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A Most Convenient Relationship: The Rise of the Cat as a Valued Companion Animal
By John D. Blaisdell
Between The Species, Vol.9 (1993)
Introduction: Of all the animals domesticated by humans the cat is one of the most unique. By nature a nocturnal animal most other domesticates are diurnal and socially solitary, cats appear to have been domesticated more for some metaphysical reason than for any practical advantage. But the feline’s ability to catch and kill rodents made them a valuable asset to medieval farmers whose distinction between adequate food supplies and famine was often related to how much grain the rats and mice ate.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, though, a new attitude engulfed the relationship between the human and the domestic feline. The cat was no longer viewed strictly as a working animal but now was considered in some circles as a treasured companion. This attitude, reflected in epitaphs to these creatures from the period, suggest that cat may have been more beneficial as a support system than as a mouse catcher. While there is strong evidence that the cat was a favorite companion of the eighteenth-century intellectual elite, there is also good evidence that this creature was, along with the hunting dog, beginning to be accepted in a nonworking capacity by the middle class businessmen of the period. Finally, there is no question but that the move towards a new sensibility that was seen in the late eighteenth century proved highly beneficial to the well-being of this animal.
The cat was probably first domesticated in ancient Egypt. While some scholars believe the cat was domesticated as early as the old kingdom, circa 3100- 2300 B.C., there are no written or artistic records of this animal being a constant companion of humans before 2000 B.C. By the 16th century B.C. there are numerous artistic representations of the cat engaging in a close relationship with humans. By the fifth century B.C. when at least two Egyptian Gods: Bast and Sekmet, were portrayed as cats, this animal’s popularity was at an all time high. Hundreds of these creatures were mummified and placed in special coffins for the journey into the afterlife. There were strong reactions if these animals were killed; one classical scholar noted it was a capital crime to kill a cat and at least once, during the reign of a Ptolemaic king, a Roman that accidentally killed a cat was himself almost killed by an Egyptian mob.
See also Medieval Pet Names