How to Swing a Mouse: Intersections of Female and Feline in Medieval Europe
By Yi Hong Sim
Oberlin College Research Award Winner, 2005
Introduction: Western culture today abounds with feline representations of women and the feminine. Regardless of where one finds them, in literature, visual art, films, or everyday language, analogies between women and cat are unsurprising to our modern sensibilities, so natural and commonplace do they seem that they approach the status of cliche. Halloween storefront displays with their requisite witches and black cats scroll by unremarked; perhaps we chuckle at some vintage horror movie she-devil with horns, slitted cat’s eyes, claws and tail; we groan at the prospect of yet another Catwoman, probably slinkier, stealthier and more digitally enhanced than the last. Yet, as with most idiomatic pairings, the connections between women and cats arose from a gradual conceptual merging, in this case over several millennia. Egyptian cat worship is common knowledge enough, but the Middle Ages, the era that gave us the witch’s familiar, emerges as another pivotal historical period in the relationship between humans and cats. While it was not until the late Middle Ages and Renaissance that foreshadowing solidified into trend, converging intellectual and popular perceptions of women and cats left an intriguing trail of documents and artifacts scattered throughout all of the Middle Ages. Physical and behavioural similarities and connections to the domestic sphere were two of the most potent medieval associations between women and their feline companions. Also significant was the survival or pagan beliefs in rural areas throughout medieval Christendom, but that is a topic that must be saved for another day.
Though not persuasive enough by itself to forge a decisive affinity, similarity of physiology and temperament between women and cats did not escape notice in the Middle Ages. Cunning, deceit and ability to capture prey, whether mice or men, were considered attributes of both. We are already familiar with Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, the merry Alisoun who “lay as I were deed” until her husband repented out of fright, whereupon, undaunted, “I hitte hym on te cheke.” Likewise, the cat that played dead to catch its rats was a story that circulated in bestiaries and fable collections. White give us a version involving foxes and birds, bit notes that the same tale was told in the Middle Ages about the cat.