Did the vikings have cats ?

We’ve been watching Vikings on SBS, which by the way is quite well done – the scenes look suitably dark ages, and apart from the perfect teeth and trendy haircuts the actors look as if they might actually be smelly fur clad psychopaths, and not a horned helmet in sight.

But after last night’s fix, a propos of nothing, J asked if the vikings had cats.

Cats are actually quite interesting. It has been my understanding that pet cats only became a European phenomenon after the Romans came in contact with Ptolomaic Egypt – before then people in Europe didn’t have cats. (This of course is not quite true – there is a bronze age grave from Cyprus where a young girl has been buried with a cat), but domestic cats were not at all common.

This is in part why cats are called by a cat like word eg gato, chat, Katze in all European languages. The word for cat ultimately derives from the Latin cattus, and being only a couple of thousand years old, has not had much chance to mutate.

Cats of course are both good at breeding and catching mice and rats. So it would be my guess that cats would find themselves a niche and probably spread reasonably quickly throughout the Roman Empire – I’m making this up by the way – I’m not aware of any archaeological evidence – both as engaging furry friends and as efficient rodent dispatchers to protect grain stored in granaries.

There is certainly enough evidence in the form of pawprints on tiles and bricks to suggest that cats were reasonably common throughout the empire.

When the western empire came apart cats probably continued being useful and doing their catty things – certainly we know that some monks had cats, even if only because an Irish monk working in Germany wrote about this pet cat some time in the 800’s, so it would be extremely surprising if the local people did not also have cats.

Equally we know that cats must have been present in the British Isles during the Viking period – Aldhelm, who was Bishop of Sherborne in the mid seventh century, well before the Viking irruption wrote a riddle about a cat, and in the early ninth century, the Welsh laws of Hywel Dda ascribe a value to cats as useful rodent killers.

So if we were to look at the AngloViking settlement of York, we would not be surprised if we found the remains of cats, because the AngloSaxon farmers would almost certainly have had cats and the Vikings were good atrecognising a good thing when they saw one.

Whether or not pre Lindifarne raid the Viking populations living in Scandanavia had cats is a different question – and one for which I don’t have an answer …

Written with StackEdit.

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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5 Responses to Did the vikings have cats ?

  1. Well, they definitely had exposure to cats as Freo/Freyja is mentioned in the Prose Edda as driving a chariot drawn by two cats. Frige/Frigga is also mentioned in relation to cat-drawn chariot, but whether she had one of her own, or the writers were mixing the two goddesses up, we don’t really know.

  2. Pingback: Vikings, cats and mice | stuff 'n other stuff

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