Monday, July 2, 2018

Arthur, the Cat

           I often say that I can’t write real people so anyone, who might have offended me in the last seventy years, should feel perfectly safe. Authorial vengeance is not my style.
            For every rule, however, there is an exception. Arthur, Prioress Eleanor’s cat, is based on a couple of real, adored felines who used to rule in this household.
           Contrary to common assumptions, medievals did have pets. Aelred of Rievaulx warned anchoresses that, although pets were not appropriate to their stern vocation, a cat was acceptable. He was probably being practical, but I also suspect he had his own soft spot for the creatures. A delightful book, Medieval Pets by Meikle-Walker, details the extent to which favored animals were spoiled, adored, and, yes, virtually worshipped. Of course, dogs hunted, and cats were the ultimate mouse/ rat deterrents, but people have always had a weakness for animals. As much as I am not a reptile fan, I do wonder if Eve rather fancied snakes…
           In most literature, primary source or fictional, women who headed religious houses tended to fancy little dogs. Although I like dogs, I decided that my prioress wasn’t a lap dog sort. She has a stern element to her. She insists on a strict Benedictine diet with no red meat and runs her priory with a rational but firm rule.
So why a pet at all? Leadership is a lonely thing, and my prioress isn’t heartless. Besides, red tabbies are irresistible. Tell me: I have had two of them. She also needed someone to talk to when she mused, someone who wouldn’t argue or distract her from the decisions she had to make. In short, someone who would simply cuddle up in a warm ball and purr encouragement.
Nonetheless, Arthur is no spoiled fellow. Oh, he gets treats enough and has a bit of old wool he sleeps on, which rests on Prioress Eleanor’s narrow bed, but he has a job. Every morning, he leaves his residence, heads to the kitchen, and rids the place of rodents. His other function, although it might be one that wouldn’t immediately come to mind, is to provide the priory with generations of equally fine hunters. Cats were not neutered in medieval times, although stallions and bulls were, so, in this house vowed to celibacy, Arthur is anything but… He is so active in this responsibility that it is hard not to trip over his progeny. And medieval monastics were not prim and proper Victorians. Most would have been amused.
As you likely know, I don’t like to change history to suit some whim, but I realized a book or so ago that I had a real problem. Veterinary care in the Middle Ages was not as advanced as it is today. The lifespan of dogs and cats wasn’t long. No shots or tooth cleaning. Must I write of Arthur’s death? The thought horrified me. It was like breaking the rule that one never kills an animal in a mystery. What was I to do?

Cowardly, I punted. Now on my 15th book, Arthur is 12ish. There is no reason I cannot make him the Methuselah of cats. Some must have been. People were known to live long lives even for modern times. But one of these days, I will be forced to make a decision. To be honest, I’m not sure I can write that awful scene and break Prioress Eleanor’s heart… 


  1. No, don't ever kill Arthur! I knew that medieval people kept pets from reading Chaucer (the Prioress' hounds, who are luxuriously and improperly fed with roast meat).

  2. I have no plans to do so. That means I really refuse to even think about it! Meanwhile, Tyndal Priory is one of the most rodent free places in medieval England...