What People Named Their Cats in the Middle Ages: Gyb, Mite, Méone, Pangur Bán & More

“The Nam­ing of Cats is a dif­fi­cult mat­ter,” declares the open­ing poem in Old Pos­sum’s Book of Prac­ti­cal Cats by T. S. Eliot. But the pos­si­bil­i­ties are many and var­ied: “Peter, Augus­tus, Alon­zo or James”; “Pla­to, Adme­tus, Elec­tra, Deme­ter”; “Munkus­trap, Quaxo, or Cori­co­pat.” Things must have been  less com­pli­cat­ed in the Mid­dle Ages, when you could just call a cat Gyb and be done with it. “The short­ened form of the male name Gilbert, Gyb” explains Kath­leen Walk­er-Meik­le in Medieval Cats, dates as “a pop­u­lar name for indi­vid­ual pet cats” at least back to the late four­teenth cen­tu­ry.

In a slight­ly dif­fer­ent form, the name even appears in Shake­speare, when Fal­staff describes him­self as “as melan­choly as a gib cat.” Gyb’s equiv­a­lent across the Chanel was Tibers or Tib­ert; the six­teenth-cen­tu­ry French poet Joachim du Bel­lay kept a “beloved gray cat” named Belaud.

Legal texts reveal that the Irish went in for “cat names that refer to the ani­mal’s phys­i­cal appear­ance,” like Méone (“lit­tle meow”), Cruib­ne (“lit­tle paws”), and Bréone (“lit­tle flame”). Walk­er-Meik­le also high­lights Pan­gur Bán, a cat “immor­tal­ized in a ninth-cen­tu­ry poem by an Irish monk.” This hymn to the par­al­lel skills of human and feline begins, in Sea­mus Heaney’s Eng­lish trans­la­tion, as fol­lows:

Pan­gur Bán and I at work,

Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:

His whole instinct is to hunt,

Mine to free the mean­ing pent.

Fre­quent Open Cul­ture read­ers may be remind­ed of the twelfth-cen­tu­ry Chi­nese poet who wrote of being domes­ti­cat­ed by his own cats, vers­es we fea­tured here a few years ago. More recent­ly, we put up a list of 1,065 Medieval dog names, which run the gamut from Gar­lik, Nose­wise, and Hosewife to Horny­ball, Argu­ment, and Filthe. You’ll notice that the names giv­en to dogs in the Mid­dle Ages seem to have been more amus­ing, if less dig­ni­fied, than the ones giv­en to cats. Per­haps this reflects the strong, clear­ly cen­turies-and-cen­turies-old dif­fer­ences between the natures of the ani­mals them­selves, each with its own strengths and weak­ness­es. But what­ev­er our pref­er­ences in that area, who among us could­n’t do with a Pan­gur Bán of our own?

via Medievalists.net

Relat­ed con­tent:

A List of 1,065 Medieval Dog Names: Nose­wise, Gar­lik, Have­g­ood­day & More

Cats in Medieval Man­u­scripts & Paint­ings

Cats in Japan­ese Wood­block Prints: How Japan’s Favorite Ani­mals Came to Star in Its Pop­u­lar Art

T. S. Eliot Reads Old Possum’s Book of Prac­ti­cal Cats & Oth­er Clas­sic Poems (75 Min­utes, 1955)

In 1183, a Chi­nese Poet Describes Being Domes­ti­cat­ed by His Own Cats

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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