Cats got their literary start in the scriptoriums of medieval monasteries. This relationship can be traced back to an 8th or 9th century poem, Pangur Ban (which means white cat). Supposedly written by an Irish Benedictine monk who worked in the scriptorium of Reichenau Abbey, a German abbey on an island of the same name, the author compares his scholarly pursuits with the cat’s activities of chasing mice.
“I and Pangur Ban my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.”
That monks and cats formed close bonds should come as no surprise. Mice and rats lived in the scriptoriums feasting on the precious, hand-copied manuscripts. Cats, on the other hand, feasted on the rodents. Scriptoriums were also solitary places, so this companionship between kitties and monks made a whole lot of sense even though monks ran the risk of kitties stepping in the ink jars and walking across the manuscript leaving their paw prints. Proof of ink-soaked paws are shown in the illustration (right), a medieval manuscript that a researcher recently discovered when going through manuscripts in Dubrovnik, Croatia. This habit exists to this day and age: cats now walk across the computer keyboard.
Many 20th century writers turned to cats as their favorite muse. Ernest Hemingway was famous for his numerous polydactyl cats, the descendants of which exist to this day at his house/museum in Florida. Poets William Carlos Williams and Randall Jarrell (“The cat’s asleep; I whisper “kitten” Till he stirs a little and begins to purr–) kept cats, as did the existentialists, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. (It looks like the kitty is dictating to Sartre the copy of Being and Nothingness, which Sartre claimed to have authored). The beat writer, Jack Kerouac, adored his ginger Persian, “Tyke,” and compared the death of Tyke to the death of his little brother. William Burroughs had cats all his life and seemed to love them as much as he loved illicit drugs.
Mark Twain qualifies as perhaps the most famous writer/cat-lover. He considered cats superior to humans (“If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” – Notebook, 1894) and owned cats all his life.
A 1905 Washington Post article described Twain’s huge bed, where he spent a good deal of time writing. The reporter enumerates the various items on the bed; the books, writing materials, clothes and numerous other objects (“enough to furnish a Harlem flat”).
The reporter continues: “He looks quite happy rising out of the mass, and over all prowls a huge black cat of a very unhappy disposition. She snaps, snarls and claws and bites, and Mark Twain takes his turn with the rest; when she gets tired of tearing up manuscripts, she scratches him and he bears with a patience wonderful to behold.” –interview subtitled “Mark Twain’s Bed,” Washington Post, March 26, 1905, page F12
The most absurd thing in life is how much pleasure I get from TeddyBoy (my cat pictured in top photo). The second most absurd thing is how I lay the burden of muse on TeddyBoy’s furry shoulders, and how well he seems to bear it with nary a care in the world.