What was the Role of Cats in Anglo Saxon England?

Fascinating new research investigates what the archaeological record tells us about people and cats in Anglo Saxon times. Was the human-feline relationship very different from today?

The historical role of cats in Anglo Saxon England
Photo: aleksandr hunta / Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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New research by Kristopher Poole (University of Nottingham) investigates the role of cats in Anglo Saxon England. The period from AD 410 until the Norman invasion of 1066 was a time of great change. The Roman Empire had lost its control and many people immigrated to England, particularly from northern Europe. The urban population grew as small towns developed, and the spread of Christianity brought changes in people’s belief systems. What kind of relationship did people have with cats during this time?

Fur is probably not the first thing you think of, but evidence from bones suggests that some cats – especially young ones – were used for fur. It isn’t known if the cats were bred for this or if they were captured. Cat bones found at Coppergate in York suggest the cats were skinned. Poole says, “It would therefore seem that there was at least some commercial exploitation of cat furs in towns, although exactly how extensive this was is uncertain. Notably, none of the cut marks on cat bones from this period indicate that the cat was seen as a food source.”

Mousing is an obvious use for cats, and was probably especially important in the urban areas. A tenth century Welsh text, The Laws of Hywel Dda, mentions this role when it describes what is important in a cat: “that it do not devour its kittens, and that it have ears, eyes, teeth and claws, and that it be a good mouser”. Mousers were probably not fed much, in order to keep them hungry for their work. 

And it seems that some cats were kept as pets. One source of evidence is that individual cats are given names in texts from the time. A famous example of this is the ninth century poem Pangur Bán, written by an Irish monk and found in an Austrian monastery, about a cat called white Pangur (see here for two translations).

There is also evidence in the bones. At a place called Bishopstone in East Sussex, evidence from isotopes shows that one cat had regularly eaten a diet containing fish, while the other two cats found there had not. So it appears this particular cat was deliberately fed by humans, and therefore perhaps kept as a pet. 

But as we all know, cats have a mind of their own. Poole says, “there are clear examples of cats acting in ways which conflicted with human desires. In some cases, the cat may be involved in the ‘theft’ of food. Irish law codes from the seventh to eighth centuries mention the recompense a cat’s owner must pay to another human if their animal had stolen their food. Equally, in a situation familiar today, cats could defecate in unacceptable places, such as on the rushes of a floor. This was also dealt with under seventh to eighth century Irish law, with the cat owner having to compensate the landowner.” 

The research looks at two key types of evidence, the archaeological evidence from bones, and writings from that time. Neither gives a perfect picture, especially since cat bones are small and may have been missed at some sites, while textual sources relate to societal elites rather than everyday experience. But taken together, they provide an interesting picture of the role of cats in Anglo-Saxon England.

Domestic cats (whether actually domestic or feral) were the main type of cat in England during this time and were likely brought to England during the Iron Age or possibly earlier. Lynx were also present, since a lynx skeleton from this period was found in Kinsey Cave, Yorkshire. There were wild cats too, mostly in rural areas, and it is possible they interbred with domestic cats to some extent.

Old English differentiates between male and female cats (cat and catte respectively). It seems unlikely that specific cat breeds existed, although cats will have come in different colours, since Irish texts from this time refer to cats that are white, grey, ginger, and black with white. 

Archaeological sites show cat bones in very small numbers compared to those of other animals such as cattle, sheep, horses and even dogs. Nonetheless, cats seem to have existed at most human settlements, and especially in urban environments. 

The paper is open access, available here.

If you liked this post, check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Dr. Sarah Ellis says, "Purr is definitely a book your cat would want you to read!"

How would you describe your relationship with cats?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

P.S. Enrichment tips for cats that many people miss and the role animals play in people's lives (evidence from the Mass Observation project).
Poole, K. (2014). The Contextual Cat: Human–Animal Relations and Social Meaning in Anglo-Saxon England Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory DOI: 10.1007/s10816-014-9208-9

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