Episode 30: Felis Catus Is Your Taxonomic Nomenclature


Cats are tiny lions that live in your home. But how long have they lived with humans? Have they always had the position of respect they enjoy now? Also, what’s up with racoons? Em and Jesse discuss cats in the Middle Ages (and also other animals kept as pets, including squirrels, monkeys, and birds). We explore various poetic odes to cats written through the ages (real and apocryphal), examples of cats getting into trouble in scriptoria, and also a few digressions on James Joyce.


0/ Title ref.

1/ Ghostbusters (Dr. Venkman): “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together–mass hysteria!” https://youtu.be/SA1SxZoFmOU

2/ Cat domestication! https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/domesticated-cats-dna-genetics-pets-science

3/ CBS Sunday Morning “Are we making racoons smarter?” https://youtu.be/CnZ-8cVxhNA

Racoon GEICO commercial (there are many, here is one): https://youtu.be/gUpMoNMlCts

Interesting fact: in cities, where there is abundant food for animals like racoons and opossums, the animals start breeding year-round, rather than seasonally.

4/ Caitlin Doughty’s Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death https://www.amazon.com/Will-Cat-Eat-Eyeballs-Questions/dp/039365270X

Interview with Doughty: https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/09/10/mortician-death-caitlin-doughty-book

Webcomic Strange Planet: “Who’s a moral creature?” (i.e., dogs!) https://twitter.com/nathanwpyle/status/1233112182126235649?s=20

Strange Planet‘s vibrating creature (i.e., cat): https://twitter.com/nathanwpyle/status/1107432804822994944?s=20

Strange Planet illuminates the way we stereotypically view dogs (companions, loyal, “good” in a truly moral sense) vs the way we stereotypically view cats (aloof, solitary, untamed, amoral).

5/ Anchoresses: episode 5, especially note 3.

6/ Irina Metzler, “Heretical Cats: Animal Symbolism in Religious Discourse,” in Medium Aevum Quotidianum, vol. 59 (2009): 16–32. These stories of the cat as symbolic of the devil are from pp. 18–19.

Here is a 14th century image of the poor widow surrounded by angels and the rich man surrounded by cats (representing the evils of his life, panderers and flatterers, etc). The image is in Bibliothèque Nationale, MS fr. 312, f. 334v. The illuminator is Pierre Remiet, and the text is Vincent de Beauvais, Miroir Historial [Speculum historiale], vol. 1, 2, 4, traduction en français par Jean de Vignay. Miroir historial, vol. 1, Livres I–VIII.

See also Michael Camille, Master of Death, which is about the illuminator Remiet. This image appears in Camille on p. 157.

7/ For more on Hildegard and dogs, check out episode 29 note 27.

8/ Alain of Lille (c.1128–c.1202/3): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alain_de_Lille

Cathars: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catharism See also Metzler, p. 24.

9/ Dominicans! A dog statue in Marburg, Germany stands on a building that pre-Reformation was a Domincan monastery. This good pup is illustrating that the Dominicans are “domini canes” or “hounds of the Lord.”

The fresco “The Church Militant and Church Triumphant” in Santa Maria Novella in Florence (1365) by Andrea di Bonaiuto.

Here’s a close up: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1a/Andrea_di_Bonaiuto._Santa_Maria_Novella_1366-7_fresco_0011.jpg

Andrea di Bonaiuto: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrea_di_Bonaiuto_da_Firenze

10/ For awesome dog figurines, see episode 29 note 9.

For medieval cats licking themselves, there are many internet threads such as https://www.sadanduseless.com/funny-medieval-art/ (we are linking this for the images, not the text on the blog post!).

11/ Pietro Lorenzetti’s Last Supper in the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi (lower church): https://www.wga.hu/html_m/l/lorenzet/pietro/1/1vault/2lastsu.html (click on the image for a close up!)

Pietro Lorenzetti (c.1280–1348) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pietro_Lorenzetti

12/ Cats paw prints on a manuscript! https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/130326-animals-medieval-manuscript-books-cats-history


13/ Medieval cat pee on a manuscript!
https://medievalfragments.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/paws-pee-and-mice-cats-among-medieval-manuscripts/ (scroll down past the paw prints image)

14/ The Librarians (TV series!) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Librarians_(2014_TV_series)

15/ Students from the Rochester Institute of Technology created an imaging system: https://www.rit.edu/news/rit-students-discover-hidden-15th-century-text-medieval-manuscripts

Since this episode was recorded, a paper came out in Nature about using computers to virtually unfold complexly folded letters from pre-1830 (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-21326-w).

16/ Christopher Smart (1722–1771) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Smart
Long poem Jubilate Agno https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jubilate_Agno

The section of Jubilate Agno known as “(For I will consider) My Cat Jeoffry:” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45173/jubilate-agno

17/ “Pangur Bán” (9th century Irish poem)
Seamus Heaney translation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/48267/pangur-ban

The poem is contained in the Reichenau Primer.

18/ Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” lines 348–356: https://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/teachslf/wbt-par.htm

19/ Barbara Newman’s Chaucer parody about cats: B. Newman, ‘The “Cattes Tale”: A Chaucer Apocryphon,’ The Chaucer Review 26:4 (1992), pp. 411–23.

A Catte ther was, fulfilld of furrinesse,
And that a worthy beeste, as I may gesse
For of his herys al golden was the hewe,
And he so wys was, unnethes wolde he mewe,
But lay abedde and slepte with open ye,
Til that his frend Magnificat gan crye
Wel koude he cheere of vertu countrefete:
Nas nowher cat so swift to stele his mete.
Of milk and eek of mys he was ful fayn
But briddes loved he best, to telle yow pleyn.
Ful fetisly his tayl he gan upcaste
As any pekok proude; and atte laste.
I herde that sely beeste purr, parfay,
In verray parfit pleyn felinitee.
[Newman 411-412.]

The above article is helpfully prefaced with this note: “Chaucer was a serious poet, but he was also a comic poet, and he was rarely ‘solemn.’ Scholarship is perforce always serious, and almost always solemn as well. Here for once it is not.
Lest anyone believe everything said below, the reader is warned. The Editors” [411].

Julian of Norwich icon: https://www.trinitystores.com/artwork/julian-norwich (For more see episode 5, note 3).

20/ Petrarch (1304–1374) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petrarch

Juliana Schiesari, “Portrait of the Poet as a Dog: Petrarch’s Epistola Metrica III, 5,” in Italica Vol. 84, No. 2/3 (Summer–Autumn, 2007), pp. 162–172.

“(Not?) Petrarch’s Cat:” https://blogs.bl.uk/european/2018/12/not-petrarchs-cat.html

Petrarch can also be found in episode 2 (note 20) and (in the notes only) in episode 26, note 7.

21/ The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries  (see episode 29, note 24)

These tapestries include monkeys as pets–for example:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lady_and_the_Unicorn#/media/File:The_Lady_and_the_unicorn_Touch.jpg (mid left)

Scroll down for a close up in this article about the extent to which Algerian Jews participated in the monkey trade: http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222018000100018

22/ Blackadder III Episode 1 “Dish and Dishonesty”

(Edmund comes in with his ‘Lords’ robe)

E: Voila, Mrs. Miggins. My robes of State. My thousand pounds well spent,
I think.

M: Oooohhh, very nice! Oooohhhhhh, it’s real cat, isn’t it?

E: This is not cat, Mrs. Miggins. This is finest, leather-trimmed ermine
with gold medallion accessories.

M: Oh go on, Mr. Blackadder — it’s cat. Oooh, look, they’ve left the little
collars on!

E: (reads a collar) ‘Mr. Frisky. If found, please return to Emma Hamilton,
Marine Parade, Portsmouth’? oh God! Ah, well, who cares about a dead cat now that I’m a fat cat.

M: Oooh, you’re full of yourself today, Mr. B!

E: …which is more than can be said for Mr. Frisky.

23/ James Joyce, The Cat and the Devil

The book is actually a letter from Joyce to his grandson, not his nephew. I regret this error. Also, despite Amazon claiming copies of this are going for $300+, I routinely find copies on AbeBooks for under $25. So if you want a copy, look around. The version illustrated by Blachon is the best. I don’t know if Ellmann had anything to say about Joyce and cats, but in addition to The Cat and the Devil, Leopold Bloom (the main character of Ulysses) has a cat, so I assume Joyce liked them.

Episode 29: D’You Like Dags?


Dogs have long been reputed to be man’s best friend. But how long is “long”? The answer is close to 10,000 years (at least). Join Em and Jesse as they look back at the intertwined history of humanity and canine-ity, from Odysseus’s dog Argos to Hachiko, who waited ten years for his owner to come home from work. With some interesting discussions of famous medieval animals, including Alfonso the Wise’s pet weasel and Chanticleer the rooster.

A lady with dogs from the Alphonso Psalter
A lady with dogs from the Alphonso Psalter, c. 1284-1316 (Add MS 24686, British Library).

Annotations and Corrections

1/ 1:33 I sound confused about llamas . . . I think I am poorly remembering an argument from Guns, Germs, and Steel. [Some interesting context for Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2005/08/03/guns-germs-and-steel-reconsidered –Jesse]

2/ 2:08 Talking smack about André [Awwwwwwww.-Jesse]

Andre in my old office
He can be kind of a jerk, but he’s also very nice when he wants to be.


3/ Our alcohol episode was episode 27.

4/ 7:08 Here is the Wikipedia article about the famous silver fox domestication experiment:

5/ If you’re interested in hunting, check out the famous medieval hunting manuscript Le Livre de chasse written by Gaston Phoebus (Gaston III, Count of Foix) between 1387 and 1389. This text was translated and adapted into English as The Master of Game by Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York between 1406 and 1413.

6/ 10:11 Turnspit dogs! In England, they’re mentioned at least as early as John Caius’s 1570 De canibus Britannicis (On English Dogs)

7/ There are many references to cats and dogs in the Talmud! Here is the one Em is discussing, and in true Jewish scholarly fashion, there are two possible sayings: 1) don’t go barefoot in a house with a cat because you’ll puncture your foot with the small bones of the snakes it has killed, and 2) don’t go go into a house without a cat in the dark because there might be snakes that will get you.

“Rav Pappa said: With regard to a house in which there is a cat, a person should not enter there barefoot. What is the reason? Because the cat might kill a snake and eat it, and the snake has small bones, and if a small bone gets into one’s foot it cannot be removed, and he will be in danger. Some say that Rav Pappa said: With regard to a house in which there is no cat, a person should not enter there in the dark. What is the reason? Since there is no cat to hunt snakes, perhaps a snake will wrap itself around him without him knowing and he will be in danger.” (Pesachim 112b:10)

Here is a general romp through Talmudic references to cats: https://www.sefaria.org/topics/cats?tab=sources

8/ 12:03 Anchoresses could have cats: see episode 5 (especially note 3).

Domestication of dogs! https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-wolves-really-became-dogs-180970014/

9/ 14:58 Pompeii “Beware the Dog” mosaic!

Roman doggo statue (copy of a lost Greek statue): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molossus_(dog)#/media/File:Molossian_Hound,_British_Museum.jpg
Another Roman doggo: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/255121

Greek or Roman girl with puppy: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/248754

Greek doggo guarding owner’s tomb (in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens–Jesse can personally attest to this good doggo’s awesomeness). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Funerary_statue_of_a_dog_at_the_National_Archaeological_Museum_of_Athens_on_7_May_2018.jpg

Good Chinese doggos: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/42361

Pre-Columbian American doggos:
https://ncartmuseum.org/art/detail/dog_effigy https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pot-bellied_Dog_Figure,_Mexico,_State_of_Colima,_200_BC_-_500_AD,_ceramic,_Pre-Columbian_collection,_Worcester_Art_Museum_-_IMG_7646.JPG

Neo-Assyrian doggos: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/W_1856-0903-1509

Some of the oldest depictions of dogs, from Iran: https://www.persee.fr/doc/paleo_0153-9345_2007_num_33_1_5213

Possibly even older depictions of dogs from Saudi Arabia: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/8000-year-old-rock-carvings-may-be-earliest-depiction-domesticated-dogs-180967266/

More dogs! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_depictions_of_dogs

10/ 17:28 Historic dogs vs modern–you’ll notice that lots of the breeds in note 9 are referenced as “extinct” while still looking very recognizable! You can see a bunch of comparison photos from the early 20th century here.

11/ 19:08 Sorry about the eye thing!

HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel did a great story on dog breed (“Unnatural Selection”) in season 20 episode 4 (April 2014), but it doesn’t seem to be available for viewing anywhere. So, trigger warning on this article about the problem: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/evolution-petface-180967987/
And a more hopeful article https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/although-purebred-dogs-can-be-best-in-show-are-they-worst-in-health/

12/ 19:52 Shout out to Thong Daeng, the most famous basenji of all time, possibly.

13/ Dr. Moudhy Al-Rashid is an Assyriologist who sometimes posts about good Mesopotamian doggos on twitter.

14/ If you’re interested in sirens as funeral monuments, here are some pictures!

15/ The train station dog was an Akita named Hachiko. Don’t read that story unless you feel like crying.

16/ Book of Tobit: The dog is not integral to the story but loyally accompanies Tobit’s son Tobias on his travels (notice the brief mentions in the Wikipedia summary). The dog was interpreted as a symbol of loyalty and was a favorite feature of medieval portrayals of The Book of Tobit.
Doggo sleeping on the bed when Tobias gets married (stained glass, 1520): https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O64856/tobias-and-sara-on-their-panel-unknown/
Doggo just chilling (1415) http://ica.themorgan.org/manuscript/page/194/112314
And from 1332: https://manuscripts.kb.nl/zoom/BYVANCKB%3Amimi_mmw_10b21%3A088r_min

17/ Le Menagier de Paris (1393) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Ménagier_de_Paris
Here is the translation Goodman of Paris. Scroll down to pp. 107–108 for the stories in the podcast.

18/ Dogs protecting lost children: example 1, example 2. There are many more.

19/ St. Guinefort: I swear we discussed him, but I can’t find him in the previous episodes.

20/ The blessing of animals is held on or near St. Francis’s feast day (Oct 4th).

For more on St. Francis of Assisi, see episode 4 notes 14–17 and episode 23 note 7.

21/ The race in Siena is called the PALIO. The “pallagio” is, I assume, an off-brand Vegas hotel. It’s the only race in the world, as far as I know, where a horse that has lost its rider can still win if it finishes first.

22/ Alfonso the Wise’s Cantigas de Santa Maria.
Here is the song in question: http://csm.mml.ox.ac.uk/index.php?p=poemdata_view&rec=354

23/ Riki-tikki-tavi.

24/ The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at the Musée de Cluny.

Maltese dogs: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maltese_dog

25/ Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: the Prioress’s introduction in the General Prologue begins at line 118, and the discussion of her love of animals is lines 142–150.

Jesse: My claim here might not be true! Obviously far, far more money overall goes to charities that help humans. The discussion here is about a very specific, focused scenario (which still might not be true–the study might have skewed its data to make a point about discrimination). However, there is still a huge debate on whether it’s “immoral” to give to an animal charity “instead of” a human charity. If you want to go down this rabbit hole, feel free to Google!

Em: One thing that I believe is true is that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals predates the establishment of similar charities for the prevention of cruelty to children. (RSPCA was established in 1824, the ASPCA was established in 1866, and the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the first child protective agency in the world, was founded in 1874.

26/ For more on Marie de France (flourished 1160–1215), see episode 19 note 13.
Here is Marie’s fable “The Cock and the Fox.”

Here is Chaucer’s adaptation of Marie’s fable, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, starring the rooster Chanticleer.

27/ For more on Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) see episode 6 beginning around 34:00 and notes 17 and 23. This text is from Book 7 (“Animals”) of the Physica. Dogs are section 20 of this chapter in Priscilla Throop’s translation.

28/ A shout out to Walker-Meikle’s book Medieval Pets.

Also, see Mythbusters episode “Hair of the Dog” (season 8, episode 12) on how hard it is to trick tracking dogs.

This episode is dedicated to Edgar, Maya, and Wrigley! Shout out to Snatch for the title.

Edgar and Maya
Edgar and Maya in the back seat of a car.
Wrigley in a sweater