Literary Archaeology: It’s Writing Cats and Dogs

Jon Black

They loved their owners very much

The use of domesticated animals is nearly universal across human culture. Nevertheless, the specific uses of such animals, preferences regarding species and breed, and attitudes toward such animals shift across time and place. As such, they can be a wonderful part of the background in HistFic. No domesticated animals are more useful for writers, and more interesting to readers, than those that blur that line between work animals and companions: cats and dogs. Even when treated realistically, these creatures can very nearly become characters in their own right. As pets, they provide a goldmine of opportunities to convey information about their owners. The kind of animal chosen as a pet, what it is named, and how it is treated say a great deal about a character.

This week’s column looks at those two delightful species. It examines the where, when, and how of their domestication as well as offering a few fun facts which might prove useful or inspirational to HisFic writers. Obviously, it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what could be said about cats and dogs…so this may turn out to be first in a periodic series of articles.

To head off any angry feedback from either the dog-people or cat-people, I’ve presented them alphabetical order.

CATS (Felis catus)

Origins: Evolved from the near-eastern Wildcat (Felis sylvestris lybica). The earliest confirmed archeological evidence for domesticated cats dates from 9,500 years ago in Cyprus. Genetic evidence suggests slightly older origins, around 10,000 years ago in Middle East. Interestingly, there is evidence that the Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis, closely related to the Wildcat but, its name notwithstanding, not the leopard) was undergoing the process of domestication in China by 7,500 years ago (and possibly as early as 10,000 years ago) but, for whatever reason, the process was never completed and no semi-domesticated populations survive today.

How the Relationship Started: The initial interaction of humans and cats likely began when after the former started engaging in systematic agriculture that produced significant surplus. The humans’ stored grains and seeds attracted rodents which, in turn, attracted the ancestors of domesticated cats. A symbiotic relationship developed, with the cats benefiting from plentiful food and the humans benefitting from reduced grain loss as well as, although they didn’t know it, reduced their susceptibility to rodent-borne pathogens.

Everybody Loves a Cat Lady

In popular culture, “cat lady” has evolved from a term disparagement to one that is often a self-proclaimed badge of honor. While the term is of relatively recent vintage, the archetype itself is not; although, there seems to be no academic consensus on when it first emerged. Certainly, it was alive and well by the Victorian era, when multiple cat ownership and spinsterhood were already linked. (Fun Fact: Florence Nightingale was a real-life a cat lady, owning as many as 60 felines throughout her life, most of them named after popular political figures of the day).

Cardinal Richelieu, one of history’s great “Cat Ladies.” (Image credit: Detroit Institute of Arts via The History Blog)

Other alleged historical Cat Ladies include Louisa May Alcott, Clara Barton, all three Bronte sisters, Vivian Leigh, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (It would appear that something about authors and nurses overlaps with cat fancying). If one takes a non-sex/gender specific approach to the term then Cardinal Richelieu, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemmingway must be added to the ranks of Cat Ladies. Catherine the Great was another famous Cat Lady…look for the descendants of her pets to appear in one of my upcoming stories.

A Plague on Both Your Mouses

For centuries, cats had an ambivalent relationship with organized religion. This goes at least as far back as the Black Death, when priests often labeled cats as argents of darkness who brought plague. It was an ironic conclusion. Rather than causing plague, by feeding on rodents that carried plague flees, cats were one on the medieval world’s only effective anti-plague measures. In 1486, the Malleus Maleficarum, the church’s handbook for witch hunting, identified cat ownership as possible evidence of witchiness. Today, things appear more amicable. The gentle Gertrude of Nivelles is the patron saint of both cats and cat lovers.

Feline Hall of Fame: Unsinkable Sam

Unsinkable Sam served as ship’s cat on three separate ships that were torpedoed during WWII, surviving each time and living out the rest of his long life on land. Sam, however was something of a turncoat. He began his career on the German battleship Bismark, after being plucked from the water by crewmen from the HMS Cossack, he spent the remainder of his military career with the Royal Navy.

Unsinkable Sam on patrol

DOGS (Canis Lupus Familiaris)

Roman State of Hounds

Origins: Domesticated from the Gray Wolf (Canis Lupis), there are two differing hypothesis regarding the time and place. The first is in Europe, at least 15,000 years ago (and possibly as far back as 36,000 years ago). The second is Central Asia or Western China 12,500 years ago. Recently, it has been suggested that both may be correct and the domestication process may have occurred independently twice. Even the latest date would make the dog the first species domesticated by humans and, notably, predates the practice of agriculture and occurred back when all humans were hunter-gatherers.

How the Relationship Started: There are multiple non-exclusive theories behind the domestication of wolves into dogs. Opportunistic wolves may have found scavenging human trash made an easier meal than hunting and begun following the strange bipeds around. While humans may have experienced some benefit from the wolves consuming their rubbish (though not as much as sedentary humans later would), their primary benefit may have been the animals’ superior senses…serving as an alarm system for the approach of wild animals or other groups of humans.

Hunting likely played a significant role as well, though whether this occurred concurrently with or after other factors is debated. As social, group-oriented species, the hunting styles of humans and wolves were highly compatible. Though too long to go into here, there is a fascinating body of research regarding behaviors and communications that may have jumped between the two species early in the relationship.

Packed Animal

Before the arrival of the horse, outside of the Andes (with its llama) the dog was the only draft animal in the New World. A healthy dog can carry approximately one-quarter of its own weight for sustained periods. Dogs selectively bread for such purposes can carry about one-third of their weight. Using a travois (a simple drag-sled constructed from three wooden poles) pushes that half or even two-thirds of its weight, while introducing terrain limitations. Dogs in a snow sled team can pull one-and-a-half to two times their combined weight.

Bark Like An Egyptian

While often overshadowed by their veneration of cats as symbols of the goddess Bast, the ancient Egyptians were extraordinarily fond of dogs. They could be found as household pets of everyone from peasants to pharaohs and were used for hunting, guarding, and even military purposes.

Fido, J’Accuse!

While not receiving quite so much ecclesiastical condemnation as cats, dogs have faced their share of trouble with religious officials and accusations of being in league with dark forces. The list of individuals accused during the Salem Witch Trials included two dogs. Conversely, dogs were sometimes used to ferret (see what I did there?) out alleged witches. Regional folklore in Britain features many examples of black dogs with red eyes (sometimes spectral, sometimes tangible) that are often viewed as fiendish or, at the very least, uncanny.