A note about The Cuddlywumps Chronicles

This blog is written and maintained by Miss Cuddlywumps, a fluffy-tailed calico cat who is both classically educated and familiar with mysteries. Comments or complaints should be addressed to Miss C rather than to author Roby Sweet. Ms. Sweet accepts no responsibility for Miss C's opinions.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Cat Proverbs from the Middle Ages

Over the centuries, humans have inserted cats into lots of pithy little sayings, or proverbs. Some you’re undoubtedly already familiar with: “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.” Others are less common these days: “The gloved cat does not catch the mouse.”

Origins of “When the cat’s away…”

These mice aren't playing!
Miniatures of cat and mouse, and a mouse,
in a Theological Miscellany by Peraldus. England,
c. 1236–1275.
Public Domain, via the
We went to The Phrase Finder to find the origins of “When the cat’s away, the mice will play” (meaning, of course, that when the authority figure leaves, the mice or children or whatever will eat all the cheese and basically turn the place upside down). Turns out this proverb has been known in English since about 1470. It even shows up in Shakespeare’s Henry V; in act 1 scene 2, Westmoreland warns that if England invades France, Scotland will take advantage, “playing mouse in absence of the cat.” Exeter replies, “It follows then that the cat must stay at home).

Earlier, similar sayings were known in Latin (“When the cat falls asleep, the mouse rejoices and leaps from the hole”) and French (“Where there is no cat, there is no king,” early 1300s).

The first recorded cat proverb

The earliest known cat proverb comes from sometime before 1200: “The cat longs for fish, but he does not want to wet his paws.” It first appeared in Latin (Rogers, p. 20). Interestingly, Shakespeare also used this proverb, in Macbeth, though he allu0ded to it rather than stating it outright. Lady Macbeth is calling her husband a coward for wanting to back out of killing the king. She says he’s “like the poor cat i’ the adage,” he wants the prize but doesn’t want to get his hands dirty (act 1, scene 7).

More useful provebs

We think cat proverbs should be used more often, so here are a few more that have their origins in the Middle Ages. We’re sure you’ll be able to work them into your daily conversations:

 “The gloved cat does not catch the mouse.”
(Sometimes being gentle will get you nowhere. If you want that mouse, you’ll need your claws.)

“Whenever a rat teases a cat, he is leaning against a hole.”
(Someone doing something dangerous will have a hole to bolt to, metaphorically. Unless he’s not very smart; then the cat will eat him. Metaphorically. Or for real.)

“Make yourself a mouse and the cat will eat you.”
(If you act timid and afraid, predators will take advantage of you. Run up to that cat and bop him on the nose, metaphorically. When in the presence of a predator, do not behave like prey.)

Cats catching mice.
Notice they're not wearing gloves.
Detail of a miniature from a 13th-century bestiary, England.
Public Domain, via the

Sources

Rogers, Katharine M. (1998). The Cat and the Human Imagination. Anne Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


The Phrase Finder. (2002, November 19). Re: When the cat’s away the mice will play [Online forum comment]. Retrieved from http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/17/messages/422.html

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