The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

March 6, 2014

March 6, 1340

We hear today people talk about undue power residing with "the 1%", and how to redress the iniquities in the social system. Rarely does history (or logic) enliven such discussions. But now we look back almost 700 years at a story dealing with, among other things, just this question. We look at a text which may not have originated the story of belling the cat, but certainly tells such a story in the compelling manner of great art. I refer to Piers Plowman, the poetic drama by William Langland, written in the latter part of the 14th century.

Our excerpt starts with a description of simony, charging money for the pardoning of sin, by those:

Who preached to the people for personal profit;
The laymen believed him, and lik'd well his words,
Came up and came kneeling, to kiss the said bull;
He blessed them right bravely, and blinded their eyes,
And won with his roll
[authorization] both their rings and their brooches. 75
Thus they give up their gold for such gluttons to spend,
And lose to loose livers their lawful gains.
For the parish-priest and pardoner part all the silver
That the poor of the parish would otherwise share.
The king and his knights, and the clergy also
Decreed that the commons must toil for their bread.
To till and to travail, as true life requires; 120

....the king and the commons, ....
Made laws for protecting all loyal men's goods.

Then, high in the air, an angel from heaven
Spake loudly in Latin, that laymen might fail
To object or to judge, or justly to doubt, 130
"Know, prince, that thy power soon passes for ever;
Thy kingdom is Christ's, and in keeping His laws
Thou 'rt just; but let justice be joined to discretion!
Array naked justice in raiment of mercy; 135

Sow wisely such grain as thou gladly wouldst reap.
Who deals in bare justice, bare justice be dealt him;
To him who has mercy shall mercy be meted."

A riotous rich one, who rambled in talk,
To the angel on high made answer in anger :— 14O
[And then the scene of the dream changes]
Then forth ran a rout of great rats, all at once, 
Where met them small mice, yea, more than a thousand; 
All came to a council for their common profit. 
For a cat of the court would come, when he liked, 
And chase them and clutch them, and catch them at will, 150 
Play with them perilously, and push them about:—

"For dread of the danger, look round us we dare not;
If we grudge him his game, he will grieve us the more,
Tease us or toss us, or take in his claws,
That we loathe our own lives, ere he lets us go free. I 5 5
If by wit or by wile we his will might withstand,
We might lord it aloft, and might live at our ease."

Then a rat of renown, very ready of tongue, 
Said, ....
"Some cats have I seen, in the city of London, 160
Wear chains on their necks of the choicest gold,
Or collars of crafty work ; uncoupled they go
Both in warren and waste, as their will inclines,
And elsewhere at odd times, as I hear tell. 

If they bore each a bell, by its ringing, me thinketh, 165
One might wit where they were, and away soon run!
Right so," quoth the rat, "doth reason suggest
To buy a bell of brass or of bright silver,
To be bound on a collar, for our common profit,
On the cat's neck to hang; then each hearer can tell 170
If he rambles or rests him, or runs out to play!
When mild is his mood, we can move as we list
And appear in his presence, when playful and pleased,
Or, when angry, beware; and away will we run!"

All the rout of great rats to his reasons assented, 175 
But when bought was the bell, and well bound on the collar, 
Not a rat in the rout, for the realm of all France, 
Durst bind the said bell about the cat's neck, 
Nor hang it beside him, all England to win! 
They owned they were cowards, and their counsel weak; 180 
So their labour was lost, and all their long study.

Then a mouse of mind, who had merit, methought, 
Strode forth sternly, and stood before them all, 
And to the rout of rats rehearsed these words: 
"Though we killed the old cat,yet another would come 185 
To catch all our kin, though we crept under benches. 
I counsel the commons to let the cat be; 
Be we never so bold as to show him the bell. 
For I heard my sire say, some seven years since, 
'Where the cat is a kitten, the court is a sad one ;' 190 
So witnesseth scripture, who willeth may read it,
While the cat catches rabbits, he covets us less,
But is fed as with venison; defame we him never!
Better a little loss than a livelong sorrow, 195
By loss of a loathed one to live in disorder!
For many men's malt we mice would destroy,
And ye, rout of rats, would rend men's clothes,
If the cat of the court could not catch you at will! 

Ye rats, if unruled, could not rule o'er yourselves. 200 
I see," quoth the mouse, "such a mischief might follow,
Neither kitten nor cat, by my counsel, shall suffer;
Nor care I for collars that have cost me nothing;
Had they cost me a crown, I would keep it unknown,
And suffer our rulers to rove where they like, 205

What this vision may mean, ye men that are merry,
Discern ye! I dare not discern it myself!

So here is my discerning. We have no definite dates for Langland The mice in those days were lucky to even have surnames, much less birth dates. But for the cat we have
this possibility-- John of Gaunt, uncle of the King (Richard II) and patron of Chaucer. According to one commentator, John Norton-Smith, (author of  William Langland (1983)) :

The cat suggests the powerful John of Gaunt. The reference to ' cully ing' ('killing') in line 185 indicates that a more severe action had been contemplated beyond 'belling'. There had been an attempt on the life of John of Gaunt in 1377. 

So perhaps our cat lived from March 6, 1340 to February 3, 1399, John of Gaunt's dates. In which case the cat outlived Langland (assumed to have died in the 1380s). That's the way it often is with cats.

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