‘Converted to a cat’

Petrarch's mummified cat

The most famous apocyrphal cat of the Renaissance?**
Petrarch’s mummified cat at Casa del Petrarca.

In honour of World Cat Day, I did a quick search on the fabulous Early English Books Online to see if cats were ever described as agents of conversion, in the same way as were their enemies (or at least their sometime prey) fish.

Thhe short answer is no. But happily three very different texts raised a handful of intriguing questions about the resonances of conversion and its allegorical and metaphorical force.

The first comes from a book published in 1648, with the title, The blessed Jew of Marocco: or, A Blackmoor made white. being a demonstration of the true Messias out of the law and prophets / by Rabbi Samuel, a Iew turned Christian. Towards the end of the text, in a supplement by Thomas Calvert lambasting ‘the Jews sins and their miserie all over the world’, we learn of ‘a Jew (as was thought) converted to the Christian Faith, initiated by Baptism, growing up to many years, a little before his death he rejected with execration the Christian Religion, and professed his Jewish mis-belief, which, it was judged, he had abandoned’.

Shocked by his apostasy, the Jew’s neighbours insisted that an image of a mouse chasing a cat should be chiselled on his tomb, with an inscription which Calvert translated thus: ‘VVhen a Mouse shall catch a Cat, then a Jew, converted to be a Christian, will remain a firme Christian‘. The motto draws on a long-standing tradition that saw ‘the world turned upside down’, placing beggars above kings, women above men, and, apparently, mice above cats – though only ever on a temporary basis. This sixteenth-century print, now at the British Museum incorporates masses of examples (click to enlarge).

Italian Print: World Turned Upside Down

When the tract was published, in 1648, it was highly topical: aware of the wealth and commercial prowess of European Jewish communities, particularly in Amsterdam, Oliver Cromwell was beginning to push for the readmission of Jews to England for the first time since their expulsion, in 1290, by Edward I.

Calvert obviously relishes the not-so-subtle humour of this elaborate funerary gag. But he also disagrees: ‘Yet God has a time, and a power, and a way to raise up these stones, and make them children to Abraham. Usquequo Domine. O for the time when the Jews shall be seene mourning over Jesus, whom they have pierced!’. In early modern England, many believed that the conversion of the Jews to Christianity would herald the second coming, and the end of time.

Puritans in particular engaged in enthusiastic debate over the nature and likelihood of this conversion as an imminent event. Its fabled improbability even made it into Andrew Marvell’s famous poem ‘To his coy mistress’, where the speaker agrees that, in an ideal world, he and his mistress could delay consummation ‘Till the conversion of the Jews’, but, since time is pressing….

Two other texts draw on the terms of catty conversion in much less precise or polemical ways. In Edward Howard’s little-known tragicomedy, The womens conquest (1671), one doting husband, Foscaris, informs another, Andrages, that Andrages’ wife has become a powerful witch. Faced with Andrages’ scepticism, Foscaris warns him:

I have prov’d the Experiment dearly:
Take care and mock not, lest thou art beheld
Converted to a cat, and cry Mew
To keep her company.

For me, this is an intriguing moment as it suggests the extent to which the language of conversion had, by the later seventeenth century, broken free from its roots in religious controversy and change and could signal material and bodily change. At the same time, it suggests the wholesale transformation that might be imagined to characterise conversion: in the words of Shakespeare’s Oliver, in As You Like It, ”Twas I, but ’tis not I. I do not shame/ To tell you what I was, since my conversion/ So sweetly tastes, being the thing I am’.

More than a century earlier, George Turberville had imagined a similar metamorphosis in a delightful poem, whose title suggests the same carpe diem mentality as Marvell’s ‘Coy mistress’: ‘The Lover whose Mistresse feared a Mouse, declareth that he would become a Cat, if he might haue his desire’. The poem itself, however, is charmingly chaste, cataloguing possible animal transformations, only to settle for a contented fantasy life as a prized domestic mouser. Here is the poem in full:

IF I might alter kinde,
what thinke you I would bée,
Nor Fish, nor Foule, nor Fle, nor Frog,
nor Squirrell on the Tree.
The Fish the hooke, the Foule
the lymed twig doth catch,
The Fle the Finger, and the Frog
the Buffard doth dipatch.
The Squirrell thincking nought
that feately cracks the Nut,
The gréedie Gashauke wanting pray
in dread of death doth put.
¶But scorning all these kindes
I would become a Cat,
To combat with the créeping Mouse
and scratch the scréeking Rat.
I would be present aye
and at my Ladies call,
To gard hir from the fearefull Mouse
in Parlour and in Hall.
In Kitching for his life
he should not shew his hed,
The Peare in Poke should lie vntoucht
when shée were gone to bed.
The Mouse should stand in feare,
so should the squeaking Rat:
All this would I doe if I were
conuerted to a Cat.

(From George Turberville, Epitaphes, epigrams, songs and sonets with a discourse of the friendly affections of Tymetes to Pyndara his ladie (1567))

**Find out more about Petrarch’s cat and literary tourism over at Shaping Sense.

And take a look at some lovely medieval cats getting up to various things in illuminated manuscripts at the British Library.

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