Medieval cat blogging

Whilst up a scaffold erected around the South Porch of Cirencester Parish Church (it’s being repaired, admirably), I managed to catch a glimpse of this creature. Despite having something of a demonic character, I believe it’s a cat. It brought to mind a feline description provided by Bartholomaeus Anglicus, writing about two hundred and fifty years before this specimen was carved in the late-fifteenth century:

He is a full lecherous beast in youth, swift, pliant, and merry, and leapeth and reseth on everything that is to fore him: and is led by a straw, and playeth therewith: and is a right heavy beast in age and full sleepy, and lieth slyly in wait for mice: and is aware where they be more by smell than by sight, and hunteth and reseth on them in privy places: and when he taketh a mouse, he playeth therewith, and eateth him after the play. In time of love is hard fighting for wives, and one scratcheth and rendeth the other grievously with biting and with claws. And he maketh a ruthful noise and ghastful, when one proffereth to fight with another: and unneth is hurt when he is thrown down off an high place. And when he hath a fair skin, he is as it were proud thereof, and goeth fast about: and when his skin is burnt, then he bideth at home; and is oft for his fair skin taken of the skinner, and slain and flayed.

This is from the monk’s book of medieval lore, De Proprietatibus Rerum, and it seems to me to delight in the catness of cats as much as the sculpture adorning the South Porch.

Mind you, the stone version looks more like the now-extinct wildcat to me, rather than its domestic cousin – its extravagant claws, bushy tail and general fierceness may be clues. As does its creeping down a column from whose neighbour hangs a rather prone sheep.

Wool funded the construction of the South Porch – originally, a free standing administrative centre for the local Cirencester Abbey (and so a sort of medieval office building) – as well as much else. Its monastic builders belonged to one of the biggest and richest foundations in the country. However, their position wasn’t unchallenged: the guide told me that the South Porth is so impressively decorated as it was intended to overawe the recently revolting townsfolk.

It may be that the wildcat clung on in the remote Cotswolds into the fifteenth century. Perhaps it took the odd lamb, or at least such events lived on in memory. If so, the importance of the abbey in securing the locality’s flocks – and not just those made up of sheep – was underlined by our minatory feline.

Anyway, sheltered as he is from the weather by the overhang of an oriel window, this particular wildcat lives on, after five centuries, still ready to pounce. Lol.

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16 thoughts on “Medieval cat blogging

    March 7, 2011 at 16:06

    what a lovely gargoyle-y type thing! do they have proper wildcats in scotland any more, or are those just escaped domestic cats gone feral?

    March 7, 2011 at 16:19

    Wild cats certainly do exist in Scotland, although liasons with feral domestic cats are probably making them less ‘different’. It’s worth looking at this wild cat website, though, not just in case you feel the need to say ‘Awwww!’ (although if you do, scrolling down to the bottom of the page will be a great help to you) but also because the wild cats, as they are pictured and described on the website, look much more like Gaw’s medieval creature than does any domestic cat I’ve ever seen.

    Anyway, great post, Gaw – very Oliver Rackham-relevant!

    March 7, 2011 at 17:02

    Excellent post. Funnily enough I was staring at the scaffolded and sheeted porch just the other day, wondering which bits of it I might be able to photograph and blog about! Since I didn’t go up the scaffold I didn’t find this beast and so just admired the fan vaulting in the entrance passage. If there are regular cat-viewing sessions I must return.

    • Gaw
      March 7, 2011 at 17:10

      When I went up they were doing guided tours on Wednesday and Friday between 10am and 3pm. No need to book.

      There’s much more to see. It would be wonderful if you did go up – and wrote a post as I’d really be interested to read your expert appreciation!

  4. Gaw
    March 7, 2011 at 17:16

    What a fantastic wild cat website – some great photos there. And thanks, Bunny, for mentioning me in the same sentence as the blessed Oliver!

    • Gaw
      March 8, 2011 at 08:47

      I’m afraid not.

    john halliwell
    March 8, 2011 at 08:48

    I’m glad the cat is carved. If it had been metal it would have ended up in the back of a van with half a ton of lead and copper.

    March 10, 2011 at 00:28

    Had I only seen this sooner, I’d have known that ‘lol’ is acceptable at the Dabbler – although I still have no idea what it means. Beautiful cat – I think it’s a pity no-one can grow up to be a gargoyle carver now. It must have been a pleasant life in its day.

  7. Gaw
    March 10, 2011 at 07:08

    Not sure about lol – lots of laughs? I suggest you try googling it.

    There are proper gargoyle carvers around. There’s a debate currently underway between SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) and English Heritage about what to do with the badly weathered statuary on the South Porch. One party wants to replace the unreadable pieces with brand new carvings whilst the other wants to leave them in place (not sure which is which).

    Personally, I would replace the ones that are simply stumps but not the ones that still retain some original features and can be interpreted to some degree. I’m in favour of conservation rather than preservation and believe we need to keep traditional skills alive. Sometimes this should be achieved by continuing the work of the original masons and builders.

    But there are people who read this blog who know a lot more than me about this subject…

  8. Worm
    March 10, 2011 at 08:09

    LOL means ‘laughing out loud’

    Gaw, don’t get me started on English Heritage, my father had a ‘preservation versus conservation’ run-in with them that went on for years and was totally barmy! (and which was paid for by the taxpayer, naturally)

  9. Brit
    March 10, 2011 at 09:06

    Blimey, did you two really not know that LOL means ‘laugh out loud’?

    Impressive that you’ve been blogging so long and still managed to maintain ignorance of the basic lingo.

    March 10, 2011 at 10:26

    But when would you ever want to say that? Have you ever ended a sentence in a conversation with ‘lots of laughs’ or ‘laugh out loud’ (whichever it is, and it does appear to be two against one [plus, I have the slight impression that Worm may be the one with his finger more on the pulse of trend than any of the bloggers I know so I think I’m probably going with his interpretation)? It’s never entered my mind to say either of those things, but people write me emails, with lol at the end of all sorts of things – usually, now that I know what it means (I think), fairly inappropriate things actually. I’m still baffled.

    As to gargoyles, I agree, Gaw, I wouldn’t replace any that remained faintly recognisable. What makes me sad really is the loss of the pleasure of employment as a skilled craftsman involved in the construction of handmade buildings – no-one can have a happy time spending their life doing that any more. Or very few people can. And there is also the loss of those kinds of buildings, which enrich the world, but are being replaced by the architectural equivalent of Ikea furniture. Could we even manage to create a great cathedral these days -as in, a great medieval cathedral? My problem is I only really like buildings that bear the traces of a team of craftsmen at work. My favourite kind of house is one that appears to have been cobbled together – like the ones in Fournier Street in Spitalfields. I went into one of those once, and you practically had the idea you could have put up the walls yourself – where there’d been gaps, someone had just wedged in a bit of extra wood. On the other hand, the banisters and staircase and wainscoting were all beautifully crafted. The whole building breathed people rather than machines

      March 10, 2011 at 10:39

      Z, trust me. It’s ‘laugh out loud.’ The reason you wouldn’t need to say it in normal life is that you’d be laughing out loud and thus your merriment would be obvious. Whereas in cyberspace it needs to be signalled.


    March 10, 2011 at 22:38

    We used to put ‘LOL’ on the back of letters to our boyfriends when I was at school. In those days it meant ‘lots of love’. In recent years I couldn’t understand why people kept punctuating their sentances with ‘Lots of Love’. I wish it still did mean that (she remembers fondly….)

    March 12, 2011 at 10:02

    Wartime Housewife – SWALK

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