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Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts

Since today is #InternationalCatDay, I figured it was time to reboot the following blog post, which appeared three-and-a-half years ago on medievalfragments and is my most succesful blog post so far. In this present blog, I have added the rather entertaining aftermath of the blog post (I was contacted by The International Cat Association!), as well as a better version of the image of the medieval manuscript that was peed over by a mischievous feline in fifteenth-century Deventer…

Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts

Everyone who has ever owned a cat will be familiar with their unmannerly feline habit of walking across your keyboard while you are typing. One of the manuscript pictures tweeted by @erik_kwakkel revealed that this is nothing new:

Cat paws in a fifteenth-century manuscript (photo taken at the Dubrovnik archives by @EmirOFilipovic)

Cat paws in a fifteenth-century manuscript (photo taken at the Dubrovnik archives by @EmirOFilipovic)

Although the medieval owner of this manuscript may have been quite annoyed with these paw marks on his otherwise neat manuscript, another fifteenth-century manuscript reveals that he got off lucky.  A Deventer scribe, writing around 1420, found his manuscript ruined by a urine stain left there by a cat the night before. He was forced to leave the rest of the page empty, drew a picture of a cat and cursed the creature with the following words:

“Hic non defectus est, sed cattus minxit desuper nocte quadam. Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum in nocte Daventrie, et consimiliter omnes alii propter illum. Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem ubi cattie venire possunt.”

[Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.]

Caption: Cursed be this cat for peeing over my book! (Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r)

Cursed be this cat for peeing over my book! (© Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r)

Given their inclination to defile beautiful books, why were cats allowed in medieval libraries at all? A ninth-century poem, written by an Irish monk about his cat “Pangur Bán”, holds the answer:

I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

(You can read the full poem here)

The cats were there to keep out the mice. For good reason, because a medieval manuscript offered a tasty treat for the little vermin, as this eleventh-century copy of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae illustrates. The manuscript has been all but devoured by rats and mice and every page shows the marks of their teeth.

A mouse ate my Boethius! (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 214, fol. 122r)

A mouse ate my Boethius! (© Corpus Christi College Cambridge, MS 214, fol. 122r)

Aside from their book-endangering eating habits, mice could be an annoying distraction, as illustrated by the twelfth-century scribe Hildebert. The illustration shows how a mouse has climbed up Hildebert’s table and is eating his cheese. Hildebert lifts a stone in an apparent attempt to kill the mouse. In the book that he was writing, we find a curse directed at the cheese-nibbling beast: “Pessime mus, sepius me provocas ad iram; ut te deus perdat” [Most wretched mouse, often you provoke me to anger. May God destroy you!]

Hildebert distracted by a mouse. (© Prague, Capitular Library, codex A 21/1, fol. 153r)

Hildebert distracted by a mouse. (© Prague, Capitular Library, codex A 21/1, fol. 153r)

So, while at least two cats are responsible for leaving their unwanted marks on manuscripts, the cat’s mouse-catching abilities may have saved a large number of manuscripts from ending up in a mouse’s belly and may have enabled many a scribe to focus on his work, knowing that his lunch would remain untouched.

The aftermath: My first paw-reviewed article

The blog post above was ridiculously succesful and has been viewed over 75,000 times over the last three-and-a-half years. Various bits of the blog post have also been floating around on the internet, including my own translation of the Latin along with the image of the cat-pee manuscript (sometimes with, but more often without attribution!). The success of the blog post, obviously, boils down to a mix of popular ingredients. The internet has always had a unique relationship with cats, with several websites being devoted only to clips and pictures of our feline friends. The Middle Ages, too, are gaining in popularity with the ongoing success of medieval fantasy series such as Game of Thrones and Vikings. People are fascinated by medieval culture and like learning more about the world of our ancestors a thousand years ago. Combining medieval stuff with cats? The key to success!

About two years ago, the blog post reached its apex of fame, when I received an e-mail from The International Cat Association (TICA). Apparently, they had read my blog post and now wanted to publish it in their magazine. This magazine, TICA TREND with its tagline ‘For Fabulous Felines, Fun and Friendships!’, is shipped to over five thousand cat owners worldwide! My piece was indeed published in the June/July issue of 2015, which also featured the winner of the 2013-2014 Best Household Pet Kitten of the Year’ (you can read it here).


The TICA Trend magazine. My cat Cnut was most pleased to read the magazine ‘for fabulous felines, fun and friendship’; Breca the Pug was not impressed.

While I am aware that the little publication in TICA TREND is not an academic achievement worth boasting too much about, it does introduce the fascinating world of medieval manuscripts to an audience outside of academia. In all, therefore, I am quite pleased with my first ‘paw-reviewed’ article, even if something appears to have gone wrong in the printing process. The article’s title in the magazine reads ‘Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Century Manuscripts’ and the word ‘Century’ obviously shouldn’t have been there. Perhaps, the error was caused by a cat walking all over the editor’s keyboard – a problem a medieval scribe could relate to!

A better image of the cat-pee manuscript

The image of the manuscript with the scribe’s apology for feline urine that has circulated the Internet for the past three-and-a-half-years was taken with my IPhone from a photographic reproduction of the manuscript in a book. I was pleased to learn that the manuscript has since been digitzed (you can access it here), allowing me to present the Internet with a better quality image. Enjoy:


© Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r



How Cnut became Canute

This blog discusses the development of the spelling for the name of Cnut the Great, Viking king of England from 1016 to 1035, from <Cnut> to <Canute>.

A pope’s speech impediment, simplification of /kn/ or taboo deflection?


Pope Paschal II (1099-1118) (source)

While it is a well-known fact that Cnut the Great is “known in English as Canute” (Hanks, Hardcastle & Hodges 2006: s.v. ‘Knut’), the origin of the disyllabic spelling <Canute> is uncertain. According to Edward Freeman, the Latin form <Canutus> was introduced by the early twelfth-century Pope Paschal II, because he could not pronounce <Cnut> (Freeman 1867-1876: 442, n. 1). Later scholars have argued that <Canute> is typically English, possibly introduced to retain the proper pronunciation of the name after the consonant cluster /kn/ was simplified to /n/ in English – naturally, we would want to avoid calling him ‘King Nut the Great’! A third hypothesis is based on the principle of taboo deflection: Allan & Burridge (2006: 45) suggest that the spelling variant <Canute> originated to avoid confusion with vulgar <cunt>.

However, the three hypotheses mentioned above are all unsatisfactory as disyllabic spellings for the Viking king’s name are found well before the proposed triggers. The first recorded disyllabic spelling, <Chanut>, is contemporary to the Viking king and is found in two of his own charters (Sawyer 1968: nos. 949, 982). As such, it is recorded some seventy years before Paschal II was inaugurated, and occurs at least six centuries before the simplification of /kn/ to /n/ in English, a process which probably took place over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Kökeritz 1945: 77-86). The disyllabic form also pre-dates the first recorded instance of the word cunt, which, according to the OED, is found in 1230, in the street name “Gropecuntelane” (a name for London’s red light district – a place where you could literally grope cunts…). On its own, the word cunt occurs first in 1325, i.e. three centuries after we find a disyllabic spelling for Cnut’s name. Neither Paschal II’s speech impediment, nor the simplification of /kn/ to /n/, nor the confusion with <cunt>, therefore, can account for the change from <Cnut> to <Canute>.

French or Norman origins of <Canute>

In an article I published with Jodie Mann in the journal NOWELE: North-Western Language Evolution 67 (2014), we surveyed all historical texts from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries which mentioned Cnut the Great (d. 1035). We noted that the earliest texts to  feature a disyllabic spelling of the king’s name were in Latin and of French/Norman origin: e.g., Adémar of Chabannes, Historia Francorum (1025–1029; “Canotus”);  Rodulf Glaber, Historiarum Libri Quinque (1030–1046; “Canoc”); and William of Jumièges, Gesta Normannorum Ducum (1050–1067; “Chunutus”). The two charters that read “Chanut” (Sawyer 1968: nos. 949, 982) were also written in Latin, at Fécamp Abbey, Normandy. By contrast, English chroniclers writing in Latin, such as Herman the Archdeacon, De miraculis sancti Edmundi (c. 1095), Symeon of Durham, Historia Dunelmensis ecclesie (1104–1109) and William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum (1125–1140), spelled the name as “Cnutus”.  Similarly, documents in English, such as  the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Cnut’s law codes and letters, simply give monosyllabic forms:”Cnut”.


French taunter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Evidently, the origin for the “Canute” spelling lies in Latin writings from France or Normandy.  A French or Norman origin for the disyllabic spelling may be related to difficulties in pronunciation and makes phonological sense: Speakers of Romance languages, such as (Anglo-) Norman, Old French and Latin, cannot pronounce the sequence /kn/ and one way to remedy this is to insert an epenthetic vowel between the velar and the nasal consonants (Lincoln Canfield & Cary Davies 1975; Minkova 2003: 337); rather like the French taunter in Monty Python and the Holy Grail saying ‘kuhnnigits” rather than “knights”!

<Canute> in English

The evidence presented in our article makes clear that the disyllabic forms ultimately derive from French or Norman authors writing in Latin. Eventually, English chroniclers writing in Latin adopted this practice  (e.g., Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia regum Brittaniae (1135–1139); “Canutus”) and when these Latin chronicles were finally translated into English, <Cnut> became <Canute> in English. The latter development is illustrated by the first occurrence of a disyllabic form in a text in English. In his translation of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon (1387), John of Trevisa wrote “Afterward, aboute Lenten, þe kyng comynge hastely drof Canut out of Lyndeseie” and probably based the spelling <Canut> on Higden’s Latin original: “Postmodum rex circa quadrages imam festine adveniens, Canutum de Lindeseya profugavit” (Lumby 1865–1886: VII, 98–99).


King Nut the Great; King Cunt the Great (source); and King Cnut the Great (source)

In conclusion, while the traditional hypotheses may explain why <Canute> remains the preferred spelling of Cnut’s name – negating as it does the possibility of him being called King Nut the Great or King Cunt the Great – they cannot be seen as explanations for the origin of this spelling variety. Rather than an anglicisation or taboo deflection, the spelling <Canute> should be regarded as a romanisation of <Cnut>; in other words, it is one more thing for which we can blame the French!

This is a shortened and reworked version of the following article: Thijs Porck & Jodie E. V. Mann ‘How Cnut became Canute (and how Harthacnut became Airdeconut)’, NOWELE: North-Western European Language Evolution 67 (2014), 237–243 , which you can read in full here (behind a paywall).  

Works referred to:

  • Allan, K. & K. Burridge. 2006. Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Freeman, E.A. 1867–1876. The History of the Norman Conquest of England: Its Causes and its Results. Oxford: Clarendon Press.  
  • Hanks, P., K. Hardcastle & F. Hodges. 2006. A Dictionary of First Names. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Kokeritz, H. 1945. ‘The Reduction of Initial /kn/ and /gn/ in English’. Language 21.77–86.
  • Lincoln Canfield, D. & J. Cary Davies. 1975. An Introduction to Romance Linguistics. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Lumby, J.R. (ed.). 1865-1886. Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden. London: Longman.
  • Minkova, D. 2003. Alliteration and Sound Change in Early English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sawyer, P.H. 1968. Anglo-Saxon Charters: An Annotated List and Bibliography. London: Royal Historical Society.