The belling of the cat

It’s springtime, and those of us with a moggy or two think of helping the young birds in our gardens. Our cats like a portion of fast food from time to time (it’s just in their nature), so we try to help out if we can. By putting a bell collar on our cat we can give a birds a fair warning that somethings moving nearby – in this case a moggie on a mission. The stalking and final attack can be thwarted by the noisy jingle long before the final pounce.

It is amazing to find a reference to the ‘belling of a cat’ in an early poem: ‘Piers Ploughman’ by William Langland. This poem was written in or around 1377! Thats 1377 – I didn’t know they had pets back then!

Now, just you keep away from those birds!

Photograph: © Tambako The Jaguar on Flickr

 

The poem is said to be a significant work and is allegorical (meaning it is fictional but contains hidden meaning). In it, the poet falls asleep and has dreams and visions leading him to understand how to live a good life. So, of course, a verse or two mentioning a cat would be in there!

With that there ran a rout of rats at once,
And small mice with them more than thousand,
And came to a council for their common profit;
For a cat from the Court came when he liked
And o’er leaped them lightly and caught them at will,

Played with them perilously and pushed them about.
‘For dread of divers dangers we dare not look about;
If we grumble at his game he will attack us all,
Scratch us or clutch us and in his claws hold us,
So that we loathe life ere he lets us go.
Could we with any wit his will withstand
We might be lords above him and live at our ease.’

A rat of renown most ready of tongue
Said, as a sovereign help to himself:
‘I have seen men,’ quoth he ‘in the city of London
Bearing bright necklaces about their necks,
Some with collars of skilful work uncoupled they wander
Both in warrens and wastes wherever they like;

And otherwhile they are elsewhere as I tell you.
Were there a bell on their collars by Jesus, I think
Men might know where they went and get out of their way!
And right so,’ quoth that rat ‘reason me showeth
To buy a brass bell or one of bright silver
Make it fast to a collar for our common profit,
And hang it on the cat’s neck then we may hear

When he romps or rests or runneth to play.
And if he wants play then we may look out
And appear in his presence the while he play liketh,
And if he gets angry, beware and shun all his paths.’
All this rout of rats to this plan assented.
But though the bell was bought and on the collar hanged,
There was not a rat in the rout for all the realm of France
That dare bind on the bell about the cat’s neck,

Nor hang it round her ears all England to win;
They held themselves not bold and their counsel feeble,
Esteemed their labour as lost and all their long plotting.

Harvard Translation

Good luck to all who are going to put a bell collar on your cats this spring.

Belling the cat by an unkknown artist. mmm, I dont know what the rat’s up to…

Photograph: © Unknown, c/o The Mary Evans picture gallery