Welcome to the first proper part of the annotated Beware the Cat. I’ll start each part with a discussion about what is going on.
The story starts one Christmas. George Ferrers is responsible for organising plays at the court of King Edward VI – the only male heir to Henry the Eighth. England has split from the Catholic Church and is undergoing a protestant reformation, which has picked up the pace during the short reign of Edward VI. That reformation is going to be cut short in a few months when Edward dies and the Catholic Queen Mary becomes monarch – the characters do not know this of course but the book itself was probably not published until Queen Elizabeth had replaced Mary.
Ferrers has with him his astronomer, Mr Willet and his priest Mr Streamer. With them is the author William Baldwin. All four men are sharing the same bedroom. I’m assuming that they are relatively young men but there is no evidence of this in the text. I think it is more the atmosphere of a group of friends hanging out on a cold winters night with one of them telling an extraordinarily tall tale that has an atmosphere of relative youth.
This first section (“The Argument” is Baldwin’s title) had Baldwin as the narrator. It frames the rest of the book as a discussion of two related questions:
- Should plays depict animals talking? Baldwin suggests not because it is unnatural.
- Do animals have the capacity to reason and talk? This question follows from the first. If animals do talk (all be it in their own species-specific language) then maybe it is not unnatural to show them speaking on stage.
This is the first bit of mischief from Baldwin. Despite this set-up Beware the Cat has no serious answer to these questions. The argument is simply a pretext for Mr Streamer to start addressing point 2 with stories about talking animals. Nor is this going to be a variety of talking animals but quite specifically cases of talking cats.
So let’s begin:
It chanced that last Christmas that I was in Court with Mr Ferrers (then master of the King’s pastimes), busy setting up certain interludes, which we had devised for the Kings recreation.
During that time among many other exercises among ourselves, we used nightly at our lodging to talk of many things for the furtherance of the offices in which each man served. For which purpose it pleased Mr Ferrer to make me his bedfellow, and upon a pallet cast upon the reeds in his own chamber, to lodge Mr Willet (his astronomer) and Mr Streamer (his cleric).
It happened on a night which I think was the twenty-eighth of December. Mr Ferrers had come from the court and was now in bed. There fell an argument between Mr Streamer (who with Mr Willet had already slept his first sleep) and myself (I had only just come to bed). The gist of the argument was whether birds or beasts had reason.
The occasion was this: I had heard that the King’s players were rehearsing a play of Aesop’s The Crow, in which most parts for the actors are birds. This style of play I did not commend, saying, it was not comical to make either speechless things to speak, or brutish things to converse reasonably, and although in a tale it might be suffered to imagine and perhaps tell of something by them spoken or reasonably done (which kind Aesop laudably used) but it was unwholesome (said I) to use actors pretending to be animals to speak reason. Mr Streamer and my lords divine (being more divine in this point than I was ware of) held the contrary part, affirming that beasts and fowls had reason and that as much as me, yes, and in some points maybe more!
Mr Ferrers himself and his astronomer were woken by our talking and listened to us, but would take part on neither side. Mr Streamer had for proof of his assertion declared many things such as: elephants that walked upon cords, hedgehogs that knew always what would come, foxes and dogs that after they had been all night abroad, killing geese and sheep would come home in the morning and put their necks into their collars, parrots that bewailed their keepers deaths, swallows that open their young one’s eyes, and a hundred things more. All of which I denied come from reason, and be but natural kindly actions, alleging for my proofs authorities of most grave and learned philosophers.
“Well,” said Mr Streamer, “I know what I know, and speak not only what by hearsay of our philosophers I know but what I myself have proved.”
“Why,” said I then, “have you proof of beasts and fowls that reason?”
“Yes,” said he, “I have heard them and understood them both speak and reason, as well as I hear and understand you.”
At this Mr Ferrers laughed, but I, remembering what I had red in Albertus’s works, thought there might be somewhat more than I did know. Therefore I asked him what beasts or fowls he had heard, and where and when? At this he paused awhile and at last said:
”If I thought that you would be content to hear me, and without any interruption, till I have finished, then mark what I say, I would tell you such a story of one piece of my own, that shall make you wonder and put you out of any doubt concerning this matter. But this I promise you, if any man interrupts me, I will leave off and not speak one word more.”
When we had promised quietly to hear, he (turning himself so in his bed as we might best hear him) said as follows…