Bohemian Cats

Anthropomorphic felines: A crash course in catstory

The Bohemian Cats images that we are currently making at BabaBarock are a new approach to a very old tradition.

Today, we think nothing of seeing a cat dressed up, walking on hind legs and talking. They can be seen in animated films, cartoons, and on all sorts of merchandise from lunchboxes to fashion items. The story of cheeky cats stretches all the way back to the dawn of history, which cats no doubt see as catstory, with humans involved on the periphery to open cans and suchlike.

A line connects the depictions of human-like cats in ancient times to the cat memes of today. As it does involve cats, the path is anything but direct and it takes long breaks for naps.

The earliest images were religious ones, and cat gods make appearances not only in Egypt, but also Babylon, India and Japan. 

On the secular side, we find clever animals in Aesop’s Fables, though Aesop seems to not have been a big cat fancier. His most famous tales involve foxes, various insects, hares, a tortoise, wolves, and even dogs. He does have a few lions as well, but he hardly mentions the domestic cat. Just one tale, “The Cat and the Mice,” seems authentic. It involves a cat pretending to be dead in an effort to catch mice or rats. It doesn’t work. Some later cat tales by other authors were added by the time printing came about.

Illustration from "Puss in Boots" from the book Les Contes de Perrault, an edition of Charles Perrault's fairy tales illustrated by Gustave Doré, originally published in 1862. Public Domain as part of the Met's Open Access policy.
illustration from "Puss in Boots" from the book Les Contes de Perrault, an edition of Charles Perrault's fairy tales illustrated by Gustave Doré, originally published in 1862. Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY.

Cats seem to have napped through the Dark Ages, at least there is little to add about them until the advent of illuminated manuscripts. A few copies of Aesop’s Fables survive with lavish illustration matching the stories. One of the oldest is from the 10th century. But what is perhaps more important are the non-sequitur margin doodles made by bored monks (and sometimes nuns) who worked as copyists. Bizarre, almost hallucinatory, images of dressed up animals fighting or performing curious tasks that have absolutely nothing to do with the accompanying texts put on the road that will end with Sylvester the Cat and Hello Kitty.

During this period of history, cats again were not the most popular animals. Fighting rabbits, harnessed snails, fierce lions, strangely colored dogs and angry snakes outnumber by far the few stray cats that wound up on the edges of parchments. One of the most famous shows a cat in a tower hurling rocks at attacking rats. Others have a cat playing a violin, a lute, a cymbal and other instruments. On occasion they can be seen reading. Cats walking on hind legs while holding mice, and cats with oddly human faces can also be found.

Detail from the lower margin of the folio of the illustrated medieval manuscript Book of Hours (c. 1320-c. 1330) of a cat playing a fiddle © British Library Board
Detail from a margin of the Book of Hours (c.1320 - c.1330) of a cat playing a fiddle. © British Library Board, shared under Creative Commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

Most often, though, cats are shown just as cats, usually with a mouse nearby. One explanation is cats were just not exotic enough. While many animals such as unicorns and lions were drawn based on the imagination, domestic cats were running around the monasteries. Several manuscripts have paw prints from when a cat knocked over the inkwell, and some even have centuries old pee stains. 

During this era cats also snuck their way into heraldry, appearing on the occasional noble or town shield. But the associations that cats had, mainly being lazy or even associated with evil, kept them off the A-list. Fierce lions, faithful dogs, and even fighting roosters were much more popular.

The birth of printing in the mid-1400s brought about some changes. Images, when used, now more often matched the text. There was little room for the idle mental flights of copyists. Aesop’s Fables were again a popular item, now with standardized images for each tale. Slowly, new classics evolved as books became affordable for the masses. The first feline hero is Puss in Boots, a name that will cross the centuries until it winds up in computer animation and tied-in products. This trailblazing cat will be explored in more depth in the future.

He first appears in Italy in the 1550s in a series of tales by Giovanni Francesco Straparola. The tale was retold by other authors, becoming popularly known in English as Puss in Boots by the early 1700s.

Various editions of books with the Puss in Boots tale have illustrations by noted artists such as Gustav Dore or Walter Crane. Nursery rhymes, which had mainly been an oral tradition, also became popular illustrated books. The Cat and the Fiddle, which had been a random margin sketch in medieval times was now the star of his own little poem.

The Bachelor Party by Louis Wain. Oil on canvas. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The next pounce forward comes in the Victorian era with the illustrations of Louis Wain. Dogs had long been a staple in newspapers and postcards. Cats again were second-class petizens. In the late 1880s, Wain bucked the canine trend and began publishing his cat-alogue of dressed up felines riding bikes and going shopping in the Illustrated London News. His tale is a sad one we’ll return to. But for now, suffice to say he got the ball of string rolling.

Cats became the subject of comic strips, running narratives with recurring characters in newspapers. Krazy Kat was one such strip, and this jumped paws first into cinema as one of the first animated series to be shown ahead of features in the new-fangled medium of cinema. Another flood ensued, with every studio soon having a menagerie of dogs, cats, mice, rabbits, and birds. By the 1970s, there were even X-rated cat cartoons starring Fritz the Cat.

Theatrical release poster for Fritz the Cat - an American independent adult animated black comedy released in 1972.
Theatrical release poster for Fritz the Cat - an American independent adult animated black comedy released in 1972.

CGI in the 21st century saw another boost, bringing us back to Puss in Boots, now a popular computer animated series.

But what of the medieval doodles? They have taken their own path into social media, returning as memes: pictures with added text meant to be shared. Cats in social media also have developed their own language called lolcats, with curiously spelled words meant to mimic how cats might talk. And medieval coats of arms have also made it to the present day, now with cats as part of brand logos.

At BabaBarock, we aim to draw from all this history – and its rich visual genre – when we are making our new images and characters for The Bohemian Cats’ Theatre Tarot and The Bohemian Cats’ Theatre Book. We design our pictures to have references to history and tradition but a distinctly modern sense of spectacle and playfulness. After all, we know that cats always were, and always will be, Bohemians at heart.

"Jonathan writes a letter to Mina" A scene from Shadow of the Vampuss by Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov, 2005.

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