Today I’m pleased to welcome Karen Maitland to the blog. Karen is the author of A Company of Liars, The Raven’s Head, The Vanishing Witch, Wicked Children, The Dangerous Art of Alchemy, The Owl Killers, The Gallows Curse, The Falcons of Fire and Ice and Liars and Thieves and her latest novel The Plague Charmer, was published by Headline on 20 October 2016.
Today Karen discusses the role of the cat throughout history.
‘A Plague on your Cats’
Gyp was an affectionate term for a pet cat in the Middle Ages, similar to pussy or kitty today. Matilda, one of the characters in my novel is besotted with her little Gyp, who everyone else thinks is a brute.
Matilda calls her cat Gatty – the medieval diminutive of Gertrude. St Gertrude of Nivelles (626-59) is the patron saint of cats. She is often depicted with either a cat or a mouse. Gold and silver mice were brought as offerings to her shrine. She may have been invoked to help rid people of swarms of mice, but mice also represented the souls of the dead, so they may symbolise her role as patron saint of the newly dead who spend the first night of their three-day journey into the afterlife under her protection.
When plague broke out, cats were often blamed for spreading it by rubbing themselves against people. Many cats were killed and they were also mummified and hidden in the house. People knew cats were territorial, so reasoned that if you had the spirit of a cat in the house it would drive off other cats and keep the plague away.
Nowadays we think of witches as having cats as familiars, but in the Middle Ages, it was believed witches turned themselves into cats to spy on their neighbours or work mischief. If a cat was caught and maimed, the suspected witch would bear the same injury. But if a witch-cat’s blood fell on anything, the stain could never be scrubbed away. In France hundreds of cats were burned alive fearing they were witches, while in England they were shut in baskets and shot with arrows.
But there is a street in Chipping Sodbury stalked by a cat who can never die. It was owned by a medieval alchemist who succeeded, just once, in making the elixir of eternal life. Unfortunately, he left it on the table to cool and the cat drank it.
But a cat saved the life of Sir Henry Wyatt. In 1483, he was imprisoned for treason and left to starve for two years in a dungeon in the Tower of London. A cat befriended him and every morning brought a fresh pigeon to his window, after that he always had his portrait painted with a cat.
Fancy seeing if you’ve got a touch of the plague? Then use this handy plague symptom checker.
About the book:
“Riddle me this: I have a price, but it cannot be paid in gold or silver.
1361. Porlock Weir, Exmoor. Thirteen years after the Great Pestilence, plague strikes England for the second time. Sara, a packhorse man’s wife, remembers the horror all too well and fears for safety of her children.
Only a dark-haired stranger offers help, but at a price that no one will pay.
Fear gives way to hysteria in the village and, when the sickness spreads to her family, Sara finds herself locked away by neighbours she has trusted for years. And, as her husband – and then others – begin to die, the cost no longer seems so unthinkable.
The price that I ask, from one willing to pay… A human life.”