The genre of horror fiction has a long history. Even in ancient Greece and Rome, and early European settlements which had prevalent folklore, people couldn’t help themselves but tell each other scary stories. As a genre in its own right, one can trace horror fiction back to Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1796) or Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), which is regarded as the first gothic novel. However, one of the first horror novels in the English language emerges in the mid-16th century. Of what demons, ghosts, or other monstrosities does this tale seek to warn us? Cats. Seriously. Not big cats — like lions, tigers, or leopards — just normal, everyday, kitties.
Although such a premise may suggest that the author is a lunatic, William Baldwin (who penned Beware the Cat in 1553, though it was not to be published until 1561, 1570, and 1584) was actually addressing a fairly well-known subject matter at the time and missed no opportunity to comment on gender roles and religious controversies while doing so. To get the boring stuff out of the way: Baldwin’s story concerns the potential of ‘beasts’ (non-humans) to possess reason while also subtly pushing anti-Catholic propaganda and commenting on gendered issues at the time, such as of men who could not please their wives and wives who had affairs.
The novel consists of three stories, told by a Master Streamer to his friends, who are all lodging together at Christmas time, with the purpose of convincing them that beasts (in this case cats) can act rationally and communicate with each other.
Story 1: The Life and Death of Grimalkin
In the first story, Streamer simply retells two short tales told to him when he had been staying with some friends in London. The stories are prompted by Streamer hearing the whining of some cats and complaining, to which a friend of his responds by informing him of the cats’ ability to communicate with one another.
In the first tale, a man is returning through Kank wood when he is ambushed by a cat who ‘leaped out of a bush’, calling him by name. Startled, the man says nothing as the cat instructs him to return home and inform ‘Pus thy Catton’ (the man’s own cat) that ‘Grimmalkin is dead.’ The cat then leaves and the man returns home, telling his wife of what happened. Upon hearing this, the man’s cat jumps onto the table, expresses shock at Grimalkin’s death, and bids farewell to his master before leaving, never to be seen again.
One of the men to whom this tale was told remarked that he’d heard of Grimalkin and proceeded to tell the tale which he had been told of some men in Ireland. These men had robbed some folk of a sheep and a cow before hiding in a church to avoid capture. As the two men were about to tuck into some freshly-roasted sheep, a cat entered and sat by them. The cat (which we learn is female) orders them to give her some meat, speaking in Irish, to which the men — thinking her to be the devil — obey. This cat ends up eating all of the sheep and most of the cow. Fearing that they would be the cat’s next meal, the two men attempt to flee, pursued by the cat, who we learn is Grimalkin. The older men fires a dart behind him which hits (and presumably kills) the cat but no sooner had the dart struck Grimalkin than a huge number of cats appeared and fought the two men. The younger of them is killed and ‘eaten up’ by the frenzied felines, who the older man barely escapes. Returning safely home, this man also tells his wife of his rather eventful day. At the hearing of Grimalkin’s death, the couple’s ‘Kitling’ (kitten) jumps up and bites into the man’s throat, killing him.
Of course, these stories are pretty absurd. The men hearing these tales don’t so much question the possibility of cats being able to talk but the logistics of the cat in England knowing about the Irish cat’s death, to which the answer (obviously) is that ‘there be few ships but have Cats belonging unto them, which bring newes unto their fellowes.’ In Protestant fashion, Baldwin compares this God-like cat figure whom the other cats blindly adore to the Pope, a side-note adding that ‘the Popes clergie are crueller than Cats.’ It’s no wonder that the book was unpublishable in 1553, which was during Catholic Queen Mary I’s reign.
These tales also allow Baldwin to comment on witchcraft, as some of the men hearing them believe Grimalkin to be a witch, which the story-teller also agrees with. One man questions how a witch could make herself so small as to transform into a cat which the others agree is impossible (comparing it to the idea of Christ’s blood and body transforming into bread and wine — another criticism of a Catholic belief) but argue is not how it would be done. Instead, the soul of the witch would temporarily inhabit the cat’s body or there would be some illusion employed to fool others into believing that what they saw was a cat when in reality it was the witch. This might seem somewhat satirical but the notion of witches using cats (either as a means of communicating with the devil or transmuting into them) was not foreign to people at the time. In 1645, in the real world, an accused Essex witch named Anne West was accused of entertaining an evil spirit ‘in the form of a kitten’.
This first story is by far the most graphic and deadly, as well as containing the most religious commentary, but the one which comes after it is arguably just as ridiculous.
Story 2: The Chorus of Cats
This story takes place immediately after the other two but instead of being in the form of a tale which Streamer is told, is a description of what happened after he had been told the previous two tales. Streamer, wishing to know what the cats could possibly be communicating to each other about, takes it upon himself to procure the necessary ingredients to create a potion which would allow him to understand their language. He makes this decision after hearing the cats apparently singing to each other and acting in a surprisingly orderly fashion.
Streamer gets to work acquiring the necessary ingredients: a hedgehog, a fox, a hare, and a cat. Once he has acquired these animals’ corpses, he grounds them up and makes a few different concoctions, ranging from a sort of broth to some lozenges (which are made of cat poo). Consuming these while walking with some other men, he hears someone calling out ‘Isegrim!’ but upon asking the others who is responsible they reply by denying that they can even hear anything more than a cat meowing. Streamer waits until night-time and drinks his broth, puts two lozenges above and below his tongue, and rests his foot on top of a fox’s tail. He finds his hearing so refined that every sound made within a hundred miles of him sounds as if it were made right next to him. Among other things he hears the ‘counting of coines, mounting of groines, […] rowting of knaves, snorwing of slaves, farting of churls, [and] risling of girles’. Then a nearby bell starts ringing and, thinking it to be sound of ‘all the devils in hell’ breaking loose, he screams ‘the devil, the devil, the devil’! This causes some disturbance as some people try to find him and come to his aid but he mistakes them (as they call out for him) for devils trying to hunt him so he hides in a chimney above which a sparrow is nesting. The sparrow, for some reason, falls onto his head, which he mistakes for a devil grabbing him and faints, but not before the sparrow apparently calls him a ‘knave’.
Okay, the story is a tad on the absurd side but it’s actually quite interesting from a historical standpoint. In describing all that Streamer can hear, Baldwin presents an acoustic description of 16th century London (and its surrounding area) in surprising detail. Moreover, Streamer’s attempt at a sort of low magic reveals interesting superstitions which some people held at the time, made most clear when Streamer tells of three men who went hunting for animals to use as ingredients but were ‘so [a]fraid’ that when they came home, their hair was ‘standing on end, and some of them have been the worse ever since’.
Story 3: The Adventures of Mouseslayer
This final story is the least horrific of the three, though perhaps the most interesting. Not only is it not disgusting, frightening, or otherwise scary, but it’s actually quite funny. This story is technically told from Streamer’s point of view but, as in the first story, it is really just a retelling of another tale he hears. This time, however, the tale is being told by a female cat named Mouseslayer.
First, we discover that the casts Streamer has been so intrigued by (and can now hear) are not just singing or whining, but holding a sort of cat court. Mouseslayer is defending herself from accusations that she has violated the laws of the cats, which she not only denies but claims could not be any further from the truth, and so gives a little summary of her life. One particularly interesting part of Mouseslayer’s autobiography is her involvement in an act of trickery committed by an old bawd against a young woman who was denying the affections of a young man. The young man asks Mouseslayer’s owner for help and she devises a cunning plan. Giving the little cat some mustard to make it tear up and cough, the old woman tells the young woman that Mouseslayer is in fact her daughter, transformed into a cat after having denied the final request of her dying lover. The key moral takeaway is that ‘as all extremities are vices, so is it a vice […] to be extream in honesty and chastity.’ The young woman, fearing a similar fate to the bawd’s supposed daughter, ends up marrying the young man.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the marriage is not the happiest and the young woman regularly cheats on her husband. In the notes of the novel, (presumably) the author laments that ‘a wanton wife and a back door will soon make a rich man poor’. Mouseslayer takes it upon herself to expose this fact and is given an opportunity when, one day, the husband arrives back earlier than expected, forcing the man to quickly hide behind the painted cloth in the corner, with ‘no leisure to pluck up his hose [trousers].’ Our moral hero, Mouseslayer, is not going to let this slide. After scratching and biting the legs of the man yields no result, she decides to jump up and catch him ‘by the genitals with [her] teeth’, much to the shock of the man ‘who had his stones in [her] mouth’ and is soon discovered.
The final tale I shall choose to relay, as there are a few others in the book which are not as interesting, is probably the funniest. In it, Mouseslayer finds herself the victim of a cruel prank by a young man who lives in the same house as her. He has put her feet in walnut shells and ‘filled them full of soft pitch’ so that she cannot get her feet out of them. Greatly distressed by this, Mouseslayer is also unable to hunt a mouse she spies in some flowers, scaring it away and waking up her master. A superstitious man, he calls on his servants, who are also sure that the noise is that of the devil. One ‘hardy fellow’ sees Mouseslayer coming towards him and screams for help. Eventually a priest is called, who arrives with a candle and other holy tools (such as a chalice of holy water and a wafer). Mouseslayer runs towards him and the others which so startles the priest that he falls backwards, dropping his lit candle into his breeches and causing a domino effect of people collapsing, including one boy who had ‘for feare beshit himself’.
From wacky hijinks to murderous rampages, William Baldwin has one clear (and titular) message for the reader: Beware the cat. Although the novel is interesting simply for the idea of cats talking to each other, and to humans, as well as acting as some kind of ordered society which has laws, customs, and traditions, it is also historically significant. It is considered by many historians to be the first novel ever published in English and is certainly a contender for the first horror fiction novel. At times it goes into deep detail about the way 16th century London looked and sounded, as well as shedding light on contemporary cultural anxieties pertaining to religion, gender, and witchcraft. If there’s any doubt that he actually does make some serious points, a contemporary writer felt it necessary to respond to Baldwin in 1570, telling him:
But in the mean season: content yourself with this,
For your Bagagical boke, a warme ars you may kys.