Posted by: kljolly | August 18, 2013

Aldred’s Cat

PrintMy visit to the Durham Lindisfarne Gospel’s exhibit reminded me that I want to give Aldred a cat.  Certainly every household should have a least one (we have two) to catch vermin, a problem in the fields as well as in households, the church (there is a nice prayer for cleansing the ale or wine cask in which a mouse or rat has drowned), and even the scriptorium, nibbling on the parchment.  Plus they are warm companionship.

Aldred names his cat Panchiel, after the archangel in the field prayers he copied into the Durham Ritual (Durham Cathedral Library A.IV.19).  The archangel Panchiel, an Irish spelling of Paniel, is invoked as protector of the fields to drive out vermin.  Aldred calls the cat Pan for short, the abbreviation he used when glossing the field prayers.  I imagine he found her as a kitten with a dead mouse, her first kill, and adopted her.  I plan to place this scene in a chapter where Aldred uses the field prayers after a viking attack in the village where he served as priest (probably Crayke).

What would an Anglo-Saxon cat look like?  The artwork, as in the Lindisfarne Gospel’s picture here, is not much help.  Breeds have changed over time, and cats were probably introduced into Anglo-Saxon England, but from where?  Googling Anglo-Saxon cat produces some, let us say, interesting results:  from Aldhelm’s cat riddle and the Irish Pangur Bán to, inevitably Facebook and cheezburger (“looks leik anglo-saxon cat wishes 4 William’s dumesday”), as well as some curious discussion of the Romney campaign.

Regia Anglorum suggests that cat breeds were the same as non-pedigree today, but I wonder.  After Durham, I drove up to Jarrow and visited Bede’s World again, where they attempt to recreate an Anglo-Saxon farm (Gyrwe) with animal breeds approximating the Anglo-Saxon era, since intensive animal agricultural breeding programs in the intervening centuries have altered farm animals considerably.   Cats were not as intensively bred, but still new breeds must have been brought in after the Anglo-Saxon period, just as the Normans introduced rabbits.  I did not see a cat at Bede’s World, but did take some pictures of other animals, including this very large pig and this sweet lamb.

Pig, Gyrwe

Pig, Gyrwe

Sheep, Gyrwe

Sheep, Gyrwe


Of course the pig is for eating and the sheep, well it is a source of wool, meat, and parchment for the scriptorium.

Back to the cat:  any thoughts on coloring?


  1. Well, I would look at British and Romano-British cats. Cats are common in Celtic artwork. There is a prominent cat in the recent animated movie on Brendan and the Book of Kells. Nice movie if you haven’t seen it.

  2. Thanks, Michelle. I had forgotten about the Book of Kells movie. Most of the cats in the Celtic art are highly stylized, but perhaps give some hints about the perception of cats.

  3. […] the cat’s name, shortened to Pan, which I blogged about earlier (see also more cats on coloring).  It comes from the archangel name Panchiel used in the field […]

  4. One great advantage of having TWO translations of Pangur Ban is that those of us not-fluent on Medieval Latin can be totally confident all the details really are in that poem.

    • I have updated the dead link to Aldhelm’s Latin riddle as discussed and translated by Emily Thornbury, as well as added a link to Pangur Ban, with both the Old Irish (Gaelic) and Robin Flower’s translation into English..

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