cats. (LAV)
3rd Century AD/CE
China: The Han Dynasty falls. China breaks up and barbarians attack the former empire. (C) (I’m including a little Chinese history here because genetic studies show that groups of Asian cats were isolated at various times, probably because of such dynastic and social upheavals. (L) )
Roman Empire: According to Kors and Peters, quoted by Wikipedia, pagans accuse Christians of, among other things:
…accepting only the dregs of society, the most shameful people, into their assemblies and organizing dreadful, nocturnal, secret meetings (chap. 8). They practice indiscriminate sexual activity, worship the head of an ass, worship the genital organs of their priests, and initiate novices by making them kill infants and cannibalize them (chap. 9). Their rites are held in secret, and they have no temples (chap. 10). Finally they are a subversive sect that threatens the stability of the whole world…
No accusations about cats–yet.
4th Century AD/CE
330 AD: Roman Empire: With thousands of miles of imperial border to defend, and outsiders pushing in, Emperor Constantine decides to move the capital to Byzantium – renamed Constantinople – halfway between the Balkans and the Euphrates River. (A, C)
The Roman world is becoming more and more christianized. Soon Christiantity is declared the official religion. (A, C)
372 AD: Korea: Buddhism and presumably cats reach the Three Kingdoms from China. (B)
5th Century AD/CE
Domestic cats become more common in Europe and Southwest Asia. (O)
410 AD: Roman Empire: Rome sacked. The last Roman legions leave Britain. (A)
A note from the English writer G. K. Chesterton (a dog lover) is appropriate here:
The Roman legions left Britain in the fourth century [sic]. This did not mean that the Roman civilization left it; but it did mean that the civilization lay far more open both to admixture and attack…
There is one fundamental fact which must be understood of the whole of this period….The whole culture of our time has been full of the notion of `A Good Time Coming.’ Now the whole culture of the Dark Ages was full of the notion of `A Good Time Going.’ They looked backwards to old enlightenment and forwards to new prejudices…They hoped–but it may be said that they hoped for yesterday…
We may compare the man of that time, therefore, to one who has left free cities and even free fields behind him, and is forced to advance towards a forest. And the forest is the fittest metaphor, not only because it was really that wild European growth cloven here and there by the Roman roads, but also because there has always been associated with forests another idea which increased as the Roman order decayed. The idea of the forests was the idea of enchantment. There was a notion of things being double or different from themselves, of beasts behaving like men and not merely, as modern wits would say, of men behaving like beasts… (GKC)
After a few centuries, Europeans would start relighting their lamps of knowledge and culture, but this legacy of enchantment would contribute to the harm done to many unfortunately people and domestic cats.
476 AD: Roman Empire: The widely accepted date for the fall of the western Roman Empire. The eastern half – the Byzantine Empire, centered at Constantinople – is going strong. (A) (A lot of trade, and probably a lot of cats, passed through that city for centuries before it fell in wartime and Muslims brought their love of cats into it–a love that is still strong there even now, when the city is known as Istanbul.)
China: Northern and southern China are ruled by different dynasties in the 5th and 6th centuries. (B) (This is an oversimplification of a complex history during that period; again, genetic tests show that various Asian cat groups were kept apart, probably by human events, long enough to develop slightly differently from one another.)
6th Century AD/CE
538 AD: Korea: The King of Baekje sends Buddhist scrolls and other objects (presumably including cats to protect the scrolls) to Japan. For the Japanese, who practice Shintoism, this gift is controversial, but it is supported by an influential clan and eventually accepted. Forty years or so later, Buddhism will become the official religion for centuries. (B)
514 AD: Roman Empire: The Justinian Plague appears in Constantinople. Over the next two centuries it will travel throughout the Mediterranean Basin and kill at least 25 million people. (CDC)
7th Century AD/CE
610 AD: Muhammad has his revelations. (Wik)
The Arab Age of Discovery (7th to 13th century) begins. The Islamic maritime trading network links parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe. (Wik) (There is no word on the presence of cats, but given their popularity in the Islamic world since the days of Muhammad, and the recognized usefulness of ship cats, they probably were aboard these commercial ships, continuing their spread across the known world.)
China: During the T’ang Dynasty (7th to early 10th centuries) cats–many of them long-hairs brought by Persian traders–first appear as pets. They may be working animals, too. Tomb paintings from these times show small cats sitting behind hunters on horseback, just as the accompanying hunting dogs and cheetahs do! (DelRW, British Library)
692 AD: Europe: The last of three Catholic Church councils, each of which establishes merely ecclesiastical penances for devil-worship. (Wik)
Vikings: Cats at the Baltic port of Ralswiek. (O) (More on Vikings and their connection with cats in the 9th century)
8th Century AD/CE
Europe: Ship cats are now mandatory in Medieval Europe. (O)
Towards the end of this century, the first artificial canal connecting two rivers is begun (history’s verdict is still out on whether it worked). (Wik) (Canals are very cat relevant. A study tracking fur colors (Todd) showed that some are linked with the Seine and Rhône river valleys. These were connected by a complex canal system that goes back at least as far back as the 17th century. Solid colors and the blotched tabby pattern (swirls and “bull’s-eyes”) seem to have spread along this inland river short-cut between the Atlantic/North Sea and the Mediterranean. Indeed, blotched tabby seems to have started in Britain and then spread along the Seine-Rhône valleys. Cats with orange on them apparently didn’t get much of a foothold along the river route, perhaps because of the presence of so many other cats. Vikings might have had something to do with orange-colored cats being less common down here, too.)
The beautiful artwork of the Lindisfarne Gospels (710) and the Book of Kells (800) includes cats. (LAV)
785 AD: The Council of Padeborn outlaws condemning people as witches. Burning a witch is a capital crime. (Wik)
China: The T’ang Dynasty declines, and with it, the Silk Road. (C)
The Islamic Empire is at its peak, this century, stretching from Spain in the west to India’s Indus River in the east. (Wik) (And cats are very welcome here.)
9th Century AD/CE
868 A.D.: China: The Buddhist Diamond Sutta, the oldest known printed book, is published at Dunhuang. (C)
During this century, Lu Yu dedicates a poem to the cats protecting his library and tea collection. (DelRW)
Balkans: A domestic cat lineage develops here. (O)
Vikings: Vikings appear in the East Slavic confederation called Rus. Their origins are controversial, but they may have actually been an assortment of people that lived between roughly 750 and 1066 AD. (VAL) In Eastern Europe, these nomadic warrior-traders were known as Varangians, and they had an 1800-mile-long (3000 km) river route from the Baltic Sea near modern Stockholm to Constantinople. (IEU) (Relevant because the orange cat mutation developed in Asia Minor, as did the dominant white-fur mutation. These apparently appealed to Vikings, because cats with orange or orange/white fur are more common in lands the Vikings went into, including northern and western Scotland, the Faroe Islands, and perhaps as far as Iceland. (Todd) Too, we must get the domestic cat up into Scandinavia somehow – it’s possible that some Viking pets/cargo probably went feral and became forest cats. )
Europe: In France, Louis the Pious moves against sorcerers and necromancers, and in 829 AD, the Council of Paris asks that secular courts try people accused of such crimes, since the Church’s concern is more about heresy. (Wik)
In southern Germany, an Irish monk who was driven out of his homeland by Viking raids writes a poem to his cat:
Pangur, white Pangur, How happy we are
Alone together, scholar and cat
Each has his own work to do daily;
For you it is hunting, for me study.
Your shining eye watches the wall;
My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
You rejoice, when your claws entrap a mouse;
I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.
Pleased with his own art, neither hinders the other;
Thus we live ever without tedium and envy.
10th Century AD/CE
Domestic cats now widespread in Europe and Asia. (S)
Around 900 AD Europe: Official Christian doctrine, per the Canon Episcopi, is that witchcraft isn’t real; to say that it exists is a false teaching. However, secular laws, like the “dooms” of King Athelstan, proscribe “witch-crafts.” (Wik) (At first, belief in witches was folklore, not Christianity.)
China: The Sung Dynasty reunites China. (C)
999 AD: Japan: Emperor Ichijō is given a cat to celebrate his thirteenth year of rule. (Wik-Es)
11th Century AD/CE
1000-1033 AD: Europe: Unexpectedly, from the popular Christian viewpoint, the world does not end. In these anxious times, Jews and people suspected of heresy suffer.
1099 AD: The Knights Hospitaller receive papal backing. (Wik) (There were other medieval orders, including the Knights Templar, but I chose to include the Hospitallers because they were based on Malta for a while and many histories of the Chartreux and other “blue” (actually gray-appearing) fancy-cats say that “Crusaders” brought these cats out of the Holy Land. Perhaps blue domestic cats also traveled northward out of the Middle East, including the ancestors of today’s Russian Blue forest-cat fancy breed.)
12th Century AD/CE
Cat meme alert!
The … word 貓 māo cat is a homonym of 耄 mào “eighty-ninety years old”, so such paintings were a perfect gift for a birthday. Especially if they also represented a 蝶 dié butterfly, because then the names of the two figures, pronounced loud, also had the meaning 耄耋 màodié “very long old age”. (DelRW)
Around 1100 AD, long-haired cats are popular with aristocratic ladies. Cat paintings are also popular in the Sung Dynasty. (DelRW)
During this century, the Sung Dynasty breaks up into northern and southern domains. (C) (The Sung-era cat paintings shown at the above link to the Taiwan National Museum collection may be from the Southern dynasty.)
13th Century AD/CE
China: The Mongol ruler Kublai Khan conquers China and establishes the Yuan dynasty and the “Pax Mongolica.” The Silk Road flourishes and a third westward trade network, called the Northern or Steppe Route, is established. (C) (I can’t find any information on how this might be directly relevant to domestic-cat history, but it was a significant event and affected trade that probably included domestic cats for sale to aristocrats and perhaps monks.)
1211 AD: Europe:
…Gervase of Tilbury attested from personal experience to the existence of women ‘prowling about at night in the form of cats’ who, when wounded, ‘bear on their bodies in the numerical place the wounds inflicted upon the cat, and if a limb has been lopped off the animal, they have lost a corresponding member’ (Summers, 1934, p. 194).” (S)
1258 AD: Pope Alexander IV: Witchcraft is not to be investigated by the church. (Wik)
From the 13th to 17th centuries, the Hanseatic League monopolizes sea trade on the Baltic and to some extent the North Sea. (Wik) (Ship cats!)
1260 AD: Egypt: Sultan Baibars begins his rule. He will establish a cat garden in a Cairo mosque where the kitties can get daily food and water between the hours of noon and sunset. It’s still in operation today!
Africa: From the 13th to late 17th centuries, the Somali Ajuran and other Islamic sultanates and republics on the Horn of Africa dominate Indian Ocean maritime trade, with thriving commercial connections to Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, East Africa, India, and most of Asia, including possibly China. (Wik) (I wonder if the feline “Arabian Sea” race mentioned in Kurushima’s study [below in source list] are descendants of cats that jumped ship in these ports. We’ll probably never know.)
The Horn of Africa, home of the Ajuran and other Somali rulers, is a good location for trade. Skilla1st. CC BY-SA 3.0.
14th Century AD/CE
Europe: The Black Death (plague) pandemic starts in China, spreads along trade routes to Constantinople and then to Europe, where it kills an estimated 60% of the population. (CDC) (Many think that the killing of cats worsened the plague by removing controls from the rat population that supposedly carried plague-bearing fleas, but, as Walter Andrews points out, this doesn’t take into account the fact that cats have fleas, too, and they spend much more time around people than rodents do. And a 2018 study suggests that humans, not rats, may have been the carriers!)
1324 AD: The date of what some consider the first witch trial, of Alice Kyteler in Ireland. (Wik)
1326 AD: Pope John XXII okays the inquisition and prosecution of witchcraft as a heresy (but see 1484 AD “Witch-Bull” below). (Wik)
Thailand: Theravadan Buddhism has been in the region since King Asoka sent missionaries through southern Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaya in the 3rd century BC, but it reaches the capital Ayudhaya (and presumably cats are introduced there, if they haven’t already arrived) from Ceylon/Sri Lanka in the 1300s. (B) At some point between now and when the city falls to the Burmese in the 1700s, artists make a Samut Khoi with poems and paintings of local cat types that are considered either “lucky” or “unlucky”. These are some of the earliest images of several modern natural cat fancy breeds.
Cat meme alert!
One of the “lucky cats” is the Suphalak, a natural breed similar to the western Burmese fancy-cat. And Johnny the Suphalak is apparently a popular Thai meme.
He even has a movie; here’s the trailer – I have no idea what they’re saying, but the cats come in toward the end:
15th Century AD/CE
1402 AD: The Spanish Empire begins with an invasion of the Canary Islands. ( W )
1415 AD: The Portuguese empire begins with the capture of Ceuta, a key port in northwest Africa. ( W )
1453 AD: Roman Empire: The eastern Roman Empire ends with the fall of Constantinople. (C) Some sparks from this “old enlightenment” (in Chesterton’s words) fall as far away as Europe, where they help kindle the Renaissance.
Silk Road trade: The rulers of China stop allowing foreigners in. Europe’s aristocrats must now get their silk from Lyon, in France. (C)
1428 AD: Europe: Witch trials in the Western Alps. The persecution spreads in parts of France and Switzherland. (Wik)
1478 AD: The Spanish Inquisition begins. (Wik)
1484 AD: Pope Innocent VIII issues the “Witch-Bull,” recognizing the existence of witches and giving the Inquisition full authority to deal with them. (Wik)
The European Age of Discovery starts, running from the 15th through the 17th centures. First the Portuguese and then the Spanish set off on long-distance voyages. (Wik) (All according to the ship cats’ plan for world domination!)
1492 AD: Columbus reaches the New World. (Wik)
1497 AD: Cabot explores part of eastern North America. (Wik)
1498 AD: Vasco de Gama reaches India. (Wik)
16th Century AD/CE
1501 AD: Persia: The Safavids revive Persia/Iran as an economic power in between East and West. The southern Silk Road becomes active again, but the Persians also enjoy direct maritime trade with Europe, especially England and the Netherlands, where business is brisk in silk and textiles as well as Persian carpets. (Wik) (No mention of cats as cargo, but they were probably included.)
1514 AD: New World: Diego de Almagro arrives in Panama. Just before he embarks on his conquest of Chile in 1535, he will give “one Montenegro, who presented him with the first Spanish cat that ever came to the Indias,” 600 pieces of eight. (Ovalle, emphasis added) (Some say this was a purchase, but in context it looks like a gift. Almagro apparently really liked the cat!)
It is very difficult to track down the domestic cat’s history in Latin America. (P) One genetic study suggests that cats arrived at different times, from different backgrounds. (R) Lozano notes that dogs and cats were not native to the New World and they went feral after arriving here.
1521 AD: Europe: Longhaired cats are documented in Europe.
1533 AD: The French writer Montaigne is born. In his 1595 book of essays, he will write of an experience that all cat lovers have shared:
When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me. We entertain each other with reciprocal monkey tricks. If I have my time to begin or to refuse, so has she hers.
1534 AD: The explorer Cartier claims part of eastern North America for France. (Wik)
Witch hunts become more common in Europe.(Wik)
1542 AD: England’s Parliament passes the first Witchcraft Act, making it a capital crime. (Wik)
1543 AD: The Far East: The Portuguese make contact with Japan. During the 16th century, China’s Ming Dynasty will also do business with Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch traders. (Wik)
1547 AD: Russia: Ivan IV (a/k/a the “Terrible” or the “Formidable”) is crowned Tsar. He will go on to transform his Muscovy powerbase into the transcontinental state we see as Russia today. (Wik) (Ivan the Terrible was certainly no friend of cats–understatement of all time!–but that has changed now. A 2017 study found that Russians own more cats than anyone else in the world!)
And cats are sometimes hailed as heroes there. This one saved a human newborn.
1562 AD: Europe: On August 3rd, a freak snowstorm hits the city of Wiesensteig, Germany. The end result: 67 women executed for witchcraft. From this point, European witch hunts start kicking into high gear. ( W )
1571 AD: The Age of Sail begins.
Featured image: Roman mosaic of a cat from Pompeii’s House of the Faun.
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