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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On a Tragic End of a Remarkable Cat

Franz Helm, Ein wahres Probiertes und Pracktisches geschriebenes Feuerbuch, 1607 [Public domain]

I am a cat lover. I admit it without hesitation. There is something delightful about cats, about their independence and playfulness, and those who malign the cat as lacking the loyalty that is regarded as a trait of dogs alone, are simply talking out of their hats. I think that perhaps the Ancient Egyptians went a bit too far in regarding them as gods, but then, the Polynesians had a fish as their god, so who's to say. But cats often get bad press and the name 'cat' has been applied to some rather nasty things, like that favoured instrument of torture - the cat o' nine tails, or has been callously used as a means of measuring space, which hopefully is never acted on. I refer of course to the idiom that was no doubt introduced by a dog lover - "not enough room to swing a cat". The adjective 'catty' refers to someone who is subtly or indirectly insulting, which I think is entirely unfair. I have never been insulted by a cat.

One of the siege machines employed in the Middle Ages was known as a 'cat' ('gattus' or 'cat-house'). The name was generally applied to a sort of movable penthouse which served to protect soldiers who were tunnelling near a wall in order to undermine it or those using a ram to damage fortifications or break through a gate. However, on one occasion, at Acre during the Third Crusade, the 'cat' appears to have been a rather more sophisticated contraption:

"Among other siege machines and implements which the king of France had made to destroy the city wall, he constructed with great determination an implement which would climb the wall. It was called a 'cat' because it clung like a cat to the wall as it crept up it to seize it..."*

This remarkable machine had a somewhat tragic fate:

"One day while the French were busily trying to fix the cat on to the wall the Turks with violent determination threw a heap of dry wood down from the walls, piling it up on top of the cat! Then they immediately threw some Greek Fire on top. They also threw some on the frame-work which the French had put so much effort into constructing, and to cap it all they set up a stone-thrower to fire at it."

Needless to say, the cat did not come out of this in the best of health. King Louis' reaction seems somewhat hysterical. He swore and abused his soldiers "using terrible language". But then, who would not react in such a manner when such cruel things had been done to one's cat?

* Helen J. Nicholson, The Chronicle of the Third Crusade. The Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, Aldershot and Burlington, 1997, p. 210.

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