Why Cats Are Responsible For All Of English Literature (Really!)

by Mimi Matthews

“I knewe these things wil seem mervelous to many men, that Cats should understand and speak, have a governour among themselves, and be obedient to their Lawes…” (Beware the Cat by William Baldwin, 1570.)

In the year 1553, during the reign of Edward VI, printer’s assistant William Baldwin penned the first English novel ever written: Beware the Cat. Before this time, all works of fiction in English of short-story length or longer were not original texts. They were translations or adaptations from other languages, such as French or Latin.

Publication of Beware the Cat was delayed for seventeen years as a result of Queen Mary’s ascension to the throne. She was a Roman Catholic monarch and Baldwin’s novel contained subtle but pervasive anti-Catholic satire. According to the scholarly journal Church History, Studies in Christianity and Culture:

“The episodes in Beware the Cat satirize Roman Catholic Observances, the belief in oral tradition, the efficacy of the sacrifice of the mass, and adoration of images.”

Elizabeth I, Darnley Portrait, 1575Elizabeth I, Darnley Portrait, 1575

Beware the Cat was finally published in 1570 during the reign of Elizabeth I. It is set in London and begins with Baldwin describing a Christmas evening wherein he shared a room with several gentlemen, one of whom was Master Streamer. An argument ensued. As Baldwin explains:

“…there fel a controversie between maister Streamer (who with Maister Willot had already slept their first sleep) and mee that was newly come unto bed, the effect wherof was whether Birds and beasts had reason.”

Master Streamer argues that birds and beasts do, in fact, have reason. He claims to know this from first hand experience:

“Wel quoth maister Stremer I knowe what I knowe, and I speak not onely what by hearsay of some Philosophers I knowe: but what I my self have prooved.”

It transpires that Master Streamer is able to hear and understand the language of cats. His somewhat unreliable narration (bookended by Baldwin’s own) encompasses the telling of several tales, including that of the cat Grimalkin:

“And on a time as he rode through Kank wood, about certain busines, a Cat (as hee thought) leaped out of a bush before him and called him twise or thrise by his name, but because he made none answere, nor spake (for hee was so afraid that hee could not) she spake to him plainly twise or thrise these woords folowing. Commend mee unto Titton Tatton, and to Pus thy Catton, and tel her that Grimmalkin is dead.”

pope clement vii by sebastiano del piombo 1531Pope Clement VII by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1531

Baldwin’s use of the name Grimalkin is one of the first known uses in print. The Grimalkin in his story is a giant cat of monstrous appetite, “much esteemed” by all of her kind. Baldwin wastes no time in comparing this rapacious Grimalkin to the Pope of Rome. He writes:

“Which Pope all things considered, devoureth more at every mele then Grimmalkin did at her last supper.”

Baldwin goes on to say:

“But as touching this Grimmalkin: I take rather to be an Hagat or a Witch then a Cat. For witches have gone often in that likenes, And therof hath come the proverb as trew as common, that a Cat hath nine lives, that is to say, a witch may take on her a Cats body nine times.”

woman with a cat by bacchiacca 1540sWoman with a Cat by Bacchiacca, 1540s

In the 13th century, a woman of low class was often referred to as a malkin. Baldwin references this in his novel, writing: “For Malkin is a womans name as witnesseth the proverb there be mo maides then Malkin.” The word malkin evolved, eventually becoming a common word for cat. Adding the prefix “gri-” for gray, the name Grimalkin or Graymalkin is, quite simply, a gray cat. A harmless appellation at its core, but one that has frequently come to be associated with witches, witchcraft, and the supernatural.

In Scottish legend, the Grimalkin is a cat that takes the shape of a human by day and a panther by night. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, one of the three witches calls out the name Grimalkin when summoning her familiar:

“I come Graymalkin!”

contentment by henriette ronner knipContentment by Henriette Ronner-Knip (1821-1909)

And in 19th century Gothics and poetry, the name Grimalkin is used to conjure all sorts of imagery – from the sinister to the satirical. One such example of this is the 1806 poem Grimalkin’s Ghost. It tells the story of a drowned cat and her five kittens who arise from their watery grave to seek revenge upon their master. I have included it here in its entirety. Make of it what you will.



JONAS lay on his bed, so my tale does relate,
And queer were the notions that roam’d in his pate,
When the clock on the staircase struck one.
His door it flew wide, and a light sill’d the room:
“Oh, mercy! what now is my horrible doom?”
Thought Jonas — but speech he had none.
He look’d through his fingers, and, strange to declare,
He saw such a sight as his senses did scare,
A cat, with five kits in her train;
“Ah, monster!” she cried, ‘twixt a scream and a mew,
“You thought you had drown’d us, but, woe unto you,
Our spirits have risen again.
“We shall haunt you by day, we shall haunt you by night,
Behind and before, at your left, and your right;
No comfort shall you ever know.
What harm had we done you? dark monster, declare;
Though each had nine lives, you not any would spare;
But doom’d us to perish, oh! oh!
“But vengeance is ours — lo! we wreak it on you.”
The five little kittens cried — “Mew, mew, mew,”
And jump’d on poor Jonas’s bed;
They rear’d on their hind legs, they danc’d on his chest,
With their cold tender paws, on his windpipe they press’d,
And play’d at bo-peep round his head.
Of a sudden they ceas’d, he just ventur’d to peep;
But better for him had he still seem’d asleep,
For horrid the sight he beheld:
The angry mamma like a leopard was grown,
Her large sea-green eyes fiercely gleam’d on his own,
And her tail was enormously swell’d.
“O murd’rer!” she scream’d, with a cattish despair,
“I am doom’d after death in your torments to share.
Or vengeance the fates will deny.
Round the brink of a well, such the sentence decreed,
After five spectre kittens you swiftly proceed,
Whilst I spit at your heels as you fly!!!”

woman with cat by lilla cabot perry 1848 1933Woman with Cat by Lilla Cabot Perry, (1848-1933)

On that dramatic note I will close this article, except to say that it is no minor point of literary history that the very first English novel was written about cats. Knowing this, I hope that the next time you are readingJane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, or A Tale of Two Cities, you will give your own cat an extra pet or two. After all, without the feline influence, where would English Literature be today?

This post originally appeared on mimimatthews.com and is reprinted with permission.

Top photo: A Naturalistic Cat by Louis Wain, (1860–1939)

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