Was the human-feline relationship in Anglo-Saxon times very different from today? Researchers look to the archeological record for clues.
By Zazie Todd
(Photo: Monty Fresco Jnr/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Research by Kristopher Poole of the University of Nottingham investigates the role of cats in Anglo-Saxon England. The period from 410 C.E. until the Norman invasion of 1066 was a time of great change. The Roman Empire had lost its control and many people immigrated to England, particularly from northern Europe. The urban population grew as small towns developed, and the spread of Christianity brought changes in people’s belief systems. What kind of relationship did people have with cats during this time?
Fur is probably not the first thing you think of, but evidence from bones suggests that some cats — especially young ones — were used for fur. It isn’t known if the cats were bred for this or if they were captured. Cat bones found at Coppergate in York suggest the cats were skinned. “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,” Poole says. “Notably, none of the cut marks on cat bones from this period indicate that the cat was seen as a food source.”
Mousing is an obvious use for cats, and was probably especially important in the urban areas. A 10th century Welsh text, The Laws of Hywel Dda, mentions this role when it describes what is important in a cat: “that it do not devour its kittens, and that it have ears, eyes, teeth and claws, and that it be a good mouser.” Mousers were probably not fed much in order to keep them hungry for their work.
“Notably, none of the cut marks on cat bones from this period indicate that the cat was seen as a food source.”
And it seems that some cats were kept as pets. One source of evidence is that individual cats are given names in texts from the time. A famous example of this is the 9th-century poem “Pangur Bán,” written by an Irish monk and found in an Austrian monastery, about a cat called white Pangur (see here for two translations).
There is also evidence in the bones. At a place called Bishopstone in East Sussex, evidence from isotopes shows that one cat had regularly eaten a diet containing fish, while the other two cats found there had not. So it appears this particular cat was deliberately fed by humans, and therefore perhaps kept as a pet.
But as we all know, cats have a mind of their own. “There are clear examples of cats acting in ways which conflicted with human desires,” Poole says. “In some cases, the cat may be involved in the ‘theft’ of food. Irish law codes from the 7th to 8th 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 7th to 8th century Irish law, with the cat owner having to compensate the landowner.”
The research looks at two key types of evidence, the archaeological evidence from bones, and writings from that time. Neither gives a perfect picture, especially since cat bones are small and may have been missed at some sites, while textual sources relate to societal elites rather than everyday experience. But, taken together, these materials provide an interesting picture of the role of cats in Anglo-Saxon England.
Domestic cats (whether actually domestic or feral) were the main type of cat in England during this time and were likely brought to England during the Iron Age or possibly earlier. Lynx were also present, since a lynx skeleton from this period was found in Kinsey Cave, Yorkshire. There were wild cats too, mostly in rural areas, and it is possible they interbred with domestic cats to some extent.
Old English differentiates between male and female cats (cat and catte respectively). It seems unlikely that specific cat breeds existed, although cats will have come in different colors since Irish texts from this time refer to cats that are white, grey, ginger, and black with white.
Archaeological sites show cat bones in very small numbers compared to those of other animals such as cattle, sheep, horses, and even dogs. Nonetheless, cats seem to have existed at most human settlements, and especially in urban environments.