‘A great prophanacion made both of day & place’: Animal Cruelty as Performance?

CW: The following post discusses animal cruelty & death (cat)

In preparing the REED: Cambridgeshire records, I was drawn to an event that demanded explanation beyond what the record provided. The diocesan court proceedings for 10 April 1639 list five men, William Smith, William Wade, Thomas Barkinn, Bartholomew Scott, and a ‘Reynolds,’ a servant of Thomas Draper, who tortured a cat, presumably to death, on New Year’s Day:

Willelmus Wade: [it is reported against him thus] that he was present and an Actor on Newyeares day att ye tyme of divine seruice in the Quire when a great noise & disturbance was made neere the Quire of the Cathedrall Church of Ely by the Roasting of a Catt tyed to a spitt by one William Smith & there a fire made about it. whereby much people were gathered together & a great prophanacion made both of day & place. [He appeared and confesses] that [he did so] at ye common greene where sports use to be the in the time of diuine service at Night.

The likeliest place for this event seems to be what is now called ‘Palace Green,’ mentioned in VCH: Cambridgeshire in respect to the location of the Bishop’s Palace (now the King’s School Ely).[1] ‘The Park,’ the open space between Ely Cathedral and Cherry Hill, where Ely Castle once stood, is perhaps another possibility.

Although the record is left unfinished, we know that all five men confessed and were ordered to do penance before the minister, the churchwardens, and three parishioners. They faced no charges, it would seem, for animal cruelty. The crimes for which the men were found guilty were, as Bruce Thomas Boehrer notes, ‘examples of vandalism and profanation rather than cruelty.’[2] Boehrer connects the example of William Smith and company to another case, five years later, in which ‘the parliamentary troopers who overran Lichfield Close used hounds to hunt cats through the cathedral on successive days,’ a means to register Puritan contempt for the spiritual practices associated with high-church Anglicanism.’[3]

In my discussion of performance traditions in the Cambridgeshire records, I tentatively suggest that this act of cat immolation could be a demonstration of anti-Catholic sentiment associated with a New Year’s celebration. It may well also, however, be a Puritan critique of the services held at Ely. Or it may be entirely unconnected to religious sentiment. It may be a seasonal festivity, a dramatic act, or a case of animal cruelty with no deeper meaning, all possibilities with historical attestation. For remainder of this discussion, I would like to consider some of these further possibilities and the contexts in which they appear.

Cat Immolation as Puritan Critique of High-Church Anglicanism

In 1639, the bishop of Ely was the newly-raised Matthew Wren, a notorious anti-Puritan and anti-Calvinist who appears elsewhere in the records (see especially his 1638 Visitation Articles and the 1640 Petition against Bishop Wren), and whose religious and political positions led to Parliamentary censure and imprisonment in the Tower of London in 1642.[4]

Wren was not the first bishop of Ely to harry Cambridgeshire’s Puritans and Calvinists. Both John Buckeridge (c 1562–1631), bishop of Ely from 1628 to his death, and his successor, Francis White (1563/4–1638), were adherents of a distinctly moderate Protestantism, specifically the English Arminianism of the ‘Durham Circle’ under Richard Neile, bishop of Durham.[5]

Like Wren, Francis White was closely tied to William Laud, whose ‘chief target[s]’ were ‘puritan nonconformists,’ and whose ‘ecclesiastical policy’ relied on ‘ceremonial conformity.’[6] Indeed, White even dedicated his A treatise of the Sabbath-day. Containing, a defence of the orthodoxall doctrine of the Church of England, against sabbatarian-novelty (1635) to Laud.[7] Further, White had died February 1638, making New Year’s Day (1 January) 1639 a significant moment to mark out or protest ‘a new reformation.’[8] Thus it could be argued that William Smith and the rest of the accused were deliberately profaning the church service in support of Puritanism. That said, while the court proceedings do refer to the act as ‘a prophanacion,’ noise and disturbance seem here to be the primary concern, aligning the crime more with conventional charges of public disturbance, such as singing, dancing, or playing games during the time of service.

Cat Immolation as Seasonal Festivity

Robert Darnton and Bruce Boehrer each observe that both continental Catholics and English Protestants could engage in cat torture or cat burning as a season festivity.[9] In France this practice may have been tied either to Lent or Midsummer celebrations, although Boehrer also notes that ‘cats were tortured throughout early modern Europe on numerous occasions that do not bear any clear relation to seasonal holidays,’ and cites the ‘nonseasonal practice of whipping a cat to death [which] proved lastingly popular in some parts of the realm.’[10] Boehrer also points out that cat immolation seems not to have been a part of English Midsummer festivals, but that the practice may have featured more regularly from the early 1600s in the carnivalesque festivals of Bonfire Night (5 November) and Elizabeth Day (17 November), where the Pope was often burned in effigy. There seems to be no evidence, however, for a similar form of celebration at the new year.

Cat Immolation as an Element of Dramatic Performance

Boehrer’s work identifies a few dramatic and literary presentations of cruelty towards cats during our period. Almost a century before the crime at Ely, Gammer Gurton’s Needle, the famed student play of Christ’s College, Cambridge, featured Gib (perhaps played by the college cat), ‘who is held aloft—no doubt squirming—for a full scene while the bumpkin Hodge, convinced that Gib has swallowed the play’s lost needle, first threatens to kill her and then prepares to probe the animal’s rectum.’[11] As the college cat, Gib would have been kept to chase away or kill vermin, and would not have been seen as a pet. Inasmuch as ‘Gib figures as a major source of disorder,’ the cat did not in fact eat the needle, and is certainly undeserving of Hodge’s curse: ‘Now a vengeance on Gib light, on Gib and Gib’s mother, / And all the generation of cats both far and near!’ (Gammer Gurton’s Needle, I.5, ll 46–78).

A ryght pithy, pleasaunt and merie comedie: intytuled Gammer gurtons nedle played on stage, not longe a go in Christes Colledge in Cambridge (London, 1575). Title-page.

William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat (1570), though it is long prose rather than a dramatic work, contains a description of a cat being placed on a spit much like the unfortunate cat at Ely in 1639. Here, the narrator writes on the ‘loue and fellowship and a desire to saue their kinde is amang Cats’:

For there was one that hired a friend of mine in pastime to roste a Cat aliue, and promised him for his labor twenty shillings, my friend to be sure; caused a cooper to fasten him into a hogshead, in which he turned a spit, whereupon was a quick Cat, but ere he had turned a while; whether it was the smel of the Cats wol that singed, or else her cry that called them: I cannot tell, but there came such a sorte of Cats that if I and other hardy men (which were well scrat for our labor) had not behaued us the better: the hogshead, as fast as it was hooped, could not have kept my cousin from them.[12]

William Baldwin. A maruelous hystory intitulede, beware the cat Conteyning diuers wounderfull and incredible matters. Very pleasant and mery to read (London, 1570; STC 1244). Title-page.

As Boehrer points out, regardless of the point of the anecdote, ‘the reference to cat roasting as “pastime”—like playing the piano or a game of cards—can be chilling to twenty-first-century ears, and the sum of twenty shillings paid for the entertainment—four crowns or two angels or a pound sterling—can seem alarmingly steep.’[13]

While there is certainly contemporary evidence for cat immolation as sport or pastime, and while a cat does feature prominently in at least one play from the period, there is no evidence to suggest that the 1639 cat burning was meant to serve such a purpose.

Cat Immolation as Animal Cruelty

Regardless of motive, the act performed by Smith and his companions was a form of a casual cruelty that has become considerably rarer as cats have come to be seen as pets. While the forms of cat torture discussed above should engender disgust, we should also remember that the human relationship with cats was in the 1600s not as affectionate as it can be today. As Keith Thomas observes, although dogs could be ‘treated with much indulgence’ in the period, cats retained a more distant symbiotic relationship for longer: they were ‘kept in houses [or institutions] for protection against rats and mice,’ and ‘only occasionally do they appear as companions and objects of affection.’[14] While casual demonstrations of animal cruelty continued into the 1700s, the 1600s also marked a time when attitudes were changing and the affectionate treatment of cats, and accepting them as household pets, was on the rise.

John A. Geck is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. His research focuses on transmissions of high and low culture in later medieval and early modern England, including romance, hagiography, and drama. He is the editor of REED Cambridgeshire.

Header: William Topsell. ‘The historie of foure-footed beastes’ (London, 1607; STC 24123), p 103. LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection, image 78052. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA 4.0).

[1] ‘The BISHOP’S PALACE stands quite close to the west end of the cathedral, from which it is separated by the street called the Gallery, and on the south side of what was the village green of the original settlement at Ely.’ (T.D. Atkinson, Ethel M. Hampson, E.T. Long, C.A.F. Meekings, Edward Miller, H.B. Wells and G.M.G. Woodgate, ‘City of Ely: Introduction’, in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds, ed R.B. Pugh (London, 2002), pp 28–33. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol4/pp28-33 [accessed 20 October 2022].)

[2] Bruce Thomas Boehrer, Animal Characters: Nonhuman Beings in Early Modern Literature (Philadelphia, 2010), 117, citing Katherine M. Rogers, The Cat and the Human Imagination: Feline Images from Bast to Garfield (Ann Arbor, 1998), 39.

[3] Boehrer, Animal Characters, p 117.

[4] Nicholas W.S. Cranfield, ‘Wren, Matthew (1585–1667), bishop of Ely,’ ODNB, accessed 19 October 2022.

[5] P.E. McCullough, ‘Buckeridge, John (d. 1631), bishop of Ely,’ ODNB, accessed 19 October 2022; Timothy Wadkins, ‘White, Francis (1563/4–1638), bishop of Ely,’ ODNB, accessed 19 October 2022; Timothy H. Wadkins, ‘The Percy-“Fisher” Controversies and the Ecclesiastical Politics of Jacobean Anti-Catholicism, 1622–1625,’ Church History 57.2 (1988): 153–69.

[6] Wadkins, ‘White, Francis,’ ODNB, accessed 19 October 2022

[7] STC 25384.5.

[8] Alec Ryrie, Being Protestant in Reformation Britain (Oxford, 2013), 459, citing Calvinist theologian Daniel Featley.

[9] Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes In French Cultural History (New York, 2009).

[10] Darnton, Great Cat Massacre, pp 83–5; Boehrer, Animal Characters, pp 111, 113.

[11] Boehrer, Animal Characters, p 107.

[12] William Baldwin, A maruelous hystory intitulede, beware the cat conteyning diuers wounderfull and incredible matters. very pleasant and mery to read [Beware the cat] (London, 1584) (STC1244), 19-20.

[13] Boehrer, Animal Characters, p 125.

[14] Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (London: Penguin Books, 1984), 49.