On the Poor Cats of Acrotiri
Updated: Sep 23, 2020
My late cat, Peter, now in eternal rest under an arbutus tree between the two moats of Montfort Castle, was, like most of his species, a great hunter of small creatures, with a decided preference for lizards. He would trap them, release them and trap them again until they were no longer moving, at which point he would pick them up by the tail if it was still attached, or by the head, and deposit them in the house - small tokens of love and appreciation. He was of course following his innate hunting instinct, though I am not persuaded that his intention was actually to kill the creatures. He was simply reacting to their movement, and once they ceased to move he lost interest in them and they became offerings instead; a wonderful way to make the most out of a useful thing that has lost its usefulness (rather like Pooh and Piglet's birthday gift of an empty honey jar and a burst balloon). On one occasion Peter even tried his hand at a tiny snake, and in this endeavour, he was, in a modest way, following an old and honoured tradition best identified with the cats of Acrotiri.
The Monastery of St Nicholas of the Cats at Acrotiri near Limassol is said to have been established around 325 CE by Basilian monks, and from the time of its foundation was the home of numerous cats, supposedly brought to the island by St Helena to combat the vast snake population that plagued the locals. The monks were obliged to maintain a minimum of 100 cats and over time the numbers increased, so that by the fifteenth century the feline population was said to be over 1,000.
The monastery still has remains of the Lusignan period, including some attractive carved marble lintels and capitals with heraldic decorations. The French king Louis IX, who was known for his building activities in the Latin East, was here during the Seventh Crusade, residing at Limassol during the winter of 1248, and his supply depot was located in the area of the monastery. The French archaeologist and art historian Camille Enlart toyed with the idea that the monks may have taken advantage of his presence to rebuild their monastery. His chronicler, John of Joineville, makes no mention of the cats, but in 1484, the Venetian traveller Francesco Suriano was quite impressed by them:
"It is wonderful to see them, for nearly all are maimed by the snakes: one has lost a nose, another an ear; the skin of one is torn, another is lame: one is blind of one eye, another of both. And it is a strange thing that at the hour for their food, at the sound of a bell, they collect at the monastery and when they have eaten enough, at the sound of that same bell, they all depart together to go fight the snakes."*
With the Turkish conquest in 1570 the monks were expelled, and the cats were slaughtered (a lesser-known massacre than the French one made famous by the American cultural historian, Robert Darnton). If any survived they were left to their own devices, and they appear to have vanished from the region, perhaps becoming feral. Jacques de Villamont wrote in c. 1590 "...poisonous serpents have once more taken advantage of their freedom from enemies to propagate their species widely."** The monastery was still deserted at the end of the nineteenth century when Enlart visited the site, though, to judge by the drawing he published, some of the cats were back.*** But they seem to have vanished again, and when in 1983 the monastery was resettled by a group of nuns, in order to deal with the problem of the snakes the sisters took a page from the past and reintroduced the cats.
In the medieval West the reputation of cats was at a low point. In 1233 Pope Gregory IX issued the papal bull, Vox in Rama, denouncing cats as evil and in league with Satan. The subsequent massacres of many cats in Europe has been seen by some as having contributed to the rise in the rodent population and thus to the outbreaks of the Bubonic Plague of 1348, an idea that is, however, often disputed. But the poor reputation of cats and their frequent identification with devil-worship was slow to abate. In the fifteenth century the English merchant, diplomat and printer, William Caxton, drew on the old connection in remarking that: “the devyl playeth ofte with the synnar, lyke as the catte doth with the mous.”.
The near-invisibility of the feline in sources on the crusades does not necessarily mean that they were not present the the crusader states. They were just one of many things that the chroniclers did not bother to mention - the only frequent references to cats are to the siege weapons of that name, large, wooden structures with manipulable claws that were used to weaken walls. And the paucity of published archaeological finds - two cat bones from the Red Tower in the Sharon Plain - simply reflects the generally poor state of medieval archaeozoology of the Latin East.
* Francesco Suriano, Excerpta Cypria, Materials for a History of Cyprus, trans. Claude Delaval Cobham, Cambridge, 1908, p. 48.
** Jacques de Villamont, fol. 121v, quoted from Camille Enlart, Gothic Art and the Renaissance in Cyprus, Paris, 1899, trans to English, David Hunt, London 1987, p. 348.
*** Camille Enlart, fig. 308.