Previously on Beware the Cat: At the printer’s house, Mr Streamer has just been told the tale of the Irish outlaw and the death of the magical cat Grimalkin.
Layer 1: framing narrative spoken by Baldwin
Layer 2: main narrative spoken by Streamer
Back up a couple of layers into the main narrative again and the tale Thomas told sets off some discussion (which you can read below).
The previous story was excellent. An evil brigand meets a supernatural being and is eventually strangled by a kitten! It has all the usual licence of a folktale. How exactly is the cat supposed to eat some much and how exactly did they butcher a whole cow? Doesn’t matter – these details are supposed to be absurd in such a story.
What follows is a discussion among the assembled people at the printer’s house on the churl’s story and its connections with the previous story set in Staffordshire.
There are a bunch of themes here: the transformation of a person into something else (which has parallels with Catholic theology that I’ll discuss later), overt criticism of the Pope (who Mr Streamer defends by quoting Henry Tudor) and the weight the characters put on tall tales as a source of truth.
There is a rather cruel sub-story during the discussion about a time one of the people there was hired to roast a cat alive on a spit in a barrel (‘hogshead’). At least I think that is supposed to be what happens. You can read more about the cat abuse traditions of the Middle Ages here: http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/ritualistic-cat-torture-was-once-a-form-of-town-fun but you might not want to as none of it was very nice. Barrels do feature.
The barrel incident is the worst case of cat cruelty in Beware the Cat. There are lesser examples in the third part of the book (feeding a cat mustard and sticking walnut shells on a cats feet – the same cat but at different times and the cat survives unharmed but very pissed off and gets its revenge).
The Irish Churl’s Story is Discussed
“This the churl told me now about thirty-three winters past. He and other credible men informed me, that the events happened not seven years before. Whereupon I gather that this Grimalkin was the very cat that the cat in Kankwood sent news of to that other cat which we just heard about.”
“Tush,” said another man that sat nearby, “your conjecture is so unreasonable; for to admit that cats have reason and that they do, in their own language, understand one another, yet how should a cat in Kankwood know what had happened in Ireland ?”
“How?” said he; “even as we know what is done in the realms of France, Flanders, and Spain, yea, and almost in all the world beside. There are very few ships that don’t have cats on them. They can bring news to their fellows from all quarters.”
“Yes,” said the other, “but why should all cats love to hear of Grimalkin? Or how should Grimalkin eat so much meat as you speak of? Or why should all cats so desire to revenge her death?”
“Nay, that passed my cunning,” said he, “to show in all. Maybe that Grimalkin and her line is as much esteemed, and has the same dignity among cats, as the queen bee has among the whole hive, at whose commandments all bees are obedient, whose succour and safeguard they seek, whose wrongs they all revenge. Or, perhaps as the Pope has had before this over all of Christendom, in whose cause all his clergy would not only scratch and bite, but kill and burn to powder, though they know not why, whom so ever they thought to think against him. The Pope, all things considered, devoured more at every meal than Grimalkin did at her last supper.”
“No,” said I, “although the Pope, by exactions and another trumpery, has spoiled people of mighty spoils, yet, as touching his own parts, he eats and wears as little as any other man, though perhaps more sumptuous and costly, and in greater abundance provided.
“I heard a very proper saying of King Henry the Seventh. When a servant of his told him what abundance of meat he had seen at an abbot’s table, he reported him to be a great glutton. The King asked the servant if the abbot had eaten it all, and the servant answered no, the abbot’s guests eat the most part. ‘Ah!’ said the king, ‘you call him glutton for his liberality for feeding you and such other unthankful churls.’ Like to this fellow are all ruffians; for let honest, worshipful men of the City make them good cheer, or lend them money, as they commonly do, and what have do they get for their labour ?—either foul, reproachful names, as dunghill churls, cuckold knaves, or else spiteful and slanderous reports, as to be usurers and deceivers of the commonweal, and while some of them may be such indeed, yet I still abhor to hear others, of whom they deserve well, so described.
“But now, to return to your communication, I marvel how Grimalkin, as you term her, if she were so big could eat so much meat at once.”
“I do not think,” said he that told the tale, “that she did eat it all, although she asked for it all, but took her choice, and then laid the rest by, as we see in the feeding of many things. For example, a wolf would get more than he can eat but will still kill a cow, likewise all other ravenous beasts. Now love and fellowship, and a desire to save their kind are common among cats, I know by experience.
“There was a man that hired a friend of mine to roast a cat alive and promised him for his labour twenty shillings. My friend had a hogshead made, in which he turned a spit on which was stuck a cat. Now, before he had been turning the spit a while, whether it was the cats wool that singed, or else her cry that called them, I cannot tell, but there came such a number of cats, that if I and other hardy labourers who were, had not defended, the hogshead, as strong as it was, could not have kept them out.”
“Indeed,” said a well-learned man, and one of excellent judgement, that had joined the discussion, “it does appear there is in cats, as in all other kinds of beasts, a certain reason and language, with which they understood one another. But this Grimalkin? I think she is not a cat but a hag, or a witch. Witches have gone often in that likeness; and therefore has come to the proverb that a cat has nine lives, that is to say, a witch may take on her a cat’s body nine times.”
“By my faith, Sir, this is strange,” said I myself, “that a witch should take on her a cat’s body. I have read that the Petoneses could cause their spirits to take the dead men’s bodies, and the airy spirits which we call demons, (of which kind are Incubi and Lucinbus, Robin-Goodfellow the fairy, and goblins which the misers call Telechins), could, at their pleasure, take upon them any other sorts, but that a woman, being so large a body, should strain herself into the body of a cat, I have not much heard of, nor cannot perceive how it may be, which makes me, I promise you, believe it the less.”
“Well, Master Streamer,” said the learned man, “I know you are not so ignorant as you make yourself, but this is your accustomed fashion always to make me believe you were not so well learned as you are, sapiens enim colat scienciam, which worked well for Socrates! I know being skilled as you are in the tongues chiefly called Arabic and Egyptian, and having read so many authors therein, you must be skilful in these matters.
“However, when you speak of the intrusion of a woman’s body into a cat’s, you either play Nichoden or the stubborn popish coinser. One would creep into his master’s belly again, the other would bring Christ out of Heaven to thrust him into a piece of bread; but as one of them is gross and the other perverse, so I must place you with one of them. Although witches may take upon them the cats bodies, or alter the shape of their or other bodies, yet this is not done by putting their own bodies into a cat’s, but rather by bringing their souls for a time out of their bodies and putting them into another body. Alternatively they do this by deluding the sight and fantasies of the seers, as when I make a candle with the brain of a horse and brimstone, the light of the candle makes all kinds of heads appear to be horses heads, yet it does not alter the actual form of a head, but deceives the eye, which, through the false light”