Why Medieval Cats Look Like… That

An investigation into art history’s strangest meme

Rae Paoletta
Published in
4 min readMar 9, 2020

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Image: National Library of France / Folia Magazine

Call it the Cats (2019) Effect or an escape from our incessantly chaotic timeline, but in recent months, Medieval cats have quietly erupted in meme popularity. If you’ve ever seen one, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

“Those cat paintings always look like someone told the painter what a cat was, but didn’t bother to explain that they aren’t tiny humans who are haunting the homes of noblemen,” creative director and feline enthusiast Roger Feeley-Lussier told me.

“Medieval cats look like someone watched a blurry DVD rip of the movie ‘Cats’ and then forgot how to paint,” social media manager and meme historian David Russell echoed.

Exhibit A:

What is he king of? I don’t want to find out. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The sheer absurdity of these drawings raises some flags. Were cats simply body snatched for a few hundred years? Were they ephemerally replaced by humanoid fur demons, or did the monks who wrote manuscripts just really prefer dogs?

All cats are a little demonic, as their humans would probably attest to. It turns out Medieval scribes were maybe just a little more on the nose about it.

“In the Medieval period, animals were understood to be the mirror of human society,” historian Damien Kempf, who is writing a book on Medieval depictions of animals, told me. “Even though animals were believed to be irrational beings, they were given human traits and characteristics.” Dogs, for example, were lauded for being loyal companions, created to guard the house and assist in the hunt.

Cats? Not so much.

“Sources emphasize the rather unruly nature of cats,” Kempf said. “Unlike dogs, cats cannot be trained to be loyal and obedient. As one author complains, they will go to whoever gives them food.” So that’s one reason cats probably got such an unflattering edit.

I mean, come on:

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Rae Paoletta
Tenderly

content strategist and writer; friend to bodega cats