Cat

The Kitten Takes Tom Thumb for a Mouse

Cat

CreaturesBackground Essay Author: Kara L. McShane
The bestiary tradition attributes two major features to cats; first, they attack mice, and second, they have excellent vision (161).  These two traits do shape the depictions of cats in medieval art and literature.  For example, Joyce Salisbury describes an image in the book of Kells which shows two cats having caught mice nibbling on a host, of which she said, “the cats in this case represent the quintessential guardians fulfilling their one expected role of keeping the mouse population under control” (65).  Cats are rare in medieval Arthuriana, and their appearances do not seem to draw on their bestiary description.  One particular cat proves a dangerous foe in a battle with King Arthur.  In the Middle English Prose Merlin, the last battle Arthur fights is against a giant, coal black demon cat.  Merlin provides the cat's backstory; when a local man goes fishing, he promises to give the first fish he catches to God.  The fish is large and wonderful, so the man decides to keep it and dedicate the second fish he catches to God, instead.  When the man fails to dedicate the first or the second fish he catches to God, God becomes angry and causes the man to catch a small black kitten, which the man takes home to deal with rats and mice.  The kitten grows into a great cat and kills the man and his family (313).  When Arthur encounters the cat, it is fully grown and terrorizing the countryside.  The text is remarkably detailed about the bites and scratches Arthur endures – as well as about the knights' shame at leaving Arthur to fight the cat alone once they see the size of its claws (313-16).  This battle is...

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