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A depiction of a cat from the Book of Kells

Cats in the Book of Kells

‘Authors like cats because they are such quiet, lovable, wise creatures, and cats like authors for the same reasons.’ (Robertson Davies)

The lively antics of cats, prowling, hunting and quietly sitting among the lines of the Book of Kells hold no very obvious religious symbolism. On fol. 48r a cat is shown in pursuit of a rat who is making off with what appears to be the Eucharistic bread.

Figure 1, Folio 48r, from the Book of Kells, a cat that has caught a rat with a piece of eucharistic bread in its mouth Fig 1. Fol. 48r depicts the cat catching the rat. © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin.

In popular Irish lore, cats had been created by God to restrict the mouse population on Noah’s ark, and in so doing protect the food required to sustain its passengers. In the Book of Kells these are perhaps ‘visual’ marginalia – a reflection of the everyday realities faced in the scribal environment, and the role of cats within it.

This is certainly the case in a later, early fifteenth-century Irish manuscript, the Leabhar Breac (Dublin, RIA MS 23 P 16), where in a marginal note the scribe laments that his cat has gone astray.

Figures 2 - 3, Folios 183v and 76v, from the Book of Kells, depictions of catsFig 2. Fol. 183v. © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin. Fig 3. Fol. 76v. © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin.

At the time that the Book of Kells was made domestic cats were a high-status possession, owned principally by the elite. Such was their value, that there was an entire set of laws, the Catslechtae (‘cat-sections’) outlining the fines attached to the stealing, injuring or killing a person’s cat. Penalties differed according to the talents of the cat in question. For example, a cat was worth three cows if able to purr and keep its owner’s house, grain store and kiln free of mice, but only half that if was just good at purring.

Laws even refer to names including Méone (‘little meow’) and Cruibne (‘little paws’).

Figures 4 - 5, Folios 68r and 325v, from the Book of Kells, depictions of catsFig 4. Fol. 68r. © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin. Fig 5. Fol. 325v. © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin.

Without doubt however, the most famous medieval cat was Pangur Bán. He was the ninth-century protagonist of a poem penned by an Irish scribe otherwise engaged in transcribing Latin hymns and grammatical texts preserved in a manuscript now at St. Paul’s Abbey in the Lavanttal, Austria (Riechenauer Schulheft, fol. 1v). The poem is written in the vernacular Old Irish. The translation below is by Robin Flower.

Click here to listen to Pangur Bán

Pangur Ban poem: I and Pangur Bán my cat, ‘Tis a like task we are at: Hunting mice is his delight, Hunting words I sit all night. Better far than praise of men ‘Tis to sit with book and pen; Pangur bears me no ill-will, He too plies his simple skill. ‘Tis a merry task to see, At our tasks how glad are we, When at home we sit and find, Entertainment to our mind. Oftentimes a mouse will stray In the hero Pangur’s way; Oftentimes my keen thought set, Takes a meaning in its net. ‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye, Full and fierce and sharp and sly; ‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I, All my little wisdom try. When a mouse darts from its den, O how glad is Pangur then! O what gladness do I prove, When I solve the doubts I love! So in peace our task we ply, Pangur Bán, my cat, and I; In our arts we find our bliss, I have mine and he has his. Practice every day has made, Pangur perfect in his trade; I get wisdom day and night, Turning darkness into light.

Thinking about this article:

  • Can you spot a cat in the Book of Kells?
  • What do you think cats represent in the Book of Kells?

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The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece

Trinity College Dublin

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