Academic Emir Filipović, Alison Flood in the Guardian book blog tells us, was researching for his doctorate in the state archives of the Adriatic city of Dubrovnik (formerly Ragusa) when he came across a 1445 manuscript with an unusual but unmistakable inky mark, a cat’s paw print.
It is not so surprising, given how daft and sentimental people are about animals (not me, not me), that the discovery has become something of a social media sensation.
“I think that one of the main reasons why people seemed to have a positive response to it is down to the fact that it makes you imagine the scene in your head when the cat jumped onto the book. This especially appeals to cat owners, who are, I suppose, familiar with such typical cases, but also to people who do not own pets since they can still identify with the unfortunate scribe,” Filipović says.
“One other important thing is that some people seem to equate the past times with history as a (boring) school subject focused primarily on politics and wars. They forget that the past was full of ‘normal’ everyday events, just like today, and a picture such as the one with the cat pawprints tends to remind everybody that people who lived in the past were not much different than ourselves.”
This is charming, but the notion that people who lived in the past were not much different – or that the past was not much different – is exactly the kind of assumption that the serious study of history seeks to dispel. That the past was different, in sometimes mysterious and exciting ways, surely constitutes the chief intellectual appeal of historical study.
That said, people have for a very long time found it pleasant to have cats around them, and not just to put manners on the vermin. And cats have for probably for a very long time been intolerant of reading or writing activity which distracts people from paying due attention to them or appears to deny them a warm lap.
Alison Flood quotes a little Macavity and asks readers to inform her of their favourite literary cats. Unsurprisingly, the name of Pangur Bán came up, a proper scholar’s cat it seems who kept his paws out of where they didn’t belong. The ninth century Old Irish poem, which appears in the Reichenau Primer, is perhaps by the monk known as Sedulius Scottus.
Here is WH Auden’s version:
Pangur, white Pangur, How happy we are
Alone together, scholar and cat
Each has his own work to do daily;
For you it is hunting, for me study.
Your shining eye watches the wall;
My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
You rejoice, when your claws entrap a mouse;
I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.
Pleased with his own art, neither hinders the other;
Thus we live ever without tedium and envy.
Pangur, incidentally means “fuller”, a vanished trade which at one stage involved treading raw wool repeatedly to thicken it – as a happy cat will sometimes do on your stomach, recalling perhaps its kittenish pursuit of warm milk from its mother.