I’ve been cursed since an early age with a general interest in things. I say ‘cursed’ because in an age of specialisation a lack of focus results in a lack of specific expertise. However, poor discrimination in choosing topics of interest to follow does do wonders for my capacity to answer trivia questions.
In January 2017 I found myself stumped by a trivia question which I felt I should either know the answer to or that I should be able to work out. It was this:
What was the first English novel?
The apparent answer (according to the source of the trivia question) was Robinson Crusoe. Of course, the question is a matter of definition. What counts a novel? What counts as English? Do very long poems count or does it have to be in prose? What counts as fiction? Do legends count as fiction?
Running to Wikipedia to corroborate some of my guesses (no Thomas More’s Utopia doesn’t count because it was written in Latin), I came across one contender for the claim of first English novel. It was called Beware the Cat. Up until that moment I had not even so much as heard a rumour of a notable work in English called Beware the Cat.
The summary on Wikipedia sounded fascinating: a satirical story about magical cats and witches and werewolves and magical potions. I was determined to learn more.
Written by William Baldwin in 1553 during the short reign of Edward VI, Beware the Cat is a weird, multilayered romp that satirises Catholicism, false erudition and superstition. It also has talking cats in it. It ran afoul of events as the boy king’s reign was a short one and was followed by the reign of Queen Mary who re-instituted Catholicism in England and set about purging society of what she regarded as heresy.
Where can you read it?
You can read it here! But I’ll come to that shortly.
There are a number of places where it is available. Presscom has 19th century reprints available for free here http://www.presscom.co.uk/halliwell/baldwin/baldwin_cat.html
In addition there is a neater version available in The Broadview Anthology of Sixteenth-Century Poetry and Prose. This version has Baldwin’s margin comments as well as notes on the text.
There is also an updated modernised version that apparently appeared in an anthology called Tales of Lovecraftian Cats. I haven’t read this version yet.
What have I done to it?
The story is written in Early Modern English. In other words it is recognisably English to a modern reader (unlike Chaucer) but makes use of archaic words and unusual conventions. It also uses long run-on sentences and makes poor use of paragraphs. That makes it difficult to read just as a story. However, what is not immediately obvious is that some of the more incomprehensible passages are meant to be incomprehensible.
So I wanted a version I could just read. I didn’t want a modern version as such and I didn’t want to lose all the sixteenth-century feel or some of the more deliberate stylistic choices but I did want a version where I wasn’t having to re-parse every clause and phrase.
First step was to modernise spelling. Words like “followeth” became “follows” and so on. A long weary time with the spellchecker getting stuck on words like “baggagical” followed. You may still find the odd “els” instead of “else” etc
Second step was to simply sentences and references. This meant breaking up clauses into seperate sentences and tracking back multiple “whereofs”. I also often replaced pronouns with the name it was referring to – often long sentences had multiple cases of “he” which were hard to track.
Third step was chopping bits out. Not many and really only where I was both not sure of what was being said AND it was clearly meant to be not nonsense. I wanted a version were I wasn’t stumbling over a sentence. In some case I just chopped out extra qualifications (e.g. the Prior and Convent of the Abbey was simplified just to the Abbey). This may have changed the meaning in some cases but not the thrust of the story.
Fourth step was actually substituting words. For example “quod” became “said”. Likewise with obscure references I used simpler substitutes. There are several references to the “leads” of Aldersgate in London. “Leads” here refers to the lead of the roof and was a term for either the roof or part of the roof. For simplicity, I’ve just used “roof”. The main character Master Streamer is called a ‘divine’ and instead I’ve called him a ‘cleric’. ‘Priest’ seemed to much like I was saying he was a Catholic priest because of how that term is now rarely used for Church of England clergy.
Fifth step, checked names and places and rationalised them a bit. One story refers to county Washford in Ireland. From context this is meant to be Wexford.
Sixth step: paragraphs! The Broadview version may have done a better job of this.
Seventh step: subheadings and stories. The story has multiple narrators that are nested and whose stories also contain direct speech. Rather than have multiple nesting of speech marks and also to make the distinct stories easier to find, I’ve given each story its own section and heading. The titles are mine but based partly on Baldwin’s side notes.
Eight step: character names and references. There are many characters without proper names. To make them easier to identify I standardised the references to them. In particular the cat Mouseslayer tells stories about three different women who owned her. She uses terms like “dame”, “lady” and “mistress” interchangeably but to make it clearer which is which I’ve used “lady” for the first, “dame” for the second and “mistress” for the third.
Lastly I’ve added my own thoughts and comments before each section as well as some more general digressions.
Below is a list of characters and the opening epistle to Beware the cat. Enjoy!
Beware The Cat
- Mr Baldwin: The author, a publisher of books
- Mr Ferrers: Master of the King’s Pastimes
- Mr Willet: Mr Ferrer’s astronomer
- Mr Streamer: Narrator and Mr Ferrer’s cleric
- Thomas/The servant who had been in Ireland: A servant in Mr Streamer’s lodging
- The servant from Staffordshire: A servant in Mr Streamer’s lodging
- The Irish Churl: An Irish peasant who told a story to Thomas
- Apore: An Irish outlaw
- The Great Grey Cat: An important cat
- Grimalkin: The queen of cats
- Mouseslayer: A cat who gives evidence in her defence to the Great Grey Cat
- Mouseslayer’s Lady: an elderly devout woman who becomes blind
- Mouseslayer’s Dame: A woman who made her living by “boarding young gentlemen, for whom she kept fair wenches in store, for whose sake she had more rent”
- Mouseslayer’s Young Mistress: A woman who is tricked by Mouseslayer’s dame and who later becomes Mouseslayer’s owner.
- Catchrat: A cat who has accused Mouseslayer of refusing to mate with him.
- Isegrim: A cat and friend of Mouseslayer.
- Lightfoot: A cat and Isegrim’s son.
- Grisard: A cat knowledgeable in cat laws
- Glascalon: A former cat monarch
TO THE RIGHT WORSHIPFUL, ESQ., MR JOHN YOUNG, GRACE AND HEALTH.
I have written for your mastership’s pleasure one of the stories which Mr. Streamer told last Christmas – which you so would have heard reported by Mr Ferrers himself. Although I am unable to tell it as pleasantly as he could, I have nearly used both the order and words of him that spoke them. I doubt not that he and Mr. Willet shall in the reading think they hear Mr Streamer speak, and he himself shall doubt whether he speaks.
I have divided this story into three parts, and set the argument before and an instruction after them, with such notes as might be gathered, making it look like, and entitled, Beware the Cat.
Because I doubt whether Mr. Streamer will be content that other men plough with his oxen when perhaps he would rather do it himself, and receive the glory he deserves; therefore I ask you to learn his mind about this and peruse it before printing, and amend it in any point I have mistaken. I pray you likewise to ask Mr Ferrers his judgement of the text ; and show him that the cure of the great plunge of Mr Streamers translation out of the Arabic, which he sent me from Margate, shall be imprinted as soon as I may conveniently. If Mr Streamer allows my endeavours in this kind I will hereafter (as Plato did by Socrates) pen out the rest of our Christmas communications and no less pleasure to all them that desire such kinds of knowledge. In the mean while I beseech you to accept my good wit, and learn to Beware the Cat, so shall you not only understand that I aim to both seek and also please the Almighty, who always shall preserve you. Amen.
Yours to His power,